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“Look aristocratic,” choreographer Brian Reeder calls out to the costumed dance troupe gathered around him in the American Ballet Theatre’s rehearsal studio in the Flatiron District. A few girls are milling about in gauzy ruffled tops and pouf skirts. The guys look like they just stepped out of a cartoon version of a Fragonard painting. The ballet, based on the life of Marie Antoinette, finally makes its New York debut today at the 1.2.3. Festival at the Joyce Theater. But on this particular Thursday in early April, it’s all about the dress rehearsal, with emphasis on the word “dress.” Reeder approaches one dancer and helpfully pops up his collar. “Aristocratic,” he repeats, “and not so 1978 ‘Eyes of Laura Mars.'”
Chances are, no one save “Cake” composer Karen LeFrak, who’s standing at the sidelines, will catch the reference to the Seventies flick starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones. The oldest dancer here is 20 years old. But the message to ABT’s junior company here is clear: In this ballet, the clothes matter.
And, indeed, a few moments into the rehearsal, the mood shifts as designer Charles Nolan arrives with missing costumes and props. The girls are given their frothy — and slightly panniered — frocks, befitting their roles as part of the Queens’ royal court. Nolan also hands out cone-shaped tulle hats, by theatrical milliner Roxanna Ramseur, meant to mimic 18th-century piled-high updos. “Each one had to be adjusted to the dancer’s hairline,” Nolan notes.
“Cake” marks the second collaboration between Nolan and the ABT. Two years ago, he partnered with choreographer Sean Curran to dress his dancers in “Aria,” set to music by Georg Friedrich Handel. But this ballet is more of a challenge. “‘Aria’ was about sound and movement. Curran just needed his dancers not to be naked,” he says. “Here, the costumes have to tell a tale — Marie Antoinette, the French court, the Sheep Meadow. And I had to make sure that they could dance in them.” Thus, there are armholes in each ruffled and ruched dress so the girls “are able to do all the lifts and stretches they need,” he says. “And the netting in the skirts is industrial mesh, not crinoline netting.”
And all of it, Nolan adds, had to be done on the cheap, given the ABT’s limited budget. Take the boys’ costumes, for instance. The breeches are American Apparel jeans cut off below the knee while the vests, also from American Apparel, are T-shirts appliquéd with trompe l’oeil buttons and buttonholes. Meanwhile, the four prop babies, he says with a laugh, “my sister got at Costco.”