By Mary Hierholzer
Rumor has it that when the Royal Ballet sold its 1970s Sleeping Beauty costumes to Boston Ballet in the early 1990s, the company attempted to buy them back shortly after the sale because London audiences missed them so much.
Here in Boston, we’ve caught tutu fever, too. As Boston Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty approaches, everyone wants a peek into the explosion of tulle that is the costume shop, and it’s no surprise why. David Walker’s designs for the ballet are appropriately dreamy, romantic, flowery and lush. With over 300 costumes and thousands of pieces, from fairies to an Edwardian hunt, and wigs to tiaras, The Sleeping Beauty is the New York Fashion Week of classical ballet style.
Here in Boston, we have award-winning Mr. Walker (1934–2008) to thank. The design expert had an eye for the structural and visual details that make a costume dazzle onstage—trim, texture and color—even from the back of a theater. Walker’s signature style is recognizable just like a fashion designer’s pieces are. The costumes in Sleeping Beauty might remind audiences of Boston Ballet’s Cinderella costumes, another of Mr. Walker’s creations. The designer’s work is still praised for his strategic effects, though costume design has evolved since the height of his career.
According to Wardrobe Supervisor Heather McLernon, what we see onstage today is the fabric available in 1970s London. Close-up, it’s obviously outdated; the Mazurka costumes, for example, are made of upholstery from the time; the royal court’s capes, gowns and coats are riddled with garish bits and bobbles. The fabrics are heavy—the King’s coat alone weighs about 30 pounds. Thanks to advancements in technology, costume designers today can opt for lighter, breathable fabrics that create the same effect, much to the dancers’ relief. But from the audience, Mr. Walker’s 70s costumes still work like magic.
“David Walker had this eye for texture and placement of jewels,” Ms. McLernon told The Boston Dance Journal. “Up-close they might seem a little gaudy, but from a distance, because of the texture and detail that he put into it makes it pop on the stage. It’s really incredible the design of these costumes.”
The Boston Ballet Wardrobe Department of 13 is much to be credited for the costumes’ smooth aging. Because Boston Ballet’s set of Sleeping Beauty costumes is one of few, many ballet companies rent the collection to use in their own productions over the years. Naturally, the heavy usage leads to wear and tear. Without careful and skilled maintenance, colors fade, tutus fall limp and a production’s enchantment diminishes. That is why the Costume Shop staff keeps an eye on the wardrobe’s condition and sees to repairs and restoration before taking the stage again.
Every time Boston Ballet produces The Sleeping Beauty, Wardrobe undertakes a restoration project. This year, the shop is refurbishing the Sleeping Beauty “platter” tutus, Mazurka bodices and jackets, the nymph bodices and some of the Aurora bodices.
Because tulle deteriorates quickly and is susceptible to ripping easily, it is important to add new layers of tulle every so often. This was last done in 2004, when the original materials were no longer salvageable. So, 13 years later, it’s time to make the tutus perky again. The lifespan of a tutu varies depending on the ballet and on the tutu in question, but if these are well-maintained, they’ll last another 10 years, Ms. McLernon says. Much of the vital refurbishment never sees the spotlight, but provides essential structure and life to the costumes.
But the job doesn’t end when the curtain rises; backstage, Ms. McLernon and a team of union dressers (plus a wig crew of five for Sleeping Beauty) stand at the ready for costume changes and quick fixes. The ladies of the corps de ballet have the most costume changes. Depending on the casting, they might begin as Lilac Fairy attendants or as fairies, change into garland costume or one of Aurora’s friends; a quick change in Act II from hunt or peasant costumes into the vision nymphs; and then into an Act III costume.
It’s a feast for the eyes, and it’s no wonder Boston is excited for The Sleeping Beauty to hit the stage on Friday. But what exactly is it about tutus that compels us to celebrate #tututuesday on Instagram, and go positively giddy? As McLernon puts it, “They’re beautiful and it’s girly and fun.”
“There’s something about them,” she says. “You see the full leg of the ballerina, so you’re seeing the entire extension of the leg, but you also have this beautiful costume on top…I’m not really sure why it does what it does, but it does something.”
Boston Ballet will perform The Sleeping Beauty at the Boston Opera House, April 28–May 27. For tickets and show times, visit the Boston Ballet webpage.