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A Closer Look at the American Ballet Theatre's Whimsical Costumes for Their New Production of 'The Nutcracker'

For a lot of little girls, going to see the local production of "The Nutcracker" is the highlight of the holiday season. If you're a very lucky girl you get to see "The Nutcracker" performed by a premiere ballet company--and in New York that's generally thought to be the New York City Ballet's iconic production at Lincoln Center. But the American Ballet Theatre's new production of the classic at BAM in Brooklyn is giving the NYCB's version a run for its money. Alistair Macaulay, the Times dance critic says "the central marvel of Alexei Ratmansky’s 'Nutcracker'...lies in its vision of adults as the transformed potential future of the children who carry the story." I have no idea what that means (even the headline of his review, "What if You Could Meet Yourself as an Adult? These Children Do," still has me scratching my head). But I got to see the show for the second year in a row with a bunch of fashion types and their adorable children--Arizona Muse and her unbelievably beautiful son Nikko were sitting right in front of me--and I loved it. Ratmansky's interpretation of the classic is whimsical and at times laugh-out-loud funny. Part of the delight in going to see the ballet, and in seeing "The Nutcracker" in particular, besides the dancing and music of course, is the costumes. At NYCB they use the versions of the same costumes they've been using every year since 1954. Costume designer Richard Hudson has a fresh take on the iconic roles.

For a lot of little girls, going to see the local production of "The Nutcracker" is the highlight of the holiday season. If you're a very lucky girl you get to see "The Nutcracker" performed by a premiere

We asked him about his approach to costuming such a classic--and sometimes staid-ballet.

Fashionista: How did you take on this new version of "The Nutcracker"? Why do the characters look the way they do? Richard Hudson: Right at the start Alexei Ratmansky and I decided we wanted to set Act One in the Biedermeier period, in Austria or Northern Germany. I had seen a huge exhibition of clothes, furniture, paintings and objects from this period at the Albertina in Vienna a couple of years ago. I was particularly struck by the extraordinary use of colour, and this was very influential. I researched the period thoroughly, and almost every costume is based on a watercolour, etching, print or portrait of the time. The Nutcracker Prince and the Toy Soldiers are Napoleonic in style; the Cook's costume came from a wonderful portrait of a chef in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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I decided to make the Mice white. Alexei wanted them to be menacing, and I think there is something particularly nasty about white mice with their little pink eyes, pink fingers, feet and tails. The Rat King in the original story by E. T. A. Hoffmann has seven heads, so our Rat King has too. Likewise, Alexei wanted the Snowflakes to be dangerous - hence the spiky, glacial headdresses and glistening ragged tutus.

The costumes didn't seem all that scary! In contrast, Act Two needed to be other-wordly, of no particular period, and exotic. The costumes for the Sugar Plum Fairy, her attendants and the Major Domo were inspired by the costume designs of Leon Bakst for The Ballets Russes, and 17th century Court Masque costumes from Versailles. The colors for all the costumes in this act were influenced by the metallic foil wrappings of old-fashioned sweets, marzipan, pistachio, Sicilian ice-creams and cakes and sugared almonds. I wanted the Waltz of the Flowers to look like a bouquet of Peonies, with frilly, densely layered petals flushed a deep fuschia pink in the centre and grading to a paler pink on the outer petals.

So what's up with those hysterical bees with the blue lipstick in the second act? Alexei wanted bees in the Waltz of the Flowers--I think it may be a tradition in Russia. The costumes were dictated by the choice of fabrics--the Bees tights are made of stretch velvet and their coats with wing-like tails are made of a knobbly, slightly hairy brocade. I wanted them to have the soft, plush but also hard, shiny quality that bees have, and to be both menacing and delightful.

Take a look at Hudson's sketches and costumes from the show. Have you seen "The Nutcracker" yet?