When a ballet dancer is performing a character — whether a sugar-plum fairy or a dying swan or a star-crossed lover — not everything about that character comes across in the dance moves.
“Sometimes you can’t make the character quite clear choreographically,” said David Heuvel, longtime costume designer for Ballet West. “If you want him [or her] to be sinister or evil, you can do that to an extent in movement, but it will never give you that total look unless you have a costume.”
For 31 years, Heuvel has been designing those costumes for Ballet West. He officially retired last August, but because of a delay induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the production he considers “kind of like my swan song” runs Feb. 11-19 — a production of the tragic romance “Romeo & Juliet.”
As Heuvel explains it, creating costumes for a ballet is a lengthy process — taking six to eight months under normal conditions, and even longer during the pandemic.
“You usually start with the choreographer or whoever is staging the ballet and find out what their needs are and what they intend it to look like,” he said. “In those big classical ballets, like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Swan Lake,’ there’s a definite character, and a definite look that the choreographers want for that character.”
The next step, he said, is digging into period research, to make sure the costumes fit the era of the story. He’s also looking to see what movement different fabrics will provide.
“The fabric has to speak to me,” Heuvel said, carefully. “I need to know the weight and the look and the texture.”
Heuvel said that he has always enjoyed seeing how different fabrics — such as leather and light wools — work together.
“I have a tendency to mix fabrics that you wouldn’t normally use together to get the texture that I want,” he said. “So there would be an overlay or an underlay or something else … to move the character along.”
Shopping for fabrics has been harder during the pandemic, Heuvel said. “I couldn’t fly to New York or to L.A. to do in-person shopping for fabrics, so everything we did was done online,” he said. Buying fabric became a “two-week process,” he said, because of the problem all online shoppers face: Things don’t look the same when they arrive as they did on the website.
Ballet West hasn’t performed “Romeo & Juliet” since the 2015-16 season — though Adam Sklute, the company’s artistic director, points out that this version, choreographed by Michael Smuin, hasn’t been performed by Ballet West in more than 25 years.
For this production, Heuvel started from scratch; of the 130 to 150 costumes in the show, 80% are brand new.
“When we decided to revive it, we decided we would go with the new design rather than try and recreate something from the ‘60′s,” Heuvel said. “It was kind of starting from the beginning.”
The costumes for the Smuin work require silks, Heuvel said. The costumes for the 2002 production — which the company sold, then acquired some of them back — all used velvet. There also are a lot more costumes in the new production than the 2002 version.
This production is groundbreaking for Ballet West — in that one of the three dancers cast as Juliet, Katlyn Addison, is Black, a first for the company. Addison will alternate with two other principal dancers: Jenna Rae Herrera, who is the first Latina cast in the role for Ballet West, and Beckanne Sisk.
Addison said there have been “lots of changes within the academy and at Ballet West,” in regard to diversity.
One of those changes involves costuming. In October 2020, Ballet West began allowing dancers to wear tights and pointe shoes that matched their skin color. This was a response to a long-standing tradition in ballet toward white tights and shoes — particularly with some of the “ballet blanc” roles of the classic canon, in such works as “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.”
Now, Heuvel said, “the color of the legs and the shoes are kind of natural to their coloring, and most of the [ballerinas] have their own colors now, but they still will wear a leotard or a panty or whatever to match the costume.”
“Romeo & Juliet” is one of Heuvel’s favorite ballets, in part because it’s one of the first he worked on when he was growing up in South Africa. His grandmother was a milliner, making women’s hats, and taught Heuvel the basics of designing and trimming.
After high school, and brief stints in the military and as a banker, he found his way back to the art world.
He joined a fledgling ballet company in South Africa, the Performing Arts Council, and worked under a costume designer who died during a production of “Sleeping Beauty.” Heuvel was thrown into the deep end, temporarily appointed to run the costume shop and the production — which featured Margot Fonteyn, the legendary ballerina with the Royal Ballet.
Heuvel remained in South Africa for the next 10 years, before coming to Ballet West in 1979 — where he worked, except for a 10-year stretch in Portland — until his retirement.
It’s impossible, Huevel said, to pick a favorite costume over his long career. He joked that his favorites are “the finished ones.”
Huevel has had several triumphs in his career. In 2017, he oversaw Ballet West’s $3 million redesign of the costumes for the company’s signature production of “The Nutcracker” — a feat that earned him the Governor’s Artist Award from then-Gov. Gary Herbert. In 2014, costumes he created for “Swan Lake” were rented out to pop star Taylor Swift, and used in the video to her hit “Shake It Off.”
Now that he’s retired, Huevel said he plans to volunteer, and travel when the pandemic allows it. He and his partner will stay in Salt Lake City. He said he will still call Ballet West “home.”
“It’s been a long journey, and it’s also been exciting and it’s been very gratifying,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky to do what I do and what I love to do.”
Wherefore art thou, Romeo?
Ballet West will stage “Romeo and Juliet,” choreographed by Michael Smuin, with the music of Sergei Prokofiev.
When • Feb. 11 to 19.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
Showtimes • 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, 12, 17, 18 and 19; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees on Feb. 12 and 19.
Tickets • Available at https://boxoffice.balletwest.org/26604.