Pennsylvania Ballet costumers Wendy Levin and Julie Watson took time out of their busy schedules to answer our questions about working behind the scenes at the Ballet and how they prepare for the beloved holiday tradition, The Nutcracker.
Tell us your job title and responsibilities.
WL - My name is Wendy Levin and I am Wardrobe Supervisor with Pennsylvania Ballet. My responsibilities for George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® include costume fittings, overseeing the rebuilding of costumes and any refurbishing of costumes that takes place, making sure my team has the materials they need to make alterations, and the dyeing of new tights so they are the correct color for each dancer. This year we took The Nutcracker to Cleveland for a week of performances; part of my responsibility was to make sure that the costumes were packed properly for travel to Cleveland and back to Philadelphia safely.
JW – My name is Julie Watson and I am Assistant Wardrobe Supervisor, and Costumer, with Pennsylvania Ballet. I work closely with Wendy to rebuild costumes, make necessary alterations, clean various pieces of costumes, and most importantly, making sure costumes are delivered to the correct dressing room for each performance.
Tell us about the history of your work and how long you’ve been with Pennsylvania Ballet? Were you a dancer or always behind the scenes?
WL - I’ve always loved to sew and greatly admired Edgar Degas’ work. I would visit the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to view their collection of Degas’s painting and I had prints of his work on my bedroom walls. Growing up, I found the tulle on the romantic tutus magical and thought it would be fun to make ballet costumes. I started my career making ballroom dance costumes, made costumes for the 76ers dance team, and served as Wardrobe Supervisor for the Philadelphia Drama Guild prior to starting my position with Pennsylvania Ballet more than 30 years ago.
JW - I went to art school as well and always enjoyed making costumes. Prior to starting fulltime with Pennsylvania Ballet, I worked for Temple University’s Theater department and freelanced with various theaters in Philadelphia. One of the biggest differences I’ve found between theater and dance costumes is that dancers interact in ways that actors often don’t, so you need to be aware of how the costumes move together to avoid dancers getting caught on one another.
What is a typical day like when preparing for a show?
WL & JW - For a typical Nutcracker performance day, we are in the theater an hour and a half prior to the show doing laundry and working on repairs such as sewing small rips and fixing hardware that is falling off. We then make sure that each dancer has what they need. We don’t have a lot of time to get ready for the shows, so we label every piece of the costumes ahead of time with the character they belong to. During the show, we are on hand in case there are any emergencies. After the performance, we do more laundry before going home to get ready for the next day! Being at the Academy is the easy part of our job; the hard part is doing all the fittings for each dancer as some of them have eight different roles. This year, we started fitting everyone in August.
Does preparing for The Nutcracker change year after year?
WL & JW - Each year different costumes need to be updated and worked on. For example, the party girl dresses were originally all silk, but the silk started to disintegrate so over the last few years we’ve replaced the chiffon overlays with polyester so they will be more durable and last longer. This year we also replaced the stripe on the candy cane pants, made a new Drosselmeyer coat and Spanish unitards, and realigned the flower bodices in addition to the work we do every year on the headpieces. Apart from that the workload is usually the same in terms of fittings, alterations, transporting the costumes to the Academy, steaming and preparing them for the stage, and distributing them to the dancer’s dressing rooms.
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