by Sister Joan Miller
When talking with deckhands during Nutcracker, I often say, “They keep me in the basement”, like some monster in the cellar. During the Broadway shows, they can see what I do. I may be in the wings or in a quick change area, and the performer arrives in one costume and leaves in another.
Nutcracker is different. Except for a single occasional quick change and the guest artist, I rarely go further than the wardrobe room, and the dancers can find me there. This is a resident company and I have been dressing the principal women for a long time, through changes of dancers, directors, theatre venues, and Nutcracker productions.
The new costumes are gorgeous. Every costume has multiple fabrics and trims with lots of details, from the small roses on the Sugar Plum classical tutu to the ruffles, beading and trim on the party dresses for the women and girls, with lush brocade fabrics throughout. The costume design reminds me of the women’s chorus costumes for Wicked – nothing succeeds like excess.
The previous costumes for the women in the opening party scene of Nutcracker were Empire style high-waist dresses. They were not tightly fitted and went on and off with hooks and eyes and snaps. Trinka and I could easily get them all dressed in the last five minutes, and there was a long curtain speech. The new design by Judana Lynn is Victorian, with tightly fitted bodices and very full skirts with lots of petticoats built in. And, every one of them laces up the back. The snowflake costumes also lace up the back, as they did before.
Sidebar — About lacing: Usually, lacing is just like shoes, the lace going from inside to out. But sometimes the bodice stretches out. So, to get a tighter fit, we might overlap the back and lace like an over under running stitch. And always tie at top and tuck in the ends really well.
So I start checking on/nagging the company dancers at half hour. No one wants to wear a heavy skirt for long, but they cooperate, and I can usually get one laced in before Bill calls fifteen. Trinka comes in to help, and we hook skirts and lace bodices as quickly as we can. Fortunately, there’s still a curtain speech.
Once they leave, I set out the romantic tutus for the 3 or 4 quick changes from party scene into snow. Then I help Trinka lace the apprentice dancers in the adjoining room into their tutus for snow.
The Snow Queen finishes putting on her shoes and ties the ribbons really well, stitching or taping the knot at her ankle, and I hook her into her classical tutu. (Made of a stretchy fabric, this one hooks up the back.)
There’s a brief pause before I hear the dancers running up the hall like the Queen Victoria race in a Monty Python sketch. Trinka and I begin unlacing them in the wig room even as Wendy and Casey take off their hairpieces, and I follow the dancer up the hallway, usually unlacing as we go.
In the dressing room, I unhook the skirt, then go and unlace and unhook someone else. We act quickly so that she has time to put on her snowflake headpiece, and pin it really well. Change from heeled character shoes to pointe shoes, and tie the ribbons really well. As well as put on her costume, so that Trinka or I can lace her up.
Once they leave, the Sugar Plum Fairy finishes putting on her pointe shoes (and tying them really well) and gets into her tutu. She goes to stage as the snowflakes return to the dressing room.
And the Snow Queen who was gracefully bowing in front of the curtain has less than 20 minutes to become the lead Flower in Waltz of the Flowers in Act Two.
(End part one. Begin part two.)
As any stagehand knows, intermission is a break for the audience, not the crew or the dancers. A full costume change can take as long as a full set change. The spirit of cooperation among the dancers is amazing. The alternate dancer is standing by, helping with the change of headpiece and shoes.
So, intermission is — unlace and unhook snow costumes, hang them up, pull dress shields from the party dresses, take laundry to the laundry room where Linda will put it in the washer, while the dancers do their hair, makeup, and shoes. I lace and hook each dancer into the costume for whichever divertissement she is doing that show, which changes every performance. And, sometimes they change from one pair of tights to another. Which means, pointe shoes come off, old tights off, good tights on, and pointe shoes back on. There is no curtain speech, no extra time except a short overture.
Sidebar — we have a diminishing supply of tights as the Danskin factory has closed. The new costumes for party scene make the tights turn fuzzy with yarn pills. So the dancer changing to a classical tutu, such as in the Spanish divertissement, will save her better tights for act two.
Once the dancers go to stage, it’s time for Mother Ginger, the guest artist of each performance.
Usually Wendy is just finishing her makeup, and I chat with the ballet staff while keeping an eye on the show monitor. I dress the guest in the bodice, gloves, and headpiece for photos, and then take it off and carry it while the ballet staff leads the guest to stage left. The goal is to start putting the guest into the skirt framework at the first divertissement.
Sidebar — My mnemonic for the order of Nutcracker is Sacre bleu! Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, French — then Mother Ginger.
I turn the guest over to Val and they disappear under the skirt, while I climb the 8-foot ladder in back. The guest pops out of the top of the skirt and I dress him/her from the ladder, telling her/him to turn around so I can zip the bodice and clip the headpiece, then let the guest know which way is front. I climb down, leaving the guest trapped in the skirt.
The guest is usually someone notable from the city — I’ve met the mayor, the city manager, the fire chief, army colonels, teachers, reporters — all of whom have agreed to be made up, dressed up, climb a ladder, put on a rolling platform and sent onstage.
The first time Mother Ginger went out (without guest) in the new production, the bonbons drop came in and hit the rolling skirt; I heard Glenn say over radio something about he shouldn’t fly it in that fast. The first guest for the dress rehearsal was Sarah Butler, one of the richest and most generous patrons of the arts in Austin. She told us that the hair was in her face (Wendy fixed it) and the chinstrap was too tight (Alexey fixed it). The first guest for a public performance was Jennie Tuttle, librarian at Clayton Elementary School. The disease ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) has taken her ability to speak, but she communicated beautifully with a look and a gesture. She gave a delightful performance, recognizing the amazing dancing of the bonbons before her.
Then the bonbons exit downstage left. Val and Charlie roll Mother Ginger off upstage left, George sets up the ladder for me, and I climb up, unhook the headpiece and unzip the bodice, and hand them to Sam, as the guest disappears back under the skirt. When he/she reappears, we go out to the hall, where I put the costume back on the guest for a picture with the bonbons. Wendy takes the headpiece and leads the guest artist off to remove the makeup. I take the bodice and gloves and go back to the basement.
I clean makeup off the Mother Ginger bodice and the snow tutu, and start replacing dress shields while the show finishes. The dancers return after curtain call, and we unlace and unhook, hang up costumes and spray them with alcohol, collect laundry from the dancers, start the washers, and go have a drink.
Then do it again the next day.
My prep for the call is to check tights and repair as needed (see sidebar about Danskin) and my show call is to lace bodices like corsets. I also do hand sewn repairs as needed, all very 19th century skills. I am glad that laundry has advanced to the twentieth century. And, grateful for 21st century monitors so I can see what is happening on stage, where the dancing is, and where my union brothers and sisters are doing their part to make Nutcracker a wonderful holiday tradition for Austin.
Part one: Trinka Withers, Judana Lynn, Bill Sheffield, Wendy Sanders, Casey (?), Queen Victoria, Monty Python
Part two: Linda Steele, Wendy Sanders, Valerie Sadorra, Glenn Dunn, Sarah Butler, Alexey Korygin, Jennie Tuttle, Charlie Hames, George Wenning, Sam Chesney