Last May we covered the new swimwear line that costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, otherwise known as Reid & Harriet Design, created based on Justin Peck costumes. The duo, known for their work with top companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Miami City Ballet, are just as skilled at creating whimsical yet streamlined costumes as they are at rethinking the role that design plays in dance. "Designers are often seen as filling a need verse creating art," says Bartelme, noting that he and Jung often feel that they're at the very bottom of the production totem pole. This fall, the twosome have taken matters into their own hands. As Resident Fellows at New York University's Center for Ballet and the Arts, Bartelme and Jung are taking a different approach to creating a ballet: starting with the designs.
Bartelme and Jung equate this to the early 20th century model used by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, where the composer, choreographer and designer had equal importance, contributing to the gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." Productions by the Ballets Russes featured designs by Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel and Henri Matisse.
Last week Bartelme and Jung presented their work in an informal seminar at CBA. They chose to work with The Nutcracker—seasonally appropriate, yes, but also the country's most-performed ballet. In addition to the role of designer and director, Jung and Bartelme acted as dramaturges for their production, delving deep into the storied ballet's history from page to stage. Rather than look at the way that companies interpret The Nutcracker today, they looked to the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and the later interpretation by Alexandre Dumas for inspiration. The result? A Nutcracker unlike any we've ever seen.
Jung and Bartelme's Nutcracker is set in the 1950s. Why? It has a clear aesthetic as well as strong conservative conventions for Marie to rebel against in the second act. First off we see Marie's family at their Christmas gathering. Smaller than the conventional Nutcracker party scene, this intimate celebration aligns more closely to Hoffmann's tale. Marie is set downstage in a simple blue dress, which the designers compare to the blue dresses worn by Alice in Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—two other young, storybook women who feel confined by their respective societies and so escape to magical lands.
Other details to note are the gilded owl clock on the wall, a detail included in Hoffmann's story, as well as the 1950s style cherry jello mold on the center of the table which will soon open up to expose a world within, Bartelme and Jung's replacement for the classic dollhouse.
Here we get a glimpse inside the cherry palace, which the designers modeled off the palace in Disney's Cinderella (released in 1950). Drosselmeier, in his yellow suit and glass wig (details from Hoffmann), stands out among the cherry people.
The mermaid and cabbage dolls in the center were inspired by the original stage notes. Bartelme and Jung's design for the mermaid doll came from the mermaid used in1950s advertisements for Chicken of the Sea tuna fish.
The detailing on Bartelme and Jung's mouse costumes are based on Queen Elizabeth's mid-century regalia; they've even named their head mice Elizabeth and Philip.
The Nutcracker himself is designed after one of the most popular toys in the 1950s: Mr. Potato Head. His violet suit and green miner's cap come from Hoffmann's descriptions.
Bartelme and Jung's Land of Sweets opens with a waltz of powdered sugar crystals instead of snow. Unlike traditional Nutcrackers, these costumes, like all to come in the land of sweets, are unisex. Reid and Bartelme see the magical land of the ballet's second act as a representation of freedom and creativity, where the restraints of society—including gender norms—are done away with.
This is seen most clearly with the Dragée Fairy. Rather than sugar plums, according to Bartelme and Jung, the candy that the Sugarplum Fairy is named for in the original story are dragées, a hard Jordan Almond-like delicacy. The designers took dragée to the next level—drag. Their lead fairy can be danced on or off pointe by either a man or a woman.
Bartelme and Jung's versions of the divertissements come from Hoffmann and Dumas' original descriptions. Instead of Chocolate, they'll have "basins of whipped cream." Do we sense a little competition with Ratmansky?
Hoffmann's "silver swans with gold-banded necks" will replace what is usually known as Coffee or Arabian.
According to Jung, in the Hoffmann story Marie is described as being served a meal on Japanese porcelain. So Jung found a porcelain pattern from the Edo period in Japan and recreated it on these costumes. "They're just tea cups, inanimate objects, instead of a caricature of a culture," she says.
Unlike most of their descriptions, the replacement for Russian or Trepak comes from a line by Dumas; "gigantic brioches."
Bartelme and Jung felt that the Mother Ginger figure had become stale (no pun intended), and instead chose to use a type of gingerbread cookies that Hoffmann describes called springerle. Figures dressed in medieval garb will pop out of the cookies.
Here we have the finale of the Land of Sweets, which Bartelme and Jung call the Dragée Cave. Alongside Japanese Tea, Whipped Cream, Gigantic Brioches and others are Pearl Headed Emerald Pages (a replacement for Balanchine's child angels), a Candied Pear and a Poppy. Adjacent to the Dragée Fairy is Jung and Bartelme's replacement for the Dewdrop Fairy—the Lily of the Valley Fairy.
For Bartelme and Jung, the final pas de deux will become a pas de trois between Marie (we love her modern pant pajamas), the Dragée Fairy and the Nutcracker. In their version, Marie chooses to stay in the land of sweets and live an unconventional life.