Chris Larson takes us behind the scenes of Nevada Ballet Theatre’s costume collection—and shows us how to get the look of the company’s latest production, Romeo & Juliet.
Beyond the artistry and athleticism of its dancers, one of ballet’s defining hallmarks is its costuming. And behind many of Nevada Ballet Theatre’s jaw-dropping ensembles is Chris Larson, the company’s wardrobe manager who singlehandedly oversees much of the visual presentation audiences encounter during shows like this weekend’s production of Romeo & Juliet.
Prior to arriving at NBT, Larson worked with Ballet West and the University of Utah’s dance department—both in Salt Lake City—but according to him, his infatuation with costuming actually started much earlier. “I was 15 when I started sewing,” he remembers. “My mother and I would do projects during the summer. We used to go to ghost towns, and we got a collection of old Western costumes and would dress up and take black-and-white photos. I realized I wanted to make my own costumes—authentic ones, instead of the 1970s prairie outfits we’d been dressing up in.”
Since those days, he’s moved on from sewing hoop skirts to making sure each NBT dancer shines on stage, a process that typically starts between two and four weeks prior to each show. And while he may not be crafting entirely original wardrobes for each production—doing so could cost a company as much as $1 million per ballet—his days leading up to performance dates are consumed with fittings, alterations, and putting his own unique spins on accessories, props, and finishing touches like hair and makeup styling.
We sat in on one of Larson’s Romeo & Juliet fittings just weeks before the show’s premiere. Designed by David Heuvel, the 25-plus-year-old costumes come from Tennessee’s Nashville Ballet but were originally created for Oregon Ballet Theatre when NBT’s current artistic director, James Canfield, first produced the Shakespearean ballet during his tenure at the Portland-based company. In the ballet world, it’s common (and economically efficient) for costumes to be passed among companies; to facilitate sharing, pieces typically are built to be adjustable and made from heavy upholstery-weight fabrics that can last decades if properly cared for.
Heuvel’s designs have weathered the years beautifully. Gauzy sheaths, puff-sleeved gowns, and even a leather jacket for Romeo (designer Sandra Woodall’s contribution to the collection) recall Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 cinematic interpretation of the classic text. “These costumes came to us pretty well put together because they’re James’s original costumes, and he’s not wanting something different,” Larson says. “I’m glad James is really involved and says what he wants.”
The few alterations Larson has made—including custom fitting headpieces and building faux bellies out of batting for the dancers playing the Nurse role—will be perfected in the two weeks leading up to the show. “Another thing people don’t think about,” he adds, “is that in ballet, we have to dye every pair of shoes the dancers wear. But you learn as you go—I’ve been at it now for 16 years, and each person I’ve worked with has taught me something new.”
Get the Look
Think a 16th-century classic couldn’t possibly have ties to 21st-century fashion? Think again. “Romeo & Juliet is known for being romantic—even the fabrics are romantic,” Larson explains. “Juliet specifically wears softer, more flowing clothing, which is perfect for spring and kind of bohemian.” This season, channel the fated Shakespearean protagonist in pieces like Zimmermann’s delicate linen blouse and gold statement accessories from Ileana Makri and Alexis Bittar.
Muse D’Ore gold crystal studded spur lace cuff, Alexis Bittar ($245). The Forum Shops at Caesars,702-862-4286
Looking to up the drama? Opt for a floor-length empire-waist gown from Anna Sui. “Fashion during Shakespeare’s time was about looking pregnant, and the empire waist fits into that look,” Larson says. “Women wanted to look fertile back then because sickness was so pervasive. Empire waists were huge in the 1990s, too, and we all know those are back in a big way right now.” Larson even recommends incorporating another ’90s throwback—chokers—into your look, like this one from Saint Laurent, plus a jeweled Miu Miu headband for added flair.