What Does It Take to Be a Ballet Company's Head of Wardrobe on Opening Night?

Ellie Cotey at work in The Joffrey Ballet's costume shop. Photo by Temur Suluashvili, Courtesy Joffrey.

Building a full-length ballet from scratch is an intense process. For the world premiere of Anna Karenina, a collaboration between The Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet, that meant original choreography by Yuri Possokhov, a brand-new score by Ilya Demutsky, costume and set designs by Tom Pye and lighting designs by David Finn.


The lavish ballet features upwards of 200 complete looks—and more than 800 individual costume pieces.

"In the Joffrey costume shop we have a team of six to nine people, but for a big production like Anna not everything is made in-house," says Ellie Cotey, head of wardrobe for The Joffrey Ballet. She estimates that about 50 people total were involved in the build. "It is always fun to build beautiful costumes, but making naturally restrictive 19th-century costumes work for dance can be difficult."

Nicole Ciapponi and ensemble in the brand-new costumesCheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey

Despite the challenges, Cotey's ballet experience has proved invaluable. "I started ballet (and sewing) when I was 4. Having that knowledge helps me understand what the dancers are doing and how the costumes need to function." Cotey kept a journal on the day of Anna Karenina's opening night in Chicago to share how the finishing touches came together after 13 months.

7:45 am: Alterations

"I arrive for an early start at the theater today because there are lots of notes and alterations to finish before the final dress rehearsal this afternoon. We are focusing on hemming the last few skirts and doing some tweaks to the quick-change rigging on Anna's costumes. I spend most of the morning sitting on the floor trimming petticoat netting."

12:30 pm: Prepping for Final Dress Rehearsal

"Notes are finished and we are back from lunch prepping for the dress rehearsal that starts soon. Several dancers come in with small costume requests that are added to the notes list. So far nothing huge, just added closures and hat tweaks."

1 pm: Testing Quick Changes

"During the dress rehearsals, I spend half the time in the house taking notes with the costume designer and half the time backstage overseeing the more challenging quick changes in case of emergency. This rehearsal goes really smoothly, and the quick rigging changes that we made earlier are successful improvements."

Alberto Velazquez and Victoria Jaiani

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey

5 pm: Dinner Break

"I step out for a quick dinner and to get some air. It's a bit of a chore to leave the theater today because snow boots and all the cold weather layers have to be put on."

6 pm: Pre-Show Costume Prep

"Back at the theater to get ready for the show. The wardrobe team puts out laundry, does repairs, steams and irons in preparation. I check to make sure everyone has what they need and do the pre-show prep for the magical quick-release costume."

7:30 pm: Curtain Up

"Seeing everything onstage on opening night is a huge sigh of relief! The curtain rises, and I make the rounds backstage throughout Act I to check on quick changes and presets. It's nice to be able to watch from the wings during the quieter moments."

8:35 pm: Mid-Show Repair

"Intermission is almost over and one of the guys comes in with ripped pants. I stitch them up in the wardrobe room before he has to go on. We will make sure to reinforce them before the next show. Sometimes the quick fixes are not the most beautiful."

Alberto Velazquez in Anna Karenina

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey

9:45 pm: Curtain Call and Laundry

"The show ends and everyone celebrates onstage! After costumes have all been put back in their places and laundry has been started, we head out for more celebrating and look forward to tomorrow's well deserved day off."

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