House of Karinska

How a Russian defector built couture fashion from ballet costumes during the rise of New York City Ballet

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Barbara Karinska. (Photo courtesy of Holly Hynes.)

Chanel. Gucci. Givenchy. These famous fashion houses earned notoriety for their signature styles, making their designs easily recognizable – the Chanel suit, the Gucci bag, the Givenchy dress.

In the golden age of American ballet, during the times of Agnes deMille and George Balanchine, one woman rose to the top of her field, making and designing dance costumes that combined form, function and artistry to create ballet’s line of couture. However, no one called it that at the time; the garments were still “just” costumes – but history, and the designers who came after, recognized right away that something special happened at the hands of this woman.

Barbara Karinska created fashions in ballet that are as easy to spot as a Chanel suit. Though her name may not precede her designs (there’s no “Karinska tutu” or “Karinska leotard”), once you know what she did, you start seeing her every time you look at classic New York City Ballet dances.

Born in the Ukraine as Varvara Andryevna Zmoudsky in 1886 to upper-class privilege, Karinska learned the skills of that class, including intricate embroidery. She studied law and volunteered in a women’s prison, eventually marrying a newspaper editor. When he died prematurely of typhus, Karinska assumed his post at the paper, a bold and shocking move for a woman at the turn of the century. With her eye on the bubbling political climate that would lead to the Russian Revolution, Karinska closed the paper and set up an embroidery shop in Moscow, meeting her second husband, Nicholas Karinsky, a government official. When the Bolsheviks seized power, Nicholas fled, leaving Karinska and their daughter in Moscow.

Interesting side note: Karinska assumed Nicholas died while on the run. She never knew that he drove a taxi in New York for 20 years.

The above photograph of Karinska’s original costume for Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony records volumes of American ballet history in just one image. You can make out “Karinska, New York” on the label and the names of two superstar NYCB ballerinas who donned this costume. Karinska designed the costume for Balanchine muse Maria Tallchief in 1952, and we can see that the final muse of his storied career, Suzanne Farrell, wore this piece when she performed Scotch Symphony. Her successor, Kyra Nichols, stepped into the tutu after Farrell retired. The stark contrast between the frayed label and the almost pristine condition of the costume around it displays the impeccable construction of Karinska’s work. Also, Nichols’ principal partner was our very own Philip Neal, the artistic director of the Patel Conservatory’s Next Generation Ballet.

Eventually, the communists offered Karinska a position in the government as the Commisar of Museums. She accepted the post, convinced the Bolsheviks she needed to further educate herself in Germany, then grabbed her daughter and orphaned nephew and escaped to Belgium. She sewed the last of the family jewels in her daughter’s clothes. The refugees eventually found a life in Paris, with Karinska setting up a small sewing shop. She earned a few cabaret commissions, creating a small reputation for herself.

That reputation was about to go global, however: in 1931, the artistic director of Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo – a gentleman named George Balanchine – commissioned Karinska to make the costumes for his upcoming ballet, Cotillion. She agreed. Thus began a relationship that would dominate the ballet costume landscape until 1983, the year she and Balanchine passed away six months apart.

“I think there was a love thing there,” says Holly Hynes, the award-winning designer who took over the NYCB costume shop two years after Karinska’s death. “I mean, not a romantic relationship. He had plenty of wives and ballerinas, but I think Karinska was head over heels for Mr. B. Balanchine, I think, loved stories about Karinska and loved when there was some conflict in the costume shop. He’d have to go calm her down, pat her hand.”

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Holly Hynes. (Photo: Rosalie O’Connor)

Hynes, who came on the scene with NYCB during the reign of Jerome Robbins, inherited Karinska’s house – the elite NYCB costume shop full of original costumes, Russians and other assorted people virulently loyal to Barbara Karinska. In her 20s and a native of Des Moines, Iowa, without a single word of Russian in her vocabulary, Hynes had a rather large tutu to fill. In time, she earned the respect of the costume makers and picked up enough Russian to impress a cocktail party,

“I started to totally respect Karinska,” Hynes says. “She was many things. She was an unbelievable ballet costume designer. She went to Hollywood to work with Ingrid Bergman on Joan of Arc and won an Oscar®. She did clothes for burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. She was a maker, she was a designer and she also was someone who was so good at interpreting somebody else’s design. Balanchine would bring in artists to collaborate with her on costume designs. One of the artists was Marc Chagall to talk about shapes and colors. Karinska knew how to make what the artist saw.”

With the costume patterns being secrets guarded as closely as Cold War intel to prevent theft, Hynes discovered the dressmakers’ notes impossible to decipher. “The draper [person who keeps the patterns and cuts the cloth] was Russian but understood Polish and could speak English and French beautifully,” says Hynes. “She would use all four languages and a combination of the languages on her notes so that nobody could read her pattern. It was like Morse code.”

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Details of Karinska’s designs for Western Symphony, exclusive from the “costume bible” of Karinska’s successor at NYCB, Holly Hynes.

Hynes unraveled the mystery of Karinka’s designs the old-fashioned way – she took them apart. “This art form is dying back, so I feel grateful that I got to have that experience to take old Karinskas – stockings, bodices, skirts, tunics or whatever – and examine why patterns were done a certain way, or why she chose to have the workmen do it a certain way. She was a genius, a sculptor of soft fabric.”

For costume design, and ballet costumes in particular, Karinska’s genius lay within her deep understanding of ballet as a whole. “She didn’t just draw or pin stuff on a mannequin,” says Hynes. “She went to the theater. She watched from the house. She stood back and looked at stuff in fittings. She studied how different lighting affected different colors and fabrics. She got a sense of what the audience would see and what the dancers would see looking down at themselves. She was all-encompassing.”

From this perspective, Karinska was able to make and design a few revolutionary changes that are common in ballet today. “She realized dancers have to breathe. The corsets were tight because they were the same as dress corsets. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the tightest part was over the ribs. She cut fabric on the bias [diagonal] which allows the fabric to give,” says Hynes. This one small, ingenious idea allowed ballerinas to have tight bodices and the ability to take deep breaths. Seems impossible it ever would have been another way, right? Credit Karinska.

Straz staff and volunteers working on the Western Symphony costumes, on loan from Miami City Ballet whose costumers re-created Karinska’s original work, for Next Generation Ballet’s Pirates and Cowboys.

“Another Karinska signature was the creation of the ‘powder-puff tutu.’ The skirts have a droop,” Hynes says. Prior to Karinska, classical tutus – ‘pancake’ tutus – shot straight out, encircling the dancer’s waist like a frisbee. If the tutus collided onstage, the skirts tilted upwards, a look both unbecoming and silly. Because Balanchine’s early dancers were thicker with muscles in the thighs and buttocks plus his choreography was so bustling, Karinska developed a new, softer style of tutu that appeared to hug the hips.

Western Symphony, Balanchine’s “cowboy and saloon girl” ballet being performed by Next Generation Ballet this May, showcases this powder-puff tutu design, possibly in its greatest form.

Another example of the powder-puff tutu design.

“When I got to New York City Ballet in ’85, the Western Symphony tutus had never been cleaned,” Hynes says. “They were ripe. And they’d been hanging in wardrobe for 10 years, so they were full of dust. I’m looking closely, and I’m thinking we can take the skirts off the bodices and wash them. We did, and oh my god. Those tutus were beautiful. There’s a ruched-up ribbon that goes around the whole ruffle, and it’s very lightweight. Called ribbonzene. Somebody told me there were no renderings for Western Symphony, Karinska hired a person to come in and just ruche up hundreds and hundreds of yards of this ribbon. The workroom people told me there would be four-foot-high piles of ruched-up ribbon. I can’t swear this is true, but in their memories, this person ruched ribbon for a month. Then quit.”

The use of ribbonzene represents another Karinska trademark – the use of unexpected, lightweight materials to keep the dancers decorated but unencumbered. “There’s a trim called horsehair,” says Hynes. “They would use it traditionally in the ballet world inside a headpiece. It takes dye, so you could color it the color of a dancer’s hair then sew it in a hat. You’d pin the horsehair to your hair and not hurt the hat. Karinska wondered what it would look like under the lights and started experimenting. You can twist it and knot it, make bows out of it and all this other fun stuff. It really reads [from the stage], but weighs absolutely nothing.”

A look inside our costume shop at the Western Symphony costumes on loan from Miami City Ballet.

Karinska, unlike the other designers before her, changed yoke colors on the costume to give dancers a figure. The yoke, that band around the top part of the skirt, matched the bodice or skirt before Karinska. “She would do a bodice that’s lime green maybe. Then she has a colorful combination of net in the skirt that would be black and gray and magenta and turquoise. Then she would make the yoke a mink brown color. It didn’t match anybody,” Hynes says. “You go, ‘well, doesn’t that break up the line of the dancer?’ But it was like putting a belt on somebody; it immediately gave you this hourglass figure. It was so beautiful and so risk-taking.”

Karinska’s designs come to life when Next Generation Ballet performs their spring concert this weekend. The Western Symphony costumes are on loan from Miami City Ballet, whose costumers re-created Karinska’s original work for Balanchine. Pirates and Cowboys: Le Corsaire & Western Symphony appears in Ferguson Hall May 11 and 12.

Big Hair Care

Just in time for Tosca, Opera Tampa’s Emmy®-winning hair designer divulges trade secrets about one of the great characters in opera—the wig.

Dawn Rivard’s impressive résumé of hairstyling and wigbuilding gigs spans from the ‘90s television series Animorphs to this year’s breakaway series The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s worked on the major motion reboots of Total Recall and Carrie as well as made-for-TV movies and several well-recognized films from big Hollywood studios. We know and love Dawn as our hair and makeup designer for Opera Tampa, where she oversees, art directs and supplies superior care for the sublime pièce de résistance of any great opera costume, the wig.

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Dawn Rivard, wig/hair and makeup designer for Opera Tampa.

Caught in the Act: Tell us a little bit about what exactly you do. Would you walk us through a typical job for an Emmy®-winning hair/wig designer?

Dawn Rivard: What I do depends on the contract. There is NO “typical.” I get requested by any number of people like a director, costume designer or technical director because they have a need for a wig or hair or makeup person. It’s my job to figure out how to solve the job’s requirements at the highest level, keeping in mind the built-in restrictions like resources, time or geographic differences. Some jobs are a request for a custom fit wig for a rental, but I can’t do the fittings. In those cases, someone local sends me head measurements and other design references. I put together a wig and send it, crossing my fingers that they have someone good to address the million variables that come up with a wig.

Renate Leuschner, an iconic Hollywood wig builder, taught me years ago you can have a beautiful wig that fits amazing, but if someone doesn’t know how to put it on, you’d never know it’s beautiful and amazing.

Other contracts, like Opera Tampa, require someone who does wigs, hair and makeup design—and has a wig stock. For companies that have full time in-house wig and makeup departments, there is someone who is head makeup artist, but he or she is not the department head, and another person is lead chorus wig stylist . . . so, each job can be more specialized with larger companies. At Opera Tampa, each crew member has to be well rounded and highly skilled since there are only 3+ stylists to get the whole show done. When a basic leading lady pre-show prep is 30 minutes, a male takes 20 minutes and a character makeup is 40 minutes, that time really adds up on big shows.

A wig and makeup designer has to be able to come in and design the show around what your local crew can do or what you can show them to do in a very short amount of time.  This is not like a tour situation where the show is already built and established and all mapped out.

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Wigs for Opera Tampa’s production of Romeo and Juliet line the dressing room.

CITA: When you work with Opera Tampa, how many wigs are you making per production, and do you have to repair/re-make wigs during the show? During the run? Must you custom-make the wig to fit the performer or can you make a standard sized wig and alter it?

DR: It takes at least a week to fully make one wig. Since Opera Tampa’s schedule does not allow enough time to make a wig, I need to show up with enough already made stock so I have something for everyone.  My rule is for every one wig the audience sees on stage, I have brought at least three so I can pick the best fit and look. I do not travel light.

Often, even though I over pack wigs, there is still something I don’t have that I want. So, that’s when I purchase a wig locally and re-front it to fit the singer.  For La Cenerentola, that was Tisbe’s two wigs. What I had for Robyn Rocklein [who performed Tisbe], I wasn’t happy with, so I went on a search for something I could alter to fit her and better suit the style of the show.

CITA: How long does one wig take to create from start to finish?  What is the one tool you can’t do without?

DR: The pat answer to make a wig is one week, but that can vary greatly. The longer the hair on the wig, the more time it takes to knot it. The larger the head size, the more time it takes. The curlier the hair, the longer it takes.

For doing wigs/ hair and makeup, there are a handful of tools that are invaluable. Three crafts is expensive to supply! If we don’t have the basics for all three crafts, your production quality is noticeably less. I have lots of support from companies like Dermalogica, Cover FX, Smashbox and Hask hair.

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Dawn getting Tisbe ready for an Opera Tampa dress rehearsal of La Cenerentola.

CITA: What happens to the wigs when the production closes? Do they get re-purposed or retired?

DR: All the wigs get the hairstyles taken apart and get washed and dried.  They go back in a box and sorted for the next shows. Some get reused more than others due to color or size. Good quality wigs that are taken care of properly never really retire. I have some wigs that I started with 25 years ago.

CITA: How did you end up in this profession, and is there one wig or one production that stands as your favorite (or most memorable for whatever reason)?

DR: I worked in window display and liked everything in my windows except the wigs. I went on a hunt to find someone who could teach me wigs and that led me to The Canadian Opera Company who, back then, had a year-long apprenticeship program.  They took four students a year, and you did classes and worked on shows pretty much seven days a week. When I finished the apprenticeship, they offered me one of the two assistant jobs. I did that job for two more years, and they allowed me to keep studying in the classes with the new apprentices as long as my show work got done. So, I essentially did a three year apprenticeship while working full time for not a lot of money, but I loved every second of it. Then I went on to work in musical theater—then film and TV work.

Of course you always remember the really horrible experiences, like working outside all night in the freezing cold on a film shoot or when you’re sure you’re going to send a wig on stage that you hate because you just didn’t figure it out yet. There are the performers who were truly difficult so I spent every ounce of energy trying to make the best outcome. Then there are the ones who are just so professional that your job doesn’t feel like work at all.

There is no shortage of new experiences. And, after 25 years, I feel like I might be getting pretty good at what I’m doing.

See Dawn’s work in Tosca. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, you can do that here.

An Incredible Sound Feeling

The fascinating story of acoustics in Morsani Hall

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“…The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood….” – Mike Chamoun, director of production services at The Straz, on the acoustically-designed elements of Morsani Hall.

Next time you take in a concert or opera in Morsani Hall, also take in the acoustical secrets that hide in plain sight–the doors, the interior chambers between the lobby and the hall, and the cavity at the top of the theater. All of them work in their own orchestra of acoustic perfection that makes an evening in Morsani Hall one of unforgettable, incredible sound.

Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Straz Center, and you will find design marvels camouflaged as everyday objects: a seat back, a bare floor, a slightly-discolored seam separating Morsani Hall from Ferguson Hall.

These seemingly insignificant – or merely decorative – details belie the meticulous planning that started the moment a world-class performing arts center became a reality for Tampa.

“The people involved in conceiving the Straz Center wanted the best,” says Mike Chamoun, director of production services and veteran of The Straz since the day it opened. “They were very clear in their desire to deliver the very best performing arts center possible. So, they got the best.”

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Russell Johnson, part of the original team of planners for our performing arts center in Tampa, revolutionized the quality of sound in hundreds of concert halls all over the world.

In the case of acoustical design, the best was Artec Industries, led by famed acoustician Russell Johnson, whose inspiring creativity forged some of the world’s most celebrated modern performing arts venues. Johnson, who died at 83 in 2007, joined the original team of planners and designers tasked with creating a state-of-the-art modern facility for Tampa.

Johnson and the Artec team planned the sound capabilities of the mainstage concert hall around the classic European design, knowing that the hall would host grand opera and the multi-tonal needs of full symphony orchestras. They included a foam “acoustical seam” to be incorporated in the foundation of the building and running up through the walls between Morsani and Ferguson so that sound would absorb in the foam seam before leaking into the other concert hall, contaminating the performances. This detail explains why audiences at the Carolina Chocolate Drops show in Ferguson Hall cannot hear the thunderous applause of the audience next door in Morsani at the end of the Itzhak Perlman concert.

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A view from the stage in Morsani Hall. (Photo by Rob Harris)

“Even down to the bricks,” Chamoun adds. “Construction sand was poured into the three holes of every single brick laid to make this hall.” The sand prevents sound from circling inside the holes and dissipating. In fact, the driving concept was to hold the energy of the sound inside the hall, engulfing audiences inside the sound, giving them the sensation of sitting with the musicians or the musicians sitting among them.

“The whole room is the orchestra. There is no typical ‘shell’ on stage that has to be moved, as you find with most multi-purpose halls. The acoustical shell is the hall itself,” Chamoun says. “There is no carpeting to dampen the sound. The curtains hanging up can retract to the attic or come down to dampen the echo for amplified shows. Wood is the best acoustical background for sound, so that is why the seats are wood. As you move up the tiers, the seat backs get taller to capture sound properly and keep patrons in the proper posture for best listening capability.”

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The sound canopy – or cloud – suspended above the audience in Morsani Hall.

The crowning glory in Morsani Hall usually goes unnoticed by audiences: the 18-panel acoustical canopy, or cloud, suspended over the audiences’ heads. The panels adjust to fine-tune the hall for the specific performance: opera has different acoustic needs than a cellist and accompanist or a Broadway show. “The canopy changes the sound image,” says Chamoun. “The entire design creates an incredible sound feeling that is rarely matched anywhere else in the world.”

In the professional performing arts world, the acoustical purity of Morsani Hall garnered a reputation that precedes it. “We’re one of the largest theaters in the country,” Chamoun says, “and we hear all the time about how coming to perform here is like going on vacation. It’s a luxury hall but it’s accessible to everyone. The very best seats for music are in the third tier, that’s where the best sound collects thanks to these acoustics.”