Sneak Peek: Behind the Scenes at New York City Ballet’s Costume Workshop

On the eve of The New York City Ballet's annual spring gala, we got a sneak peek at the Swarovski-embellished costumes.

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A worker in the New York City Ballet's costume shop steams a tutu with an iron.
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On the eve of The New York City Ballet's annual spring gala, we got a sneak peek inside the bustling costume workshop that creates the fantastic costumes seen on stage.
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The ballet's annual spring gala is getting a lot of press this year because of the note-worthy collaborators the various ballets' costumes: Rodarte, Giles Mendel, and Swarovski.
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We spoke with the ballet's director of costumes, Marc Happel, who worked in collaboration with Swarovski (who generously co-sponsored the gala with Dior) to re-imagine the costumes for the revival of George Balanchine's "Symphony in C."
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The costumes for the ballet are covered in more than 100,000 "hotfix" crystals in a variety of shades, which create a glittery effect that's stunning, but still chic.
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When we visited the shop, the staff was busy at work putting the finishing touches on the costumes for the dress rehearsal that afternoon. "However much you've prepared or designed in advance," Happel cautioned, "many times it's the last couple of weeks that everything starts to gel."
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Happel worked with Swarovski to determine exactly which stones to use, and in which combinations, and laughed that it was "a good little sign" when he gave the Swarovski organizers an estimate for how many crystals he'd need, and they reported that he was $200 under his allowed total.
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Happel's costumes for "Symphony in C" were inspired by a Dior dress called "Junon" that he found in his research. "It has a strapless bodice and then the skirt has these overlapping petal shapes that have pale crystals that braid out to a darker crystal on the edge."
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In designing costumes for a ballet, there are a number of constraints one has to consider. "How can you create costumes for the kind of athleticism that New York ballet is known for?" Happel mused.
"A lot of times it's dealing with stretch," says Happel. "Different stretches work different ways ... two stretches kind of react differently to each other, and it's all about clean lines."
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To create the dancers' costumes, the workshop itself has up to 18 people working at any given time, including a full-time painter-dyer and a "shopper," who can track down anything the department needs.
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Unfinished pieces for the three ballets hang on racks at the entrance. In addition to Happel's Swarovski costumes, the other two ballet costumes are being designed by Gilles Mendel and Rodarte.
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"It's a challenge when you're doing a night with a huge new re-design and two new ballets with new designs by fashion designers," says Happel. "Many times the challenge with the designers is that they're not always available." (The Rodarte sisters, for example, live in Los Angeles.)
Happel joked that he and Mendel (who has designed costumes for the ballet before) have "this little love-hate relationship going" -- as any two creative types working on a deadline would. "But we like Gilles a lot, he's great to work with."
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Hours before the dress rehearsal, not all the costumes were finished. "We're re-cutting some of of the Benjamin Millipied things," Happel noted, adding that there were also some changes that Mendel had requested, as well as some crystals that needed to be tweaked on the Swarovski bodices.
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Even so, Happel and his team were keeping calm under pressure, and references to Fashion Week deadlines abounded. "We're re-cutting costumes this morning that will be on stage this afternoon," Happel said matter-of-factly.
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