Dressing the part for ‘Quixote’

October 6, 2011
Chicago Sun Times
Hedy Weiss

Dressing the part for ‘Quixote’

When it came time to select a costume designer for “Don Quixote,” the Joffrey Ballet’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, simply looked right through the door of the company’s costume shop and tapped Travis Halsey.

Now in his third season with the Joffrey, where he bears the title of “first assistant to Marianne Marks, head of wardrobe,” Halsey, 30, grew up in a tiny farming town in South Dakota where his mom teaches visual artists and educators, and where his dad, who works in the prison system, is an expert landscaper and gardener.

He arrived in Chicago with a long list of credits in theater and dance, having worked with the Omaha The­atre Ballet and the Houston Ballet. He also has designed outfits for ice skaters and gained recognition as a skilled maker of ballet tutus, an art he teaches.

But crafting the nearly 70 separate costumes required for “Don Quixote” (a total of 100 pieces because of the multiple casting of many roles) has been “a huge challenge and a great honor.”

“I owe everything to my staff of 13 stitchers,” said Halsey, “and to the amazing team of volunteers, wonderful people who have been doing much of the beadwork on the matadors’ outfits.

“Yuri [Possokhov] said he wanted the ballet to be colorful, playful, fun and clever. I started by making collages, with the realistic costumes in earthy browns and greens and charcoals, and then the more colorful fantasy outfits with bright colors I took from the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and other sources.”

Then it was off to New York’s fabric shops — first to collect swatches, and then to spend a whirlwind two days shopping for every piece of fabric used in the ballet, including two miles of netting for the tutus.

While sweat, makeup and wear-and-tear are factored into the choice of fabrics, Halsey says “coutil,” a super-strong cotton material used for corsets, lines every costume and is the key to preventing the ripping of chiffon. (About 124 yards of chiffon is used in each Spanish dancer’s richly ruffled yet lighter-than-air skirt, with added embellishment in the form of air-brush-painted details.)

“We also wash every fabric first to make sure it holds up to that, too,” said Halsey.

And what’s next for the designer?

“We’re making all new costumes for the Waltz of the Flowers section of ‘The Nutcracker.’ ”