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'Nutcracker' keeps workers on their toes

There's a magic hard at work in the costumes and sets of the Joffrey's L.A.-bound 'Nutcracker.'

November 29, 2011|By Sid Smith, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Department head Marianne Marks, looks over dresses in the wardrobe department of the Joffrey's "Nutcracker."
Department head Marianne Marks, looks over dresses in the wardrobe department… (Antonio Perez, Chicago…)

Reporting from Chicago — — Like Santa's elves, costume shop workers have been racing to meet their deadline, stitching, sewing and hemming away in a small room tucked into a corner of the Joffrey Tower at State and Randolph streets.

Four regulars have been joined by four seasonal workers to prepare some 200 costumes for "The Nutcracker," the Joffrey Ballet's annual outing, which will be performed six times at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion starting Thursday before a lengthy run in the Joffrey's hometown of Chicago.

The costume shop workers repair and alter, but they also replace — the original garments date back 24 years to the production's premiere.

This season, all 12 costumes worn in "Waltz of the Flowers" will be new.

"They're shredding, the petals hanging on by threads," said Marianne Marks, head of wardrobe. "Standing backstage last season, my nightmare was that by waltz's end, there would be petals all over the stage, the women just in tulle.

"Every year, I ask, 'What's in the worst shape? What has to be replaced?'" Marks continued. "They get starched, and they're dry cleaned. We do some 30 shows every year, and dancers work hard. They sweat. And sweat is the hardest thing on silk."

The perfectionism with which Robert Joffrey approached this production — his last before his 1988 death — infinitely complicates the task. "I can't think of another company that has 12 individual flowers," Marks said. "Every petal was originally hand-painted and made of silk. The number of petals varies per skirt. The rose has 20 petals. The clematis has nine or 10. Every petal has between five and 15 tiny darts to make the right shape, and every bodice is different."

But, given economic realities, to remake the flower costumes corners had to be cut. "The new petals are polyester, and we're printing them instead of hand-painting them," Marks said. "But we take the image and work with it in Photoshop, so there's actually more detail. It's a trade-off. The stem in the middle of the iris is more authentic — you can do more with pixels in that regard than a paintbrush."

Polyester petals? "The bodices are still 100% silk," Marks rejoined. And instead of $8,000 per flower, the troupe spends closer to $2,500 — even so a price more in the realm of couture than ready-to-wear.

Everything counts

All of this seems a lot of expense and effort for what many will note with a brief "Oh, how pretty" sigh before focusing on the dancing. "You'd notice if the costume were wrong or poorly built," Marks countered. "A ballet dancer's artistry is the body, and we have to see that body and its beautiful line. The costume has to continue that line and complement what the dancer is working so hard to achieve. Sometimes, it's just a matter of a well-placed seam. Which you don't see, but I do, and you'd notice if it wasn't right."

The physical "Nutcracker" is more than just silk and tulle, of course. About 13/4 worth of the four trucks the Joffrey hires to cart the production to L.A. is packed with scenery, requiring some 6,000 cubic feet, estimated Joffrey director of production Claude Binder. Much of it, too, dates back to the original, stored in two separate warehouses in Chicago and painted, repainted and touched up each year.

"This year, we had to flame-proof a lot of the soft-goods, the draperies and such," he said. "In spite of our best efforts, there's water damage and just fading from age. So we apply the original color, but, then, you have to haul out the adjoining pieces to be sure everything still matches."

The sets are mostly wood and velour, as opposed to wood and canvas — another Joffrey extravagance. "It's an ongoing thing, like raising a child," Binder said. "This is my eldest. Not that many productions have scenery this old."

Binder's task isn't just pre-production. During the winter scene, "it snows for 15 minutes," he said, "managed by stage hands on ropes backstage, working to make it consistent every night. There's only a finite amount of snowflakes you can store up there in the muslin that holds them. If you use too much too soon, you run out."

Like Marks and the idea of a costume collaborating with a dancer's line, the scenery in "Nutcracker" is meticulously choreographed.

"There are so many transformations," said Ashley Wheater, Joffrey artistic director. "From the family scene to the battle and then into the snow. The rhythm and timing of how those transformations work, how the set pieces move and at what pace and if done to the musical rhythm, is much more complex than just pulling a staircase off stage to get rid of it. We monitor every minute of it every night. I drive the technical department crazy, but we're here to pull off magic."

Travel tales

Hauling the production halfway across the country and back doesn't make it easier — a bit like a czar on grand tour. "Nothing's more fun than getting 70 people checked in at the airport," Laurie Garwood, the troupe's general manager, summed it up sardonically.

Has anyone ever been lost? "No, but airlines sometimes overbook and don't check with us as to who they bump," she said. "One year it was our master carpenter — the one person we had to have for load-in the next day."

But the elves, the late Joffrey, or someone must have been watching, because the magic endured.

"He found a later flight," Garwood said.

calendar@latimes.com

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