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Fabric of a dream
How much tulle does it take to make a sugarplum fairy float? We visit the City Ballet costume shop to find out.

Even in the age of digital animation, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker has maintained its reputation for eye-popping effects — most famously, an onstage snowstorm and a one-ton Christmas tree. But generations of starry-eyed children have been equally captivated by the ethereal costumes that Balanchine’s close collaborator Karinska dreamed up some 50 years ago for the New York City Ballet production, and which are still in use today.

One hundred and fifty different costumes appear onstage during a NYCB Nutcracker performance, and each one is an elaborate creation designed to create a particular visual impression. Those flickering sparkles emanating from the Dewdrop’s costume come from no less than 65 crystal briolettes. The Sugarplum Fairy’s tutu is made up of seven layers of tulle. The Candy Canes have 144 jingle bells apiece. And that huge skirt Mother Ginger wears — with room for eight children beneath it — is supported by a 40-foot metal frame that has to be lowered onto the dancer.

For the past 16 years, the survival of these creations has depended largely on Dottie Cummings, the wardrobe mistress at New York City Ballet. Cummings developed her finely tuned organizational skills during a career as a bank manager. Her task is enormous. Close to one hundred children appear in alternating Nutcracker casts, and every one of their costumes has an exact duplicate; each costume for the corps members and the principal dancers is replicated four times. Cummings and her staff are responsible for fitting, organizing, mending, cleaning, storing and preserving every one of them.

When we visit Cummings’s costume shop prior to the Nutcracker season, she’s sitting by a rack of dresses for the Snowflake Queens who dance during the ballet’s snowstorm (that’s 50 pounds of paper confetti falling onstage). “We start by pulling all the costumes out.” Cummings says in her British lilt. “We check for hooks, eyes, rips. Elastic is the bane of our existence. It dries out. Every costume has elastic in it, and it all has to be replaced.”

From the audience, the Snowflake Queens’ dresses look icy blue and white. Up close, they’re an artful blend of subtly colored tulles. Between each layer of skirt an occasional tiny flower or sequin adds a hint of glint, and beaded snowflakes on the blue bodices add to the sparkle.

Next, Cummings leads us into a huge storeroom below the orchestra pit, where all current costumes are kept — among them, dozens of toy-soldier uniforms and scores of Victorian party-girl dresses finished with lace, rosettes, sashes and bows, and pinned with brooches of NYCB founders Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine. Each piece is numbered and categorized by choreographer, ballet and dancer. Whenever one of these costumes wears out or is damaged, Cummings has to send it to one of 12 Russian seamstresses — her “golden hands,” as she calls them — to be replicated. It can take a worldwide search to find fabric that closely matches Karinska’s original selection.

We ask Cummings what words of wisdom she offers the kids before they don their costumes and take to the stage — don’t trip? “I always tell them to go to the bathroom,” she replies with the faintest hint of a smile.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is at the New York State Theater Nov 25 – Dec 30. See listings.