Studio Visit: Marc Happel
Meet NYCB's Director of Costumes
October 3, 2022,
Nestled in the Rose Building on New York City Ballet’s Lincoln Center campus, not far from rehearsal studios where Company dancers train and perfect their craft every day, is the costume shop. A fine couture house, a textile museum, and a dressing room all rolled into one, it’s a space that sees performers, choreographers, fashion designers, and many shoppers, stitchers, and drapers pass through its buzzing, light-filled rooms on a daily basis. NYCB’s notoriously complex performance periods, chock full of repertory favorites from throughout the Company’s history as well as newly-choreographed premieres, require the dedicated mastery of many to appear onstage in all their finely-costumed glory.
Overseeing this work—from the realization of full-fledged costumes based on designs, to the fitting of each tutu to its wearer, to the repairs required to revive a classic ballet’s look, to the recreation of costumes that haven’t seen the stage in decades—is Director of Costumes Marc Happel. Following the Swarovski-studded 10th Anniversary Fall Fashion Gala, Happel and his talented team are preparing for the final weeks of the fall and another busy run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®; we caught up with him to find out more about his essential role with the Company.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Please tell us about your background and what led you to dance costuming.
I started out at a very young age, working at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota—a repertory theater that at that time was thought of as one of the greatest repertory theaters in the country. It was started by a group of British artists, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and so on, that came to the United States and weirdly enough created this amazing repertory theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But it was a place that if you got into it, it kind of opened doors for you wherever you went; I came to New York and if you mentioned the fact that you had worked at the Guthrie, they basically said, “You're hired.”
I came to New York because a friend of mine was working on a production of Bob Fosse’s last musical, called Dancin’, for Broadway, and the shop was in trouble. They needed help. I came here to help them out and I stayed, and from there I went on to run my own costume business, Marc Happel Limited. Once I decided that running a business in New York City was a really complicated, hard thing to do, and not being a great businessman—I just did not enjoy it—I went to Barbara Matera Ltd., which was arguably—at the time, it no longer exists—one of the greatest costume shops ever. Barbara Matera was an amazing costume technician and I have to say that as a mentor, she is someone that even though I came to her with a great knowledge of costuming and costume-making and designing, she was someone that really took her knowledge and passed it on to me in many ways. Coincidentally, she also ran New York City Ballet’s costume shop part-time for a while. She unbelievably did both—ran her own business and ran the New York City Ballet costume shop, and I could never quite figure out how she was doing both. But in any case she was a great mentor for me.
When she died—she passed away just a few days after 9/11—I decided to leave that company, because as is many times the case when the person whose name is on the door of a business passes away, it changes in many ways—and it did. So the Metropolitan Opera called me and asked me if I'd be interested in coming to work there, which I did. It was a great choice to go there. It was another place where I learned a great deal about costume-making. There, it's a whole different thing—[costume-making] for opera singers, and it's all about their throat and that's the whole issue. You're always working on how to create something that they can sing in. You are also many times working within the challenge of, how do you make a man who is maybe in his 50s and is a very large man look like he is a young prince. Those are the kinds of challenges that I love doing, and it was sometimes frustrating, but sometimes very rewarding.
At that point, suddenly, Ken Tabachnick, who was the then-General Manager of New York City Ballet, called me and asked me if I would be interested in interviewing for the job of director of costumes here. This came about because Carole Divet-Harting, who is an ex-dancer here and was at that time the assistant to the director of costumes, had mentioned to [then-Ballet Master in Chief] Peter Martins that I might be somebody that would be interested. I've always been very thankful to her because after three weeks of interviewing, I jumped from one theater here in Lincoln Center to another, and became the director of costumes, which has been, again, one of the best moves I've ever made. Although I did not have a great dance background, I had done a lot of dance costumes with Barbara Matera. She was a great admirer of both American Ballet Theatre and of course New York City Ballet, so we did a lot of dance costumes during the 10 years I was there. So, I then came here, and I've been here now for 16 years. It's been an amazing 16 years. The last couple of years have been a real challenge, of course, as we all know, and I feel like we're constantly here working in the costume shop—it’s a challenge because we can't do our jobs from home, we have to be here. It's something that I think takes a lot out of you. It's changed the way costume-making happens now, it's not as easy as it was, but we're making it happen.
Please describe the role of the director of costumes as you see it.
I think the two biggest parts of being the director of costumes here is one, to make our dancers as comfortable and as happy with the way they look as possible. It's all about making them feel that when they go on stage, they don't have to think about the costume they have on—I don't want them to think about that. My hope is that it’s all about the choreography and their performance onstage, and not the fact that the costume is uncomfortable in any way. I'm also always thinking about proportion with dancers; they're all different, and a costume that Barbara Karinska—who is also another one of my great mentors, even though I never met her and she had passed away long before I came here, I am thankful to her amazing costume design and how she created costumes daily—but many times the costumes that she designed for certain ballets don't work with modern proportions. So a lot of what I have to do when the dancers come into the fitting room—and with them, because I always want to take their thoughts and their feelings about their own bodies and how things look and what they look like onstage into consideration—is tweak a costume to make it work on them. And that can be the smallest little thing, but that small detail, that small change, makes it work better on their body and makes them happier, which is what I want in the end: a happy dancer.
The other thing that I think is a big part of my job is to maintain the look of ballets here at New York City Ballet. And that's two-fold. It’s partly to create new costumes for a ballet that was done in, say, 1968, that hopefully still looks like that ballet when it premiered in 1968—with tweaks and changes for modern dancers. But when that curtain goes up, it still looks like the Diamonds that premiered when it first opened, for example. So that's a big part of my job. The other part of my job in that design world is that I work with designers that are designing costumes for new ballets, and I help bring their vision to life. And somehow I think I'm the person that makes their design vision a reality. It takes it from a two-dimensional drawing on a piece of paper to a three-dimensional costume, and makes it work on our dancers.
What are some particularly challenging or interesting costumes or works that stand out in your memory?
Challenging, for me, is every season, because we do these seasons that are so varied, and we are constantly bringing ballets back that have not been done in a while. It's always a challenge when a ballet has been sitting in storage for years and suddenly comes back and we're putting it on new dancers, or it's maybe not been worn or cared for for years, and it's something that we now have to freshen up, put on new dancers, alter in some way, in many times rebuild or rebuild parts of, because color has faded or material is no longer what it was.
Many of our Fall Fashion Galas stand out for me because of the fashion designers that they have afforded me to meet. One of my all time highlights was going to Antwerp to meet Dries Van Noten to work with him on a Justin Peck ballet [The Dreamers, 2016]. He has always been, for me, one of the designers that's at the top. I just find him to be an incredible designer. And suddenly I was flying to Antwerp to meet him to talk about this ballet—that was the highlight.
Another interesting work was Kyle Abraham's The Runaway and working with Giles Deacon [on their first Fashion Gala collaboration, in 2018]. I thought those clothes were incredibly interesting in their design, and the way Deacon took a basic black and white print, and we did repeats of it, and printed it on many different fabrics that we then made these various silhouettes out of—that was incredible. It had period references that I thought were quite amazing, and mixed it all together in a way that really works.
They also allow me to work with people in the costume industry that I have been friends with or worked with for many, many years. In that case I worked with a man named Jean Miñola who prints fabric. He's done a lot of work for me here; he digitally prints fabric and he's an incredible artist. And it affords me the chance to work with someone like that again and keep them going, in a way.
How has the costume shop changed throughout your tenure?
I think that the costume shop has changed in a way that has modernized it, I always hope in a way that hasn't really changed the output; for instance, we're in different periods of time where financially we have to find ways to do costumes in a more economical way. We can't always do everything by hand, we can't always do this kind of costume-making that is so labor intensive—our labor budgets would be through the roof. I think it’s a very strong suit of mine that I am able to look at a project and think about it in a way that we can do it in an economical way, but a way that still looks as beautiful as it might have had it all been done by hand. And that's something an audience hopefully will not see. I think that I've been pretty successful at that.
I've also changed the kinds of artisans that are here in the shop, I brought in people that are younger. We've been successful at teaching them how to make these costumes, how to make tutus in the way that they are made here at New York City Ballet, or teaching them how to make leotards the way they are made here, that our dancers love, and hopefully creating a new person that knows how we make costumes—and keeping them on board so they stay with us for many years, because you want to create a workshop of people that know how to do what we do so well here. And I think that also includes the fact that I recognize that some of the people have been here in the shop for 25 or 30 years and knew Karinska, and I keep them on board because those people are valuable. Yes, you want to bring in young people that you want to hopefully move into the future with, but you also want to keep these people with you at your side that know how to do these kinds of costumes because they've been doing it for 30 years—and they're so valuable to me.
I have to say in my 16 years here, I've seen a real turnover. That is something that you worry about at times, when you see people go away. We've had a lot of people leave—and a lot of people that have been here for many years. I think it changes the Company, and I've watched the dancers change in a lot of ways. I’ve watched our roster of dancers change and that's always interesting. I mean, young dancers come in and you see things—maybe they bring an excitement to a ballet that maybe wasn't there before. So it's a little of both, there's a positive and a negative to it all.
And I don't like seeing some of the dancers retire. You're sorry to see them go. But at the same time, I'm standing on stage right, and I'm watching a new ballet—I watched Chun Wai Chan dancing in a new ballet this fall and it was some of the most exciting dancing I've seen, and I marveled at his partnering and his technique, and it was beautiful, and I thought, “Okay, this is a part of my job that I love.” I love seeing these new dancers like him come into this Company and reinterpret ballets.
How do you think about Karinska’s legacy in relation to your work?
I often just marvel at Karinska’s subtle design choices that make such a difference onstage. Talking about Nutcracker, one example is the snow costumes, which I think most people just think are a blue romantic tutu, but when you get into it, her designs for romantic tutus were really incredible in that she would combine colors in the layers—romantic tutus are usually four to five layers. On the snow costumes, they’re a pale blue, a pink, another pale blue, a kind of beige color, and then a blue, so it's that combination that gives it this depth onstage. Another one that's kind of well-known for this is La Valse, in that those romantic tutus are a charcoal gray, but then there are these flashes of color—of bright oranges and yellows and pinks underneath, that when that ballet really takes off, those colors flash and are really exciting to see. That is one of the things that inspires me the most about her design.
In doing more and more research on Karinska, I found out more and more about her and her approach to design. She didn't like to dye fabrics because she felt that fabrics that were dyed lost their character onstage. That for us is very hard now, because of course the color palettes for ballets and the fabrics for ballets from during her period no longer exist, the color palettes have changed from the fifties and sixties and seventies, even. Now we no longer have access to many of those, so we end up having to dye them. But it's something I always take into consideration when we are recreating her ballets.
We’ve just celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Fall Fashion Gala with four strikingly-costumed ballets, two of which were world premieres. Please tell us about the beginnings of the Gala.
In 2012, [Vice Chair, NYCB Board of Directors] Sarah Jessica Parker came to me with the idea of inviting fashion designers to work with choreographers that had been commissioned to make new ballets for our Fall Gala. This was at a time when New York’s Fashion Week had moved from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center. It turned out to be a very exciting first Fall Fashion Gala, as Peter Martins invited his friend Valentino to design the entire evening. For me this was an incredible period as I had always had great respect for Valentino, being a true icon of the fashion world. It took me back to a period when I once considered, as a a young gay man in NY in the early ‘80s, going into the business of fashion.
I come from a very theatrical background, where costumes inform an audience when that curtain goes up as to who that character is, where they are, what period of time they’re in, and so on. When you come to City Ballet, there's this great debate about costumes and dance. That's why many audience members that are true ballet fanatics love our Black & White works because it's ballet at its essence, because it's just black and white leotards and tights. It amuses me because people say, “Well, there weren't any costumes,” and it's like, no, that was an actual design choice that was made, that Balanchine or Karinska agreed upon—”Yes, black and white, that's what it should be.” So those are costumes.
But then there are people that say that with our Fall Fashion Gala, the costumes get in the way or they distract from the choreography. I feel like many times the costumes bring another element to the ballet that many audience members love. A fine example where the costumes are very important to the ballet is Justin Peck’s Paz de La Jolla [with costume designs by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung], because when that curtain came up, all of the dancers were in these costumes from another period that were inspired by Southern California beachwear. When the curtain went up, it let you know who those dancers were, and where they were. Another one is [Mauro] Bigonzetti’s Oltremare because, I did that with him, and we were inspired by immigrants on the Lower East Side—all of the dancers were dressed in costumes that were based on actual photographs from that period of time. So when that curtain went up, it told you who those dancers were, and then the choreography began.
Don't get me wrong, Jewels is, I think, brilliant in its costuming, as are the Black & White ballets. I love them. I can't think of those ballets being done in anything else but black and white leotards and tights. It's perfection. But then, can you see Jewels being done in black and white tights and leotards? No, it would not be the same ballet. It's all very well thought-out, and it is a costume that has been very meticulously designed.
Can you describe your role in the Fall Fashion Gala—how does it differ from the rest of a typical season, and has it changed over the years?
I don’t feel it has really changed much over the years. As Sarah Jessica Parker, who initially worked with the choreographers to choose their designers, has had to step away somewhat because of other commitments, I have been much more front and center with these choices. I was once told that my role in the Fall Fashion Gala was like the glue which holds it all together. I work very closely with all the designers and choreographers, overseeing the production of all costumes, fittings, and dress rehearsals. I feel I am very responsible for making sure that through whatever changes and compromises have to be made, the designer’s design aesthetic is still very visible.
Reflecting on the last 10 years of the Fall Fashion Gala has been somewhat overwhelming, when I look back at the work that the NYCB Costume Shop has produced working with 30 top-level fashion designers. They have all in their way created memories that I will always have. And many of the designers have kept in touch, which I am very happy about. It has always been a thrill for me to see them watch their ideas come to life on the stage of the Koch Theatre.
Was there anything you were particularly excited about, or were there any unique challenges the shop faced with this year’s designs?
This year’s designers, Giles Deacon and Alejandro Palomo, have been a dream to work with. Giles, this being his second Fall Fashion Gala, knew the ropes immediately, and we have again had a wonderful time working together. Alejandro came up with a design concept using Swarovski crystals which has been quite challenging, but in the end very successful, I think. And the Swarovski team made it incredibly easy as far as supplying the almost 800,000 crystals needed. I worked very closely with Swarovski on the redesign of Symphony in C in 2012 with amazing results, and for this year they were once again so generous in helping us realize Alejandro’s design concept.
I am constantly excited about the new ballets that come in, especially when a new designer comes in that I have not worked with before. My biggest hope is that designers keep coming to NYCB with designs that push the boundaries of what ballet costuming can be. It keeps my job interesting, challenging, and by all means never boring.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
The one thing I want to say is that many times, I think our society encourages people to think it comes down to one person—they think, ”The costumes at New York City Ballet are because of Marc Happel, the director of costumes.” The one thing that's so important to me is that I am surrounded by an amazing group of artisans here in the costume shop, people who have honed their abilities to make costumes to such a degree that it's just perfection. I've also been able to gain a trust from the people that have been here for 25 or 30 years, like Regina Abayev, Olga Saprikina, that were here long before me, and when I came on board were kind of like, “Who is this?” And over the years I have been able to gain their trust so that we can continue to create these beautiful costumes. And Marie, my dyer, Joseph, my shopper and assistant, these people are the ones that with guidance from me are coming up with incredible solutions to things—Marie, with dying, just does magic. She did an incredible job with the clothes for the last Fall Gala just in her dying and painting. So it's these people that I have surrounded myself with, and our incredible wardrobe staff. Many people don't realize that what is also so important about all of this is the fact that you have a wardrobe staff, and a shoe department, and a hair and makeup department, that I manage as well. And all these people are so integral to getting these ballets onstage that I couldn't do any of it without them. It would be impossible.