ABT’s 175 ‘Harlequinade’ costumes cost an average of $5,000 apiece
By Laura Bleiberg
Jan 10, 2019 | 7:00 AM
“Harlequinade,” American Ballet Theatre’s new production coming to Costa Mesa next week, is a lush re-creation of a largely forgotten ballet from 1900 and, for the ABT costume team, a visual spectacle that required months of sleuthing.
To reconstitute the ballet, one of the last made by master choreographer Marius Petipa, ABT artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky studied written notations made of Petipa’s steps and restored as much of the choreography as possible. The credit for the design splendor, however, goes to period specialist Robert Perdziola, who reproduced the ballet’s opulent scenery and its elegant costumes, each one a piece of art.
Perdziola scrutinized Ivan Kaffi’s original costumes using hundreds of drawings and photographs archived by the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. The attention to heightened detail came with a corresponding price tag: “Harlequinade” is a $2.5 million production, ABT press director Kelly Ryan said. The ballet’s 175 costumes averaged about $5,000 apiece.
Dressing dancers comes with complications because performers must have unrestricted mobility and still look smashing to ticket holders sitting in the back of the auditorium. So in addition to the expense of materials, the costs reflect six months spent on construction and specialized craftsmanship to ensure each outfit is sturdy yet lightweight.
Perdziola used velvets, silks, satins and synthetics (which wrinkle less when cleaned). If the right color couldn’t be found, fabrics were dyed. Every character has a hairpiece or wig, and most have hats; some have gloves. Casts were made of dancers’ faces to make sure masks were comfortable.
Digital printing of fabrics was used for about 30% of the garments. For the bird characters in Act 2, Perdizola made a full-size watercolor painting of a key symbol, which was then sent to the printer to be replicated on the synthetic organdy.
“We could get the intensity of color, and it doesn’t change the quality of the fabric,” Perdziola said of the digital printing. “If one does painting on fabric, things can get stiffer.”
His goal was to honor as much as possible the look of the original costumes. He scrutinized historical production photos alongside Kaffi’s drawings so he could note when it had been impossible, 118 years ago, to create a garment as drawn. Perdziola hoped to avoid a similar failure.
The yellow and blue 18th century style dress and black bicorne hat that Harlequin’s female friends wear is one of Perdziola’s favorite outfits. At $6,000 apiece, the dress is astounding in its intricacy and detail: Each one has yellow damask for bodice and overskirt panniers ($62.95 a yard), embroidered French blue silk for cuffs and trim ($42.95 a yard), yellow underskirt fabric ($15.95 a yard), ivory colored netting ($7 a yard), blue ribbon (23 cents a meter), silver braid for bodice ($19.95 a yard), silver braid on pannier hem ($3.95 a yard), small silver trim ($6.40 a meter), silver lace ($19.95 a hard), silver fringe (price not recorded), epaulet trim ($7.95 a yard), silver crochet lace trim ($9.95 a yard) and 64 half-pearl studs.
The pannier, an artificial padding that makes the dress pouf out at the hips, needed to be light enough that “it doesn’t start to weigh down the thing you’ve spent hours making,” the designer said. “There’s a lot of trial and error that must happen quickly in the fitting process.”
Perhaps the most clever adaptation was the hat that the heroine, Columbine, wears at a jaunty angle in the first act.
“The hat maker developed this genius thing,” he said. “The hat is made with a hinged lid, so the dresser can pin it from the inside and then close it up. You position the brim on the head, and you can pin the hell out of it to the hair and you close it. There are magnets that keep it closed.”
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American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Harlequinade’
Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa