Fiendish Conversation

The Stories Behind Maurice Sendak's 'Nutcracker' Designs

The longtime PNB costumer Mark Zappone shares stories of Maurice Sendak and the man's iconic Nutcracker designs.

By Seth Sommerfeld December 3, 2014

Mark Zappone

After 31 years and hundreds of performances, Pacific Northwest Ballet has begun its farewell to Kent Stowell and Maurice Sendak’s Nutcracker. The bold and imaginative costumes and set design dreamt up by Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are, has given Seattle a Nutcracker unlike any other for decades, and Mark Zappone has been in PNB's costume shop from the start. Beginning his tenure as costume shop supervisor in 1983, Zappone got to know Sendak and see the man's creative spark firsthand. After working abroad for a handful of years, he returned to the PNB costume shop where he currently works as the ballet's draper and assists with designs. He's already begun work helping PNB prepare for its new interation of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker coming in 2015, but he'll always have a soft spot for Sendak and his artistic vision.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Zappone about the hurried rush of the cotumes' inital creation, his relationship with Sendak, and the new The Nutcracker costumes coming in 2015.

What memories do you have from the initial creation of Maurice Sendak’s Nutcracker costumes?

I don't have any memories. I obliterated all of them. (Laughs) I'm kidding. Of course I have some great memories. Actually, it was one of my first big jobs with Pacific Northwest Ballet. I had just started with them when I was in my early twenties, and I didn't know a lot about everything.

The main thing that I do remember is that it was very late in getting started. I think that maybe even the contract for the costumes to actually be started might have been as late as October 31st or something like that. A famous costume woman named Sandra Woodall—who was in charge of the San Francisco Ballet and worked for PNB, but she had her costume shop in San Francisco—she was going to be the one in charge of producing the costumes for Nutcracker at that point. We were just too young and just starting up in the costume shop here, we certainly didn't have the capabilities of doing such a large show at that point. Now, of course, it's a different story. But at that point, Sandra Woodall took that on. I remember she ended up having to divide some of those costumes out to work with a costume shop in New York which was called Grace Costumes. They probably did over half the costumes, and then Sandra did the ones that she was really fond of. She was sad that she couldn't do all of them, but the timing was just incredibly short, as you can imagine. I do you remember Sandra coming the night before opening night, flying back up from San Francisco, and sitting in the opera house in the back seats, in the back rows, still sewing on Clara's tutu. It was an incredible stress and pressure for her and her shop, but they definitely came through.

Originally, I was in charge of our small shop in Seattle. I remember specifically one weekend I measured every child that was going to be in the Nutcracker. So that was like… I dunno… two straight days of just measuring little kids to get that started, then sending that information to Sandra. And then as it went along, little by little, the costumes would eventually start to trickle in. It was like Christmas. (Laughs) Opening up the boxes and seeing Maurice’s incredibly beautiful sketches come to life. And then we would open them up and throw them on the dancers immediately for a rehearsal; Kent (Stowell) would be rehearsing the new Nutcracker at that point. We would take them up and say, “Okay, here’s this group, let’s try those on and see how they work and what we need to do to fix them.” Because that first time there was no real, official fittings. It wasn’t like the whole costumes came from New York and they tried them on and took them back and finished them there. That would be how that would normally work, but there was no time. They came finished with their names in them, with the measurements we had given them, and then we worked out whatever large or little kinks were needed once they were in Seattle.

So that was a big leap of faith for those costume people, making them in New York and San Francisco without really getting them on the dancers, which is quite a feat. I do remember Sandra coming specifically though to try on the Clara tutu which, you may or may not know, is the same tutu as the one the Doll wears in the first act. Clara sees her at her party and she grows up and wants to be her, and so that's the costume she ends up wearing. And at that point in time there was only one tutu. So Clara actually did wear the same costume as the girl wore in the first act. Sometimes we would air that out (laughs) or rinse it out and blow dry it or whatever just to get it ready for the next girl to wear it. But now, of course, there's nine or ten of them, so that doesn't happen again. But originally, it was quite a big deal coming to try to fit three or four girls in just one tutu. However, in ballet, that is always our saving grace: that there is such a large group of people that are quite similar in sizes. I don’t know if you’ve might’ve ever seen the back of a snowflake costumes in the Nutcracker now, but there are hooks and eyes that go up the back of the costume. There might be one row of hooks, but there might be ten rows of eyes, meaning that a variety of girls can wear that. You just keep hooking tighter or looser. So especially when there’s a core of 16 snowflakes, you only can afford to do 16 costumes, so it adjusts for a number of girls.

I do remember an account of the Moors costumes for Act II. Maurice’s design had the women in quite billowy pants. So we ripped them out of the box, threw them on the girls upstairs in the studios, and Kent started rehearsing the Moors. And one by one, the girls got their legs stuck in those pants and—boom—hit the floor, all six of them. It was like, Oh my God, what are we going to do about that one?” They ended up, for years, twisting the legs in their costumes and making a little tuck here and there. It was a rite of passage; if you were going to do the Moors, don’t forget to twist your pants around so you wont get stuck in them.

We in Seattle were busy making mice unitards and mice gloves and the small accessory pieces that we could do. As I said, we were quite a small group at that point. We were redoing the horses, the horses actually from the old production but we re-covered them, and stylized them into Maurice’s color scheme. There were many times when we would question the color. We always looked at his sketches, because as an illustrator, color and shapes were his most important thing. So we ended up saying “Oh, that’s a Maurice blue” or “Oh, that’s a Maurice lavender.” It was always slightly muted out or slightly grayed out. He really enjoyed those softer tones. So we ended up spening a lot of time just redoing the horses, which at that point seemed like such a small part of the whole show, but we really stuck to switching them around to the right shades of Maurice blue. So that was kind of wonderful to be able to do that for him.

Working with Maurice himself was an incredible joy and pleasure. Up until he passed away, I would give him a call every year, especially on openings of Nutcracker, just to see how he was doing. I stayed in touch with him over the years, and he was an incredibly generous man with his talents and with his time. I remember specifically he said to us as he was presenting his sketches and turning them over to people to make them, he said, “Well, this is my work. I’ve done my work. My work is to draw them how I see and how I envision them, and to color them as I would as an illustrator. And now I will turn it over to you, and it’s your job to bring them to life. And I will trust and follow your intuition. You are the artist now. I’m leaving it in good hands with you guys.” So that was wonderful, just the way that he—not gave it up—but instilled that inspiration into the people who were actually making the costumes for him.

To this day some of the original costumes are still in the production. The gray coat that Drosselmeyer wears in Act I is still the same coat that he wore over 30 years ago. And it still has the tags, it says Grace Costumes, in it with the original dancer’s name in it.

Do you have a personal favorite design or costume in the show?

The Peacock is one of the ones everyone really enjoys the most, just because the cleverness of it and the soft colors and the way the dancer performs in it. I also like the Commedia women in Act II, their diagonally patchworked together costumes were always beautiful the way they moved and also the color scheme in those.

I have to say, Maurice’s sets are always—to this day—overwhelming and enthralling and enhancing when you see the curtain go up. I think the costumes were very harmonious with the sets, they never really punched out totally; that wasn't his thing. It was more about seeing it as a page in a book where everything was quite harmonious.

How far along are you in the process of creating the costumes for next year's The Nutcracker?

It’s amazing that we are starting a year, almost a year and a half, in advance when literally there was three months when the first one was built. We’ve met the costume shop group headed by Larae Hascall, who runs the costume shop. She actually was my assistant back in those days, and then when I left to go abroad she took over and has been there since. And it has been a joy that she has welcomed me back when I came back to Seattle again.

We’ve met with Ian Falconer twice already in the costume shop, and he, again, is a children's book illustrator. And thatt was one of the things about Maurice, he was a children's book illustrator. Designing costumes was not his first thing, so that’s what I mean when I say he depended on the people who were in that field to help him along. And I believe that’s the same way that Ian feels at this point also. His sketches are, again, very much like an illustration concentrating on shape and color. Color is very, very important to him (in these costumes) as in his books. We spend a lot of time now too to find the right shade of this and that and what fabrics will work, trying to update things. Ian too has come in and showed his trust. He is happy to work with people that have been around and did the originals. What are we trying to say this time? And how can we make these as important as the other ones are?

Of course, I don't think anyone thinks we will do something that will be here for 30 years. Back when we first did it, we never thought that in a million years. However, now we are building costumes like, “Oh wait a minute, maybe we have to find something a little stronger because it might last 30 years.” (Laughs)

I have to tell you, a couple of years ago when I did call Maurice, one of the last times before he passed away, on opening night of the Nutcracker here. “Hello Maurice. I’m out in the lobby and the show is about to start.” And he goes, (loud mildly cantankerous voice) "Oh my God, you guys are still doing that?!" (Laughs) It was just interesting because it’s like… I feel like he would be like he would be saying let's move on, let's have the next illustrator have his hand at it.

What happens to all of the costumes now that PNB is moving on to a different Nutcracker?

First of all, at the end of this show they'll go back to the dry cleaners. (Laughs) And then they'll be ready for their next legacy. I don't feel like this was ever intended to be the end of this Nutcracker, it's just moving on somewhere else perhaps. 

With this run coming to an end, what do you see as the importance and legacy of Stowell and Sendak's Nutcracker for Seattle and for PNB?

I think it's like a rare gift. It's like the ownership of something that you've had for a long time; a tradition. And then there is the joy of starting a new tradition, as we did then 30 years ago. Starting a new tradition with a new Nutcracker. There’s a thrill in that, calling it your own.

It was always a collaboration. This was our Nutcracker as a group: everybody working on it, everybody dancing, everybody choreographing, and everybody designing it. It really was a beautiful group effort. There was a moment taking that beautiful initial bow on stage, when Maurice was most generous to include everybody, he tried to call everybody who had worked on the show to come out on stage with the dancers at the end. It was quite beautiful. What always stands out with me for Nutcracker was the joy and pleasure of working with Maurice Sendak on the most humanistic level possible.

That tradition is still there, we still hold it in our hearts.

Stowell and Sendak's Nutcracker
Thru Dec 28, McCaw Hall, $25–$146

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