How do you revamp one of the world’s most popular and most recognizable ballets? Nix the white tutus.
Calm down, purists. The Milwaukee Ballet Company’s production of "Swan Lake," held May 16-19 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, hasn’t gone all "Black Swan" on us. It’s the same story, the same score, the same heartbreaking star-crossed love as the company presented back in 2006.
This time around, though, the swans are going to look a little more ... human.
"There’s a different kind of thinking behind (the costumes) in that they are short dresses," says Krista Allenstein, assistant wardrobe mistress for the Milwaukee Ballet Company. "They (the swans) become human at night and that’s when you see them dancing, so they’re actually going to look more human. (The costumes) are very pretty, very delicate. They have the same bodices as tutus but the dancers are going to look like swans, like they’ve been out there in the wilderness."
The Milwaukee Ballet clarified the different kinds of tutus for us. The most common are pancake and bell tutus (think Sugar Plum Fairy), but a more "romantic" design - reminiscent of a fuller skirt - will be used for "Swan Lake." While still technically a tutu, it's a less traditional look.
"Because we’re not wearing your classical tutu, it does help blur the difference between the fact that these women are women for part of their lives and swans for part of their lives," says Valerie Harmon, who shares the role of Odette with fellow dancer Luz San Miguel.
"They are not the traditional tutus but they have some bird-like elements. They’re actually very beautiful and they’ll show movement and lines and bodies very well, and that is one of the most fun things."
However, the infamous Black Swan, Odile, gets to keep her tutu. "Her role is different," says Allenstein. "It’s to seduce the prince, so she has to look pretty fabulous."
Not that Odette, the white swan, and her cohort of cursed friends won’t be looking fabulous. In fact, says Harmon, the re-imagined costume helps her to prepare for a role that calls for intense emotion and a lot of acting.
"That’s the part that’s so rewarding, and it’s also something that can be different every single time," she says. "It’s part of what makes it special and part of what helps you get beyond just the steps. Sometimes the steps will go great and sometimes they won’t, but there is so much more you have to get across. You have to make the audience want to be right there with you the whole time."
Regarded, says Milwaukee Ballet’s artistic director Michael Pink, as "the quintessential ballet," "Swan Lake" tells the story of Odette, a princess cursed by a sorcerer and doomed to spend her days as a swan, only to turn back into a woman every night. The spell can only be broken by – what else? – true love.
"It’s the same storyline. There’s some of the same very iconic pieces in it, like the black swan pas de deux. But the white swan pas de deux, for instance, is Michael’s version," says Harmon. "And throughout the story there’s what I would call an element of additional humanity. So even as far as what the girls’ movements are doing, it’s very ‘Swan Lake,’ but they’ve also made it look like these are real people dancing. And that’s something that carries throughout the work."
"Swan Lake" will be the last Milwaukee Ballet Company production of longtime wardrobe mistress Mary Belle Potter, to whom all performances are dedicated. Potter has worked at the company for 40 years, and as wardrobe mistress maintains the inventory of costumes. She will be succeeded by Allenstein.
"The whole year has been, for me, preparing for Mary Belle’s leaving...the last ‘Nutcracker’ was really emotional. It’s been a lot of ‘lasts,’" says Allenstein. "She’s an amazing person; I’ve worked with her for four years now, and they’ve been great. I learned more from her than I learned in college."
Now Allenstein will be tasked with the "massive" undertaking of keeping the racks and racks of costumes performance-ready. The Milwaukee Ballet Company houses thousands of costumes and accessories in the basement of their headquarters on 5th and National Avenues. It’s a tantalizing sight for any lover of fashion, dance or art. The company frequently loans out pieces of inventory to other companies around the country.
"We have a lot of people that rent our ‘Stars and Stripes’ costumes. We have ‘Peter Pan.’ We have a lovely Cinderella that will go out. ‘La Boheme’ will eventually be rented," says Allenstein.
"So that’s part of what the last four years have been – her introducing me to all the different shows – where they are, who runs what, what we use them for, what’s done, what isn’t done. And everything’s kept track in binders that are separated by artistic director."
Allenstein is confident in the future, and says that Potter "won’t be too far away" to answer some of the "zillions of questions" she will inevitably have for her mentor.
And as for those tutu-less swans? She thinks they’ll be just fine, too.
"I welcome change," she says. "Anything that’s new and interesting keeps pieces alive. I mean, this is an old production, so anything that can change a little bit, I think, is welcome. There’s some people that will want to see tutus on everyone. But it’s not going to happen ... but they’re still going to be swans!"
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