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Behind the Curtain: Costuming Sleeping Beauty

Updated: May 3

Brightly colored tutu bodices are arranged together.
Rich colors, intricate adornments, and beautiful fabrics characterize ballet costumes.

Whenever we have a Q&A with audience members, one of the most common questions we're asked is, "Where do you get your costumes?"

This is a question near and dear to our hearts. As a small arts organization, we are fortunate to have a dedicated costume team performing daily miracles with a needle and thread. After a season full of other performances, our costumers now face their biggest challenge: preparing 135 costumes for our new production of Sleeping Beauty. This includes 12 courtier costumes graciously loaned by Colonial Players, 15 tutus from ready-made bases, and 10 tutus entirely from scratch. Unlike in many productions where we have most of the costumes waiting in storage, we estimate that only 25% of Sleeping Beauty's costumes consist of preexisting pieces.

Credit for our production's costumes goes to Karissa Kralik, Clara Molina, Karen Kralik, Laurie Molina, Amanda Cobb, Sarah Hoffman, Caroline Anderson, and Alyssa Taylor. Behind the scenes, we also appreciate the countless company dancers and trainees who volunteer their downtime in rehearsal to sew hooks and eyes, seam-rip old embellishments, and take on other, more complicated tasks. For Sleeping Beauty, the end result will be a feast for the eyes.

Green costume skirts with white tulle peeking out hang in the costume shop.
When costuming the corps de ballet, each step in the process must be repeated many times. For these costumes worn by the Dryads in Act II, each skirt will be paired with a bodice like the one seen on the far left.

The Historical Legacy of Our Costumes

The 1890 premiere of Sleeping Beauty was in many ways a labor of love for Ivan Vsevolozhsky, a Russian Francophile who had spent five years living in Paris. Vsevolozhsky not only conceived of Sleeping Beauty but also commissioned Tchaikovsky, wrote the libretto, and designed the production's costumes.

The Marius Petipa Society reports that Vsevolozhsky envisioned the historic grandeur of the French courts for his Sleeping Beauty's sets and costumes. His Prologue and Act I reflect the 16th century, while Acts II and III represent Le Grand Siècle of Louis XIV's reign. According to Jennifer Homans in Apollo's Angels (2010), this magnificence came at a high cost: production costs for the ballet consumed a quarter of the Imperial Theaters' budget for that year. She describes "brightly colored silk, velvet, gold and silver embroidery, brocade, furs, and the production a vibrant, candy-coated appeal" (Homans, 2010, p. 275). Although extant photos of the production are black and white, they record the incredible level of detail that went into Vsevolozhsky's costumes.

For a peek at the costumes in Sleeping Beauty's 1890 premiere, visit the Marius Petipa Society's Photo Gallery.

Two costumers arrange mock-up pieces over the fabric they are cutting.
Clara and Karissa work on a costume between rehearsals.

Costuming a Fairy Tale

Karissa Kralik and Clara Molina, who dance with the company as a principal and demi-soloist, respectively, also serve as the Wardrobe Coordinators for all of our productions. Karissa says that the classicism and fairy-tale structure of Sleeping Beauty provides a cohesion that has made it one of her favorite ballets to costume.

They describe our production of Sleeping Beauty as being "historically inspired" in a way that heightens the fantasy and drama of the story while also allowing the dancers full freedom of movement.

Moving forward in time from Vsevolozhsky's vision, the costumes for our Sleeping Beauty sets the Prologue and Act I around the 1770s. Fashion history buffs will recognize this by the costuming for Act I; the Garland Waltz dancers, Aurora's friends, and Aurora all wear a square-necked bodice reminiscent of necklines from the late 18th-century French court.

After Aurora has pricked her finger and fallen asleep for 100 years, Karissa and Clara depict the passage of time through costuming choices. Prince Florimund's hunting party will feature Victorian-inspired riding ensembles to show that we have progressed to the 1870s.

However, some elements of the story are pure fantasy. Karissa explains, "Because it is a fairy tale, there always needs to be heightened elements. In this case, it's the fairies themselves. They are all costumed ornately in new pancake tutus. While of course these tutus aren't based in historic reality, their pastel shades embody the fairies' gifts onstage."

Company artists of BTM wearing "pancake" rehearsal tutus. This term refers to their round shape, which is accomplished with layers of stiff netting and tulle.

How History Informs Costuming: Carabosse

While tutus are the bread and butter* of ballet costuming, Sleeping Beauty's historical setting inspires some unique silhouettes. Madison Sweeney, who shares the role of Carabosse with Michael West Jr., is pictured below wearing part of her costume over her practice clothes.

A ballet dancer in a black leotard and a full-length, silky costume skirt
Madison Sweeney rehearses as Carabosse.

For dancers, rehearsing in a long skirt or other bulky costume piece allows them to make necessary adjustments to their performance before they get onstage. Additionally, the visual command created by a costume informs the way a dancer moves and breathes, helping bring their character to life.

Carabosse's gown will be the work of BTM demi-soloist and costumer Amanda Cobb. The finished costume incorporates a set of stays, which is the historically correct term for a corset. To make the pattern comfortable for dancing, Amanda refrained from using stiff boning and also attached the distinctively shaped underhoop to the skirt so that all parts of the costume move together.

This underhoop is traditionally known as panniers, basket-like undergarments worn by women in the 18th century to create a wide and flat silhouette from the hips down. Amanda explains that the panniers mirror the shape of a tutu, creating a bridge between the silhouettes of the courtiers and the fairies. Once finished, the costume will be ornate and regal, helping Carabosse command the stage.

Colorful historical costumes hang from a rack.
Courtier costumes borrowed from Colonial Players dress up the stage with diverse colors and textures.

Bringing the Costumes Together

There is still much to do before our performers take the stage later this month, but our costume team is hard at work to make this magic happen.

Creating quality costumes is an important part of our mission to produce high-caliber ballet performances, but it is not without its costs. Members of our costume team estimate that the average cost for a single classical tutu is $700. With 25 new tutus in Sleeping Beauty alone, these expenses can add up quickly.

Typically, costuming is funded through the company's operational budget. Although much of our revenue comes from grants and ticket sales, we are also greatly supported by individual contributions. If you are interested in helping us continue to elevate our productions, please visit our Donate page.

Most importantly, we look forward to sharing our beautiful new costumes with audience members at Sleeping Beauty on April 26 and 27! To see the final result of our costumers' hard work, purchase your tickets for Sleeping Beauty today.

A female ballet dancer takes a penche over a kneeling male dancer under the words "The Sleeping Beauty"

Promotional photo by Joanne Marie Photography

Behind-the-scenes photos by Lauren Martinez and Cindy Case

*Perhaps all this talk of pancakes has made me hungry.

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