Recreating the Nutcracker, one stitch at a time

Ballet Minnesota’s dancers are impressive to watch on stage, but just as impressive is the work of the seamstresses who ensure their costumes are ready for the annual production of Nutcracker.

A single performance of the holiday show involves 130 dancers and upwards of 230 costumes. All of these costumes are designed by Ballet Minnesota’s co-founder Cheryl Rist.

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25 years ago Ballet Minnesota performed its first production of Nutcracker to an audience of 200. Now it plays annually to an audience of more than 10,000. Photo by Dave Trayer

Executive Director Cynthia Betz says the costumes are a huge asset to the production.

“Even though this is the ‘traditional’ Nutcracker production, there are lively things that occur in this company’s version that are specific to the costumes and choreography,” explains Betz. “Every single thing in the first act foreshadows what’s going to happen in the second act, and that’s supported heavily by the costumes.”

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Ballet Minnesota co-founder Cheryl Rist holds up the costume for the Sugar Plum Fairy, which she wore 25 years ago in the company’s first production of Nutcracker. Each year the lace has to be cleaned with tiny brushes in order to avoid damaging the velvet.

MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

For example, Clara’s mother’s dress (seen up top) is reminiscent of a candy cane when she twirls in the first act. That effect is exaggerated in the costume of Madame Ginger in the second act. The masks worn by the adults in a waltz in the first act – Russian, Chinese, snowy, flowery – all reference dances performed in the second act.

“It’s just like when you see or feel something in real life then it shows up exaggerated in a dream,” says Ballet Minnesota’s School Director Cheryl Rist.

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The costume for Rose in ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ – seen up close, and on stage – has endured 25 years.

Left: MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Right: Photo by David Trayer

In order to keep costs manageable, the company pays close attention to the cleaning and maintenance of its massive collection of costumes and props.

Starting in September, volunteers gather at Ballet Minnesota’s headquarters in the Jax building in downtown Saint Paul for “sewing Sundays” to help with preparations. Rips are repaired, sequins are replaced, and rhinestones are brightened using alcohol applied with a toothbrush.

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Lisa Gray, who serves as both a costume assistant and the President of the company’s board, works on one of the costumes for the snowflakes.

MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Many of the costumes are dry cleaned every year, a process for which all decorative jewels must be removed. Sometimes a new tutu needs to be made, a process which takes a full week (there are 42 tutus worn in Nutcracker). The Sugar Plum Fairy’s tutu alone involves 14 layers of tulle.

After the Nutcracker performances have ended, Cheryl Rist takes home those costumes that don’t need to be dry cleaned and washes them in a bathtub, or on the hand-wash cycle in the washing machine.

Thanks to this vigilance, several of the original costumes are still in use 25 years later.

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Julia Swee, who dances the part of an angel in this year’s Nutcracker, works on her ballet moves. Ballet Minnesota’s Nutcracker is choreographed by Cheryl Rist’s husband, Andrew Rist.

MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Ballet Minnesota is not just a performance company; it’s also a school, and the annual production of Nutcracker is an opportunity to get the more than 200 students performing before a live audience.

To make that happen, many of the parts are danced by different students each night. That means every day the seamstresses need to refit the costumes to a different body, in addition to handling any damage that occurs to the costumes during the run of the show. They work long days in a costume shop in the basement of the O’Shaughnessy that dwarfs the stage above it.

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The inside elastic of the costume for the Reed Flute boasts a string of 19 names of dancers who have performed the role.

Photo by Carolyn Will

Over the years the costumes have become an important part of Ballet Minnesota’s history. Dancers recognize they are taking their place in a long line of Claras, snowflakes and fairies, and to mark the moment they write their names in the elastic waistbands.

Thanks to the care of the seamstresses and their many helpers, dancers will have the opportunity to add their names for years to come.