Behind the scenes at the Nutcracker, designer sews, pins, snaps, pulls, patches

Camille McClellan enjoyed performing on stage, but she later found success and happiness behind the curtain.
Published December 21 2018
Updated December 21 2018

Ballerinas in sweatpants and leotards and high, tight buns swarmed the dressing rooms with their cheekbones swabbed in pink blush and their backs ruler-straight. The girls bobby-pinned floppy hairbows and fastened beaded bodices and boys glued mustaches to upper lips, as Camille McClellan presided over it all with a green measuring tape draped around her neck.

There were still 40 minutes until curtain call for The Nutcracker dress rehearsal but a new crisis every 40 seconds.

“Miss Camille, the pink shoes aren’t on the rack,” said a timid ballerina in flannel, hovering in the wardrobe doorway.

“Miss Camille, I’m having some trouble with my costume,” said a sheepish boy in white tights.

“Miss Camille,” called a volunteer stuck on how to orchestrate a quick change.

Every question got a decisive response: I’ve got to get this done first. Put some shoes on, then come talk to me. It goes like this.

The smell of hairspray drifted and crowds of young dancers parted as McClellan strode through the back hallways of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The costume designer rifled through racks, double-checking the turtlenecks worn by little ones toddling around as jeweled eggs, flipping through the gauzy skirts of butterflies.

“Camille, Christina Johnson is looking for her soldier costume.”

“Camille, I hate to bother you.”

“OK, Walter’s pants, where are they?” McClellan sang to herself, training her focus. “OK. Right here.”

She bagged white gloves in mesh sacks and smoothed stickers onto costume tags to organize the wearers and showtimes. About 350 pieces, for 175 performers, across five shows, with four casts, made her job something like Tetris.

Patel Conservatory dancers kept lining up, half-dressed, barrettes broken, by the door of the room that held Tupperwares of tiaras.

The snow prince, Kim Cockrell, with a swoosh of brown hair, was confused by his costume. He looked down as McClellan snapped his burgundy ascot in place.

What could be fixed, she fixed. What couldn’t, got pinned, or delegated to helpers, but mostly things were fixed.

In all the chaos, she hoped to slip out into the theater for a moment, mainly to watch for loose strings and missing gloves, drooping fabric and knelt-on hems.

But she also wanted to sit in the dark and just watch the skirts spin.

***

She’d been lucky some seven or eight years ago to arrive at the Straz and find piles of expensive, hand-beaded silks. The costumes were thoughtful. They moved.

But each year of the Nutcracker requires new dresses, new repairs and dozens of fittings, to make the show look easy. It means McClellan spends hours running her hands through Jo-Ann’s fabrics for the right details — the long hang time of chiffon or the gold embroidery on pink satin to lengthen the hem of an old gown, so no one will know it wasn’t the original.

Her work has its tricks, like nets sewn into men’s beaded chestpieces, so they don’t scratch or snag on their partner. A machine can’t do what she does.

***

In the hallway, she picked up speed, holding a red jacket fluttering from a hanger — then stopped. She bent down. “Can I fix your bow?” she asked, and a child in a little tuxedo nodded.

She strode around a corner and into her dark workshop filled to the ceiling with racks of costumes from productions past. Within a minute, she had taken 3 inches out of the snow prince’s silver vest to tighten it up on his teenage frame and flipped the light switch off to go find him.

“Miss Camille, this is too big.”

“Is this right?”

“Miss Camille?”

She found the prince. Perfect fit. Then came Jordan Martinez, the snow king, in the metallic brocade tunic McClellan had made from scratch. The gleaming floral print struck her as romantic and masculine.

“Oh, my gosh, like armor,” called out Leivi Buga, one of McClellan’s helpers, and McClellan smiled.

An open door led to the dark wings of the stage and out went the call to silence cell phones. Soon, the strains of piped-in Tchaikovsky spilled out, to where McClellan stood fastening name tags inside the bulky, gray costumes to be worn by the soldier mice. She’d planned to do this at 5 p.m., and now it was 6:31, and near-quiet.

Onstage, McClellan knew the party scene, featuring a few dresses of her own creation, would be winding down. She’d had a jewelry box in mind when she sketched them, believing even party girls should feel as beautiful as the snow queen.

“I think I’m going to go step out into the house for a minute,” she told a dance manager.

But then — where was the rat king costume? She ferried the furry head and red boots backstage, then realized the mice needed their gray gloves set out, and soon, the party dancers were flooding back into the hallway, pink-cheeked and heaving.

“Miss Camille?” a helper called.

***

McClellan had learned to sew at age 6, watching her mother stitch suits for her father, helping by picking up pins and pressing fabric. She baled hay and mucked stalls on her family’s Alabama cattle farm, slipping away to sew wedding gowns for her Barbie and clothes for her horse.

She stood on stage for the first time in second grade, a gingerbread girl in a demo for the local university’s opera department. Something struck her as magical about the whole thing: We, the performers, entertain you.

In college, after years onstage, she was asked to do the costuming for a sci-fi operetta called Help, Help, the Globolinks! She affixed Christmas tree lights to the tips of the aliens’ gloves — it was the E.T. era, after all.

Even backstage, she still felt the applause was for her.

She learned the secrets of silhouettes, like how you can take a 1960s empire waist prom dress and make it into a Napoleonic period piece. She worked at the Dallas Ballet, doing Swan Lake, and a former Royal Ballet of London dancer taught her the guarded art of building tutus, how to gather 40 yards of tulle in more than a dozen tedious, even layers, so as not to knock a dancer off her turn.

***

Onstage, the Waltz of the Snowflakes would soon end, closing out the first act.

McClellan had to move.

She pushed through a heavy fire door, into the red-carpeted lobby of the Straz. Then she stepped into the majestic dark hall, its three tiers of balconies empty, and sank into a red velvet seat, hands in her lap.

Ballerinas in icy blue spun and leapt, the little ones glittering, the older ones lined in white fur.

McClellan leaned forward and put her hands on the seat in front of her. Snow began to fall from the rafters. The snow queen twirled in her white tutu. The prince in his refitted vest lifted a ballerina high.

There leapt the snow king in the jaunty jacket she’d crafted.

Snow came down harder, and the dancers lifted onto their toes, spinning in a flurry. The music swelled, and as the prince pushed a sleigh across the stage, the red curtain fell.

“Well, that was great,” said a man in the light booth.

McClellan stood, then turned toward the door.

“There’s a weird fit on that snow king jacket I gotta go work on,” she said.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

 

About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an Encounters, contact editor Maria Carrillo at mcarrillo@tampabay.com or call (727) 892-2301.

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