A plum assignment for Joffrey's costume team

December 12, 2010
Chicago Tribune
Dawn Rhodes


It's 8 a.m. on a frigid Tuesday, and wardrobe assistant Travis Halsey is already hard at work. He has been measuring and cutting fabric at the Joffrey Tower in the Loop for an hour before his boss, department head Marianne Marks, arrives at the building's third-floor workspace.

Any day for the Joffrey Ballet wardrobe team is hectic and painstaking, but this one particularly so. The team has little time to make a new Sugar Plum Fairy costume for the weekend premiere of "The Nutcracker." Joffrey dancers typically rotate roles and share outfits — Yumelia Garcia will portray the character in Friday's premiere; Victoria Jaiani will dance in the role on Saturday and most frequently throughout the show's run — but the wardrobe team has decided it would be practical to make a second costume exclusively for Jaiani, 25. In eight hours, Marks, Halsey and lead stitcher Lavinia Morozan must stitch the bodice, make the sleeves and create the 12-layer tutu — the last task alone normally is given 40 hours of labor.

Halsey begins work on the tutu by drawing rounded (scalloped) edges on pieces of white, nylon netting. After the strips are cut and pieced together, 10 yards of fabric will add up to more than 90 yards of tutu. Marks sits at another table, cutting a piece of bobbinet to make the undergarment that attaches to the tutu.

8:30 a.m.: Morozan arrives, greets Marks' 18-month-old son, Russ, who is playing on the floor, then joins Halsey at the workbench to cut the netting.

"Half of the process is just prepping all the pieces," Halsey explains. "We do everything we can with the machine first."

9 a.m.: Morozan, whom Halsey calls "the queen of sewing," carefully feeds the nylon through a ruffling machine, scrunching straight strips of fabric into elegant waves. Halsey stands at the workbench cutting pink bobbinet for the sleeves, and Marks stitches the bobbinet undergarment. Russ demands to sit on his mom's lap. Admittedly, Marks has been on the road for two weeks so he hasn't seen much of her lately. She obliges, instructs him to sit still and cradles him in her left arm as she leans over the machine and continues working.

The studio's big window faces north and offers a view of the Chicago Theatre's wall. There isn't enough natural light, so the three compensate with small lamps and permanent Christmas lights. Past costumes hang on a rack, mounds of fabric stretch across tables and photos hang on the walls. They work without drama to the sound of oldies playing on the radio.

"We're a pretty laid-back bunch," Halsey says. "We gossip."

Noon: The first sign of trouble arises. Morozan is attaching tutu layers to the undergarment when it somehow gets wrapped around the table and stuck. She eventually frees the tangled mess, but one piece has ripped. Halsey assesses it and matter-of-factly tells her to remove and replace that section. She gets back to work unfazed and unpanicked.

"A few years ago, I would have gotten really worked up, but now it doesn't matter," Halsey explains, "because we can fix any problem there is."

After Morozan attaches the first few rows of ruffles, she and Marks each start stitching half of the bodice. Halsey has to stop working on the sleeves to complete the increasingly unruly tutu.

"As it gets bigger, Travis will take over because you need more —" Morozan squeezes her biceps "— guns!"

1:45 p.m.: All the layers are attached and Halsey enjoys two dumplings from their Chinese takeout "as my reward." He then steams the puff of nylon layers, flattening it to a manageable size.

2:30 p.m.: After hours of toil on the minute details, the costume's shape becomes evident. The tutu is done, Halsey is putting lace on the sleeves, and Marks and Morozan are finishing their halves of the bodice.

3 p.m.: The final stretch: Halsey and Morozan hand-sew every couple of inches of nylon together to secure the tutu. Marks connects the halves of the bodice. A half-hour later, Marks and Halsey switch places so he can attach the sleeves to the top.

Just before 4 p.m.: At their predetermined quitting time, they fit a mannequin with the pieces and step back to assess their work.

"Tutu in a day!" Halsey declares. "Well, almost."

"It's actually pretty, in a Sugar Plum-y way," Marks says.

The dress form is considerably bigger than Jaiani, which makes Halsey a bit nervous.

"This will fit Victoria, right?" he asks.