"Our previous costumes were set in 1835, and in that period the silhouettes were quite large — the skirts took up a lot of room, the girls' costumes took up a lot of room," Heightchew explains. "But by going backwards to around 1820, we now have a silhouette that is much slimmer. What that means is that you can get more people on the stage: there's definitely more room and more air around the dancers."
The added elbow room is key. "The previous costumes were made for the Wang Theatre, where dancers had plenty of room on a large stage," Heightchew continues. "But then when the Ballet moved to the Colonial, and then the Boston Opera House, it was quite crowded on stage, so the earlier, slimmer silhouettes will allow more room for the dancers to breathe." The lack of extravagant layers also allows a better view of all that fancy footwork.
While every costume is new, the most noticeably different ones are found in act one on the Party Mothers (no relation to Dina Lohan). "Their silhouette is very Regency, very Pride and Prejudice — it's familiar. Last season's costumes were that high-1830 Niedermeyer that you don't see very often unless you go see a period piece, but this is something that people recognize from PBS specials, so there's a reference there for people to grasp," says Heightchew.
After several rounds of tweaking, Perdziola's finalized designs started coming into the costume department last December while The Nutcracker was still being performed with the old wardrobe. By January, Heightchew and his team were in full swing, turning the sketches into wearable art. The department's 18 staffers, along with nine volunteers, cut, sewed, hand-painted, and finished costumes in-house, while some of the specialized designs, like the ballet's crowd-pleasing animal characters — mice, reindeer, bears — were outsourced to shops across North America, from New York to Ontario to Pittsburgh. They, too, got a new look. The bear, for instance, is a little more realistic-looking now. His face is less cartoonish — his eyes closer together, his snout pointier, the overall effect just a touch less adorable.
New costumes were still trickling in as late as mid-October, just weeks before the production's opening. Each had to be tailored to its wearer. With a nightly changing cast, with two or more dancers often assigned to each of the 182 roles and a minimum of three fittings for all 350 new costumes, it's no surprise that Heightchew and crew were doing fittings from February almost right until opening night.
Once the ballet is underway, the wardrobe needs constant upkeep. The dressers, who help get the dancers into costume each night a half-hour before the curtains rise, keep notes on the state of the costumes, checking for loose hooks, tears, and other damage. After each performance they spend about an hour doing repairs.
They haven't had to deal with any major wardrobe malfunctions yet, but a few ballerinas' bodices were splitting at the front seams, likely due to some dry-rotted thread. Because of the nightly inspections, such issues are handled pretty quickly. Plus, Heightchew points out, "There's a lot going on onstage, so you hope that people don't take notice."
Safe bet, that. "Everyone is incredibly elegant in this look," Heightchew says. "The men are so handsome, the women are beautiful, the little boys and girls look like miniature versions of the parents. It's much less about contrasty production, so it's become really subtle and mature."