Ballet designers balance form, usage in costumes

There will be three different ballet companies at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center when the seaso
The National Ballet of Canada’s “Giselle†features costumes designed by Desmond Heeley (Bridgette Zehr)
The National Ballet of Canada’s “Giselle†features costumes designed by Desmond Heeley (Bridgette Zehr)

There will be three different ballet companies at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center when the season opens Tuesday and closes July 25. While each company has its own look, some of the visual magic comes from the hands of their costume designers. But designing a costume for a ballet dancer is not the same thing as designing clothes for a runway model.

“I learned when you create something for the ballet, you must give the dancer the opportunity to move and jump well,” said Valentino Garavani in an email. “And if you make a beautiful couture dress for a lady, and she’s not able to walk, well, that dress is a dead dress.”

Valentino has been a staple of the fashion industry for decades, a fan of the ballet and friends with Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief at New York City Ballet, for more than 30 years. But this is his first venture into designing for the ballet.

His costumes will be featured in Martins’ new ballet, “Bal de Couture,” which City Ballet will dance at its gala July 13. The company’s season opens Tuesday.

Ballet season

• New York City Ballet: July 9–13

• National Ballet of Canada: July 16–18

• Aspen Santa Fe Ballet: July 24–25

WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center

HOW MUCH: $80–$24; lawn, $24. Kids 12 and under free on the lawn. $5 discount with Saratoga ArtsPass or Price Chopper Advantage card

MORE INFO: 584-9330,

“There is so much beauty in the ballet, the grace, the fluidity,” he said. “Ballet speaks to me because of the romance I see in it. I realize the dancers do so much to be perfect, and in high fashion I always wanted perfection,” he said. “The dancers here may not be as tall as models, but when a ballerina comes on stage and she’s a star, everything is fantastic. And the dress becomes a dream. Everything is beautiful.”

Detail of valentino

Marc Happel, the company’s director of costumes, said working with Valentino was a revelation. “His attention to detail was amazing. He was very hands-on at every step,” Happel said. “He would call on a Sunday evening to talk about how a ruffle would lay or what type of crystals would be used.”

The company had already cast the ballet, so Valentino was introduced to all the girls and consulted with Martins on what would work with the music. Then, before Martins had even done the choreography, Valentino fit the costumes to the dancers. This was unusual, Happel said, because designers usually fit their costumes according to the choreography before they put them on the dancers.

“But Peter would come in during the fittings and suggest things like there was too much sleeve or to pull a hem back,” Happel said. “He did give free rein to palette and materials. Valentino chose black and white ballgowns with red and hot pink touches and the men in tuxes.”

After Valentino provided the sketches, Happel’s department built the costumes. That, too, was special for the seamstresses.

“Valentino is a legend. He’s one of the last great couturiers,” he said. “Building his costumes was the height.”

Heeley: ‘Giselle’

The costumes for the National Ballet of Canada’s “Giselle” were, however, a pioneering effort for designer Desmond Heeley more than 40 years ago. The ballet will be danced July 17 and 18 after the company makes its debut July 16. The full-length story ballet is one of the oldest ballets in the repertory, so Heeley’s 25 designs for the corps and principals couldn’t just be fanciful creations but had to tell a story.

“I needed the costumes to look like a 19th century painting,” Heeley said from New York City. “It’s a bread-and-butter ballet and is like ‘Hamlet’ in that I needed an essential design. You can’t cheat on this ballet.”

Giselle herself moves from a lovely country girl with a flowing frock with puffy sleeves to a wraith who wears a decaying wedding dress.

“I was always concerned that the dancer can move and, whether the dancer is facing front or back, I was designing for the choreography,” he said. “Initially, I fit to a specific dancer, especially to give the right size of the sleeve and that when she moved she’d have a nice line. You didn’t want two footballs on her arm.”

The type of material needed also had to be right to provide light movement.

“I had the most wonderful organza. It could look like flannel on stage because the light couldn’t go through it but it was like a soft net,” he said.

When the ballet was revised in the 1980s with the famed dancer Erik Bruhn as the company’s artistic director, Bruhn wanted a white makeup for the wraiths.

“I balked at that,” Heeley said with a laugh. “Instead, we used veils that were splashed with dark green from head to hem.”

Now, after a career that has included two Tony Awards in 1968 for set and costume design, the 1994 Irene Sharaff Lifetime Achievement Award, and working with opera houses from La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera to the Royal Shakespeare Company and most recently with the Houston Ballet, Heeley remembers “Giselle” fondly.

“It was a favorite ballet,” he said.

Scarlett: ‘Square none’

The newcomer on the stage is Austin Scarlett, whose designs for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s “Square None” will be seen on July 25. The company debuts July 24. It is his second design for the company.

“I have a background in theater design and in costume shops that did designs for dancers, opera and ballet,” Scarlett, 30, said from New York City. “Initially, I met with the dancers and the choreographer Norbet De La Cruz who was developing a design concept for the dance. I listened to the music and came up with some ideas.”

Because it’s a new work, it took about a year to finalize a look that will be rather avant garde. It’s been a fun experience compared to having to come up with a seasonal line, he said.

“Costumes allow you to broaden your horizons and stretch your boundaries,” Scarlett said. “The best part is being able to collaborate. In runway design I’m on my own. The collection is destined for a client. But with Aspen, it was like a family. I love having that type of camaraderie.”

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