Sixty-seven costumes, 110 yards of Italian tulle, and 44 dancers will grace New York City Ballet’s stage at its gala Thursday, where the company will debut its first rendition of the historic ballet “La Sylphide,” by the late Danish choreographer August Bournonville.
The ballet was created in 1832 for the Paris Opera Ballet, but was rejigged by Bournonville for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1836. Despite its age, the repertoire is regularly danced on the stages of internationally renowned companies, including the Bolshoi and Mariinsky.
“La Sylphide” follows the harrowing tale of a Scottish poet named James who is conflicted about getting married. He is drawn away from his bride by a magic woodland sylph, only to have a seemingly feminist-inclined witch make his indiscretion known to his fiancée Effie. The witch later seeks revenge for James’s pre-marital affair by leading him to unknowingly destroy the fairy.
Ballet-master-in-chief Peter Martins previously staged “La Sylphide” at the Pennsylvania Ballet in the Eighties, but has not attempted the performance during his 32-year tenure heading up New York City Ballet. Not looking to do it alone, Martins has enlisted Susan Tammany, his “La Sylphide” collaborator from his Pennsylvania years, to design the production’s sets and costumes.
Tammany, a painter who also works part-time as a stage-right usher at the David Koch Theater (the company’s Manhattan home), revisited the designs she created for Martins in 1985 from memory because her original works were lost in a fire.
“We had to start over again,” Tammany explained during a particularly buzzy day at the company’s costume shop, where dancers were filing in and out for fittings between rehearsals. “I changed a lot of the costumes and made a lot of their colors symbolic.”
The beauty of “La Sylphide’s” costuming scheme lies in the stark contrast between its human characters’ clan tartans and the sylphs’ fairytale romantic tutus – creating a visual division between the real and make-believe.
The sylph and her sisters’ diaphanous costumes, with a skirt created in three gradients of pink tulle, will be embellished with cream foliage-shaped appliqués. The principal sylph, played by Sterling Hyltin for the gala, will also sparkle with diminutive Swarovski crystals dotted throughout her tutu and bodice.
“It’s very 19th-century, what I’ve done [for the Sylph],” Tammany said.
While audiences most associate the romantic tutu costumes with a “La Sylphide” production, it’s the clans’ tartan ensembles that require the most man hours and logistics to pull off.
Marc Happel, the ballet’s costume shop director, who is charged with helping Tammany execute her vision, had to specially commission tartan factories in Scotland to create the fabrics for the performance. When initially sourcing textiles for the cast’s clans, Happel was hard-pressed to find the sheer yardage of tartan that the production required — let alone tartans that were available in both a lightweight version (for women’s dirndl skirts) and a heavier gauge (for men’s kilts).
“We had to find a company that deals in Scottish goods. They got us in touch with a company that would actually weave the tartans for us,” Happel said of the process, which was well under way during WWD’s visit, with tartan skirts and fairy wings being sutured and pressed en masse.
The clans’ kilts were all assembled in Scotland, but their billowing female counterparts are all the work of Happel and his costume shop artisans. Complete with an eyelet underskirt and ruffled shirt, the dress takes the shape of a traditional Austrian dance ensemble.
Now with her work on its way to completion, Tammany, who also painted the backdrop for the production, has one last objective to sort out before the gala: “What am I going to wear? I know what the dancers are wearing, but I haven’t had a chance to figure that out for myself.”