Ballet dancers communicate through movement, utilizing flexibility and muscular agility to create poetic shapes. Their costumes are the icing on the cake, conveying character, time, and place, and enhancing the telling of a visual story.
In the same way that high fashion and streetwear influence how we dress, ballet has produced its own evolving trends ever since its origins in the Renaissance courts of France and Italy. Full-length ballets remain a spectacle, and costumes continue to add to the magic, either introducing a fresh look to a beloved perennial or helping to set the tone in a contemporary production.
Thinking outside the box is one of Miami City Ballet’s hallmarks, and MCB’s artistic director, Lourdes Lopez, is the visionary who leads the process.
When it comes to the technical aspects of a production, it can take 18 months to two-and-a-half years to bring ideas from the page to the stage. The vision is set in motion when Lopez and the choreographer collaborate to select costume, set, and technical designers. Discussions begin with how the choreographer envisions the characters and whether they will be in tutus, chiffon skirts, or unitards. The designer comes up with the colors, fabrics, and materials, using shapes to give depth to what the choreographer is trying to accomplish.
“It’s fascinating to hear those conversations,” Lopez says of this process. “It’s my favorite thing that I do, to bring everyone together and watch it evolve before my eyes. To be honest, I like giving artists free range to a very large extent. I’m not a choreographer. What I love to do is bring artists together. Sometimes I’m asked, ‘What do you think?’ and I give my opinion. For the most part, I trust their talent.”
Designers with different backgrounds have brought their unique talents to several recent MCB productions. For the company’s 2016 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lopez called upon Miami-born, New York–based visual artist Michele Oka Doner to bring a more modern feel to the ballet choreographed by the great George Balanchine. Oka Doner transported Shakespeare’s comedy from the woods outside Athens to an underwater forest of sargassum seaweed and mangroves. This inspired nod to Florida added a new dimension to the place where fairies cause mischief in the romantic lives of humans.
The project, which took two years to complete, was Oka Doner’s first foray into designing for dance. She conducted research at the University of Miami’s Museum of Marine Invertebrates, eventually transforming the creatures of the watery world into sets, backdrops, and 150 costumes. Organza and soft leather fabrics were embellished with shimmering crystals, beads, sequins, pearls, and metallic thread. Where the source text calls for the character Bottom to don a donkey head, Oka Doner instead used the head of
When planning for MCB’s 2020 production of Firebird, Lopez sought to channel the ballet’s roots. Based on a medieval Russian folk tale, Firebird shot composer Igor Stravinsky to fame. It premiered in 1910 under Ballets Russe director Sergei Diaghilev. A 1970 revival of George Balanchine’s original 1949 production in collaboration with Jerome Robbins included costumes and sets by the Russian artist Marc Chagall.
Lopez wanted to go back to an authentic setting and briefed set and costume designer Anya Klepikov, a professor of theater at UMass Amherst, to create a different Russian feel from that of Chagall’s. “I spoke to Anya and said I wanted Firebird to look truly, truly, truly Russian, like the vibrant colored lacquered boxes,” says Lopez. Klepikov grew up with Russian fairy tales, having spent her childhood in the former USSR before coming to the U.S. She was the perfect choice to realize this vision.
In 2017 Lopez decided the time had come to reimagine MCB’s 27-year-old production of The Nutcracker. Once again, she wanted the new staging to reflect the Miami community. “The winter holidays look very different in Miami than they do up north with the fireplace, chestnuts, and hot chocolate in the world where The Nutcracker lives,” she notes.
Lopez called upon celebrated Cuban-American design duo Isabel and Ruben Toledo. Isabel, who passed away in 2019, was a fashion designer who etched her name in history when she dressed Michelle Obama for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Ruben is a set designer who often worked alongside his wife to create magical dreamscapes that would make her costumes pop. “I knew their vision would make Nutcracker have a Miami tropical feel to it,” adds Lopez.
For Nutcracker, Firebird, Midsummer, and every MCB show, after the sketches have been completed, the work in the costume shop begins. This is when Eleanor Wolfe, the director of the costume department, steps in. She is an experienced patternmaker who worked in New York for 28 years before joining MCB.
Wolfe explains that while designers know what the costumes should look like, they don’t always know how they should be made. “Structure, fabrics, color, scope, shape, and style are dictated by the designer,” she says. “I collaborate with the designer to develop how we’re going to make the costume. The costume artisans and I are the ones who craft it and adapt it for movement.”
A sample costume is made for the designer to see. Once it is ready to fit, the dancers are often the ones who provide notes on how well they’re able to move in it. “They are more aware of the steps they are going to [take] and the balance they are going to need,” says Wolfe. “If you try to put something really large on top of their heads, it looks great to us, but we don’t know how it’s going to throw off the balance for the dancer. We don’t want to overwhelm the dancer with the costume because the audience comes to see the dance. Firebird had a lot of elaborate costumes, but a lot of attention was given to making sure you saw the movement of the dancer.”
Costumes take a lot of beating. They are often wet after a performance, so the fabrics must be able to withstand such rigors and have durability. The wardrobe supervisor is responsible for the care, storage, and transport of the costumes. When in storage, the costumes hang on rows of rails in climate-controlled conditions. They travel in special wardrobe boxes on wheels, accompanied by an army of makeup artists, hairstylists, and dressers equipped with sewing machines should anything need on-the-spot upkeep.
Miami City Ballet will again thrill audiences this season with the North American premiere of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s Swan Lake. Originally co-produced by Ballett Zürich and La Scala Milan, the production boasts sets and costumes by internationally renowned French ballet, opera, and theater designer Jérôme Kaplan. MCB will tour it in South Florida in early 2022, at the Adrienne Arsht Center (February 11-13), the Kravis Center (February 19-20), and the Broward Center (February 26-27).
Surprisingly, this was Kaplan’s first time designing for the Tchaikovsky-composed ballet. While Kaplan toyed with many ideas, Ratmansky urged him to keep it simple.
After all, “it’s just a fairy tale in the middle ages,” he advised.
They agreed to hearken to the original 1895 Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov revival. “To come back to what it was, something really romantic, because Swan Lake is a really romantic ballet and I reflect that in my costumes,” Kaplan stresses.
He was inspired by archival documents Ratmansky showed him and other research into the nineteenth-century costumes. “We came back, more or less, to the tutu at the time of the original Swan Lake,” says Kaplan. “It’s a short, knee-length, romantic tutu. It’s not a skirt and not a flat tutu; it’s in between. It is very soft and must move a little bit.”
It proved rather technical to make, but the final product comes close to the original form, albeit slightly lighter and not as stiff. The costume includes a small round hat at the back of the head, with hair hanging in ringlets—a fashionable style at the time that also emphasizes that the swans are really maidens under a spell.
Having the ballet performed in Milan, Kaplan fell upon the idea to introduce a touch of Italian Renaissance for a warmer feel, instead of the more somber Northern European look. He also turned to Fortuny—the Spanish designer and creator of pleated silk fabrics who worked in Venice during the same timeframe as the original ballet—and to Pre-Raphaelite English paintings of the same period, combining these elements for the brides’ costumes in Act III.
As well as gleaning inspiration from history, Kaplan wove his own style into the costumes. “I wanted to create beautiful lines and shapes, and for the men also; something pretty, sexy, and fresh,” he notes.
He worked a lot on Rothbart, the antagonist who casts the spell on Princess Odette, turning her into a swan by day. Kaplan told Ratmansky that he intended to make an impressive Rothbart—a strong figure in black with big, articulated wings that move like real ones.
Kaplan believes costumes without music, movement, and choreography are lifeless. “I need somebody inside the costume,” he says. “It’s a package, and I try to make a nice package. I try to help the dancers and the choreographer show something true and to make the choreographer happy and comfortable in the work.”
He also views classical ballet as a cultural treasure, one that he is fortunate enough to contribute to. “For me, classical ballet is a part of our heritage, our Western heritage, and we need to fight to try to refresh classical ballet but not too much, only slightly; to put a nice frame around it. This is Swan Lake.”