Many people see
year after year, and consider it an essential part of the holiday season. So the ballet always should be presented with an element of the familiar, says Peter Horne, who designed the new sets for Pennsylvania Ballet's venture into the Land of Sweets.
"I think you have to approach it as if this is a long-lasting family story, so it's like a great book that's read every Christmas," he says.
With that in mind, Horne, Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Roy Kaiser, and costume designer Judanna Lynn decided to set the refurbished ballet in Philadelphia. George Balanchine's classic choreography will remain, but when the curtain rises Friday night at the Academy of Music, new costumes and sets will be in place for the first time since 1987.
The opening scene takes place in a Federal-style mansion, featuring a Georgian entrance with windows on either side. It may strike a chord with audience members, Horne said, although "it's not a particular building."
The regional theme carries through to the snow scene, where the landscape was designed after "an etching of [Fairmount] park where the museum is, looking up toward East Falls," the designer said, describing the area near the Waterworks on the east bank of the Schuylkill.
"It feels sort of like Philadelphia. Children like things that they feel . . . comfortable with," said Canadian-born Horne, who now lives near London. That sense of familiarity can translate into a sense of possibility, he said, leading them to think, when the onstage Christmas tree and house begin to grow, " 'Oh, wow! What if my drawing room really grew and exploded!' "
The artistic team considered putting the dancers in modern dress to further that familiar feel, said Lynn, who also designed the costumes for Pennsylvania Ballet's Dracula. But they soon realized that circa 2007 would be more expensive to produce - and would appear musty much quicker - than an actual period piece.
So, instead, they opted to set the new Nutcracker sometime in the 1830s or '40s, "with a little fudging," she said. "This is not a documentary."
The era allowed Lynn to employ a rich array of silks, velvets and satins. Up close, the 192 costumes look like couture, detailed with jewels and beading. Their price tag has a couture feel as well: A single snowflake tutu, for example, cost $2,150 - and there are 20 of them.
The entire Nutcracker budget was $850,000 - $500,000 for costumes, $300,000 for sets and $50,000 for miscellaneous expenses.
"You don't see these teensy details" from the audience, Lynn said, paging through layers of a skirt to reveal embroidery. "But it has a vibrancy to it, and it's important psychologically for the dancers."
It's key for the children in the cast to feel that what they're doing is serious business, too, and worthy of gorgeous costumes, she said, ducking among racks crammed with pastel flower tutus and fanciful doll costumes. She paused to advise a dancer being fitted for a Spanish costume where best in her hair to place a tall comb.
"I remember how excited I was to wear something so beautiful" as a child cast in ballets, said Lynn, who grew up in Minnesota and danced with the San Francisco Opera before moving to New York to design costumes. "I thought that was what queens and kings wore."
The high cost of the costumes and sets is attributable in large part to the fact that most of the work was done by hand. The sets were built and painted in Marcus Hook and in South Glens Falls, N.Y., but the costumes were created in England - which turned out to be less expensive than having them made in the United States - with fittings and finishing touches done in the Pennsylvania Ballet's costume shop in the company's temporary space in East Falls.
The mouse heads - built by British sculptor Robert Allsopp - are all fake fur and glassy eyes, each conquistador-inspired helmet topped with a wedge of Swiss cheese.
"The point is to make people laugh," Lynn said.
For all the details and expense, Lynn still managed a bargain or two. The silks she wanted to use cost $50 a yard in the United States - but she found similar silk for $1.50 a yard in Hong Kong while doing work there for Disney.
This is the fourth Nutcracker Lynn and Horne have designed together (the others were for Columbus, Ohio's BalletMet, Washington Ballet and Atlanta Ballet), and Lynn's next job is yet another, for Cincinnati Ballet. The designers say that they have no trouble coming up with new ideas each time - but that with this one, some constraints were built in.
"We certainly wanted to keep it within the confines of Mr. Balanchine," Lynn said of the work's choreographer. "At the same time, with all great artists, you have to update them to the time in which you live, to make it a living thing and not a fossil. But you do it very respectfully."
Balanchine's choreography includes not only Arabian, Chinese and Spanish dances, but specifies them as coffee, tea and hot chocolate. The Russian dancers are dressed as candy canes, which defines the color palette.
Lynn said she gets a lot of her design cues from Tchaikovsky's famous score.
"To me, the color of the music is what suggests what things should be," she said. "When I close my eyes, I listen to music, I see it, I see the music. I thought everybody could do that."
Of the new production, the ballet's Kaiser said, "I don't know how I'd feel about it as a designer. I'm asking them to create something that's really visually appealing and has a different look for us, but you're tied to this choreography.
"But I think they've both done an amazing job. It'll be a sight to see it on the stage after all these years. The production that we just retired was 20 years old!"