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Costume designer puts together recipe for enchantment

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2002

As one who traffics in enchantment, it's appropriate that Zack Brown's book of costume designs for "The New Nutcracker" has the look and heft of a sorcerer's book of spells.

The tome lies open in the costume shop at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District. Fabric swatches are pinned on each page: scraps of paisley, brocade, silk, metallics, wool, cotton, Spandex and taffeta. Each page also features a full-length watercolor sketch by Brown of each character: a toy soldier, a glowering Mouse King, even an anthropomorphic bumblebee and sheep.

It looks like the kind of Victorian fairy-tale book that inspired songs by the Beatles and Pink Floyd.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre costumier Janet Campbell is queen of this psychedelic sewing circle. She is supervising the making of 110 of the 210 new costumes at the Ballet, for which she hired eight extra seamstresses. She's also riding herd on 11 other shops from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., that are making additional costumes and props such as animal heads, rocking horses and flowers for the Arabians.

This is the first time she has worked with Brown, who designed scenery and costumes for the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of "On Your Town," as well as "Nutcrackers" for the Milwaukee Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

"You're sort of trying to feel your way through and get things done, but do what he wants because it's his vision," she says.

Campbell embarked on a similar odyssey more than a decade ago, when she assisted designer Peter Farmer in building the previous "Nutcracker."

Campbell has the kind of dedication — OK, obsession — that causes her to bring her work on vacation. Safe to say, she recently was the only person in Bermuda working on a wool kilt.

"It's a little warm in Bermuda to be working on wool," she jokes.

The kilt is the ancient Carnegie tartan. It appears in the first act of "Nutcracker," when one of the guests does the Highland Fling.

Campbell must wrestle with problems that most of us never will encounter, such as adding a free thumb to the hooves of the white sheep costumes that will be worn by children.

And each costume comes with its own checklist.

"We'll have to fit them and label them. Then, we'll have to decide: What will they wear underneath• Do they wear socks• Do they wear leotards• How will we clean them• How will we fit them from one person to another?"

Such matters find their way into Campbell's dreams, where problems often are solved. One night, for example, Campbell's dreams were besieged by scampering mice, dancing snowflakes and, of course, the Sugar Plum Fairy. It's often here that the solution to some problem presents itself, she says.

"When you're building a ballet of this magnitude, you really get into it," she says. "I do most of my thinking on the drive to and from work. The most important ideas tend to come at five in the morning. That must be my bewitching hour."

'The New Nutcracker'


  • Presented by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
  • Dec. 7 through 29.
  • $10 to $66.
  • Benedum Center, Downtown.
  • (412) 456-6666 or www.pbt.org .

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