When Gilles Mendel took on the task of designing the costumes for “Call Me Ben,” he didn’t do so on his own. He had the help of Marc Happel, director of New York City Ballet’s costume shop, who made sure Mendel’s garments were up to theatrical code. “Designers are used to seeing things in a fitting room, on a runway, up close,” says Happel, a design veteran of both Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera House. “Many times I take [the costumes] and stand at the end of a hallway and say, ‘OK, what you’re looking at is Row A. Most everyone else is going to be even farther away.’ You have to understand that a lot of the small details get lost. They have to be far more bold.”
In fact, two of Jenifer Ringer’s three costume changes had to be redone once the dancers entered rehearsals. “Gilles created this beautiful asymmetric black and gold lamé dress,” recalls Happel, “but we discovered that in movement, it didn’t work. It was too fitted on one side.” The new version, pictured here on the left, features nearly 25 yards of cascading mousseline, with the asymmetry now on the shoulders. Her tweed pencil skirt, shown at right, was turned into a wrap skirt to allow for those kicks and soaring legs; it’s paired with a cape jacket, which lets the arms move more, too.
Similarly, while Mendel’s resort dresses come equipped with rigorously constructed bustiers, their stage counterparts do not. “Boning is very uncomfortable for our dancers,” explains Happel. “Instead, the bodices are structured around this amazing stretch net from this company in Germany called Klaus Schreck. Onstage, that net disappears and all you see is the draping and pleating on the body.
“The amount of work involved here,” he adds, “it’s like re-creating a small Hollywood musical in the guise of a ballet.”