Editor’s note: Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking Eugene Ballet’s creation of a new version of The Snow Queen. ArtsWatch will reposting the series here after each installment appears on Keefer’s Eugene Art Talk blog.
“The Snow Queen is the ultimate challenge,” says Eugene costume designer Jonna Hayden. “Every costumer out there wants to do Snow Queen.”
And now, after nearly a lifetime of designing and stitching, Hayden is at last creating some 60 original costumes for Eugene Ballet’s all-new production of The Snow Queen, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. The show will make its world premiere at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene on April 8 and 9.
Funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment, the show will also use newly commissioned music from Portland composer Kenji Bunch, new sets by Eugene designer Nadya Geras-Carson and new choreography by Eugene Ballet artistic director Toni Pimble.
Hayden’s career really began one night when she was a little girl watching The King and I on television.
“It was the ball scene,” she recalls. “Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. I had never seen anything so magical!”
Jonna was six or seven years old then, growing up in a Navy family. Her mother was a tailor who made ball gowns for the officers’ wives. Inspired by the movie, Jonna began to collect scraps of fabric and made little outfits for her troll dolls. She was dazzled by Deborah Kerr’s gown.
Cut ahead a few years. When she was 15, she attended OryCon, the science fiction/fantasy convention that still runs each year in Portland. She discovered the Society for Creative Anachronism. She started making her own costumes, and has never looked back.
“I wasn’t really sure I could make it my life,” she says. “But I knew when I got out of high school that this was what I wanted to do.” She headed for the University of Oregon, where she studied theater, business and art history, but was too busy with life and work to graduate.
She’s honed her skills over decades of designing and sewing everything – she loves to stitch – from costumes for stage shows to bridal gowns for elaborate weddings.
“I made wedding dresses for 10 years,” she says. “I got the reputation for telling the mothers, are you the one wearing the dress?”
Hayden takes a similarly no-nonsense approach to design for the stage. However much a costume might flash or dazzle from the point of view of the audience, it has to work flawlessly for the performer inside it.
“I am all about fit,” she says. “If the performer is thinking about her costume, she’s not able to perform.”
Hayden began working with Eugene Opera 10 years ago when it mounted its game-changing production – the show bailed the opera out of a difficult financial situation – of The Pirates of Penzance, directed by Mark Beudert.
“Mary Mikkelsen called me one day for help,” she said. “‘Can you come in and just make the policemen?’”
She later designed Faust and La Boheme, and she designed the opera’s splendid Nixon in China, giving Pat Nixon a mint green coat instead of a red one, as the actual first lady wore. That interpretation upset some purists.
“I will not do Life magazine,” Hayden says. “People think they know Pat Nixon. You wouldn’t believe the pushback I got from some people. But I was dressing the character, not copying the coat.”
Opera has its own requirements for costumes.
“Everything is bigger in opera,” she says. “It’s 40 feet to the front row. Colors are brighter. Patterns are bigger. And, the big thing is, they have to be able to sing. So a corset has to be tight at certain points and not at others.”
Ballet is different. “Ballet is all about movement,” she says. “I can’t really make a costume unless I know what they’re going to be doing in it. Doing a ballet costume requires understanding of skeletal structure.” It also requires close consultation with dancers, she says. “I want the dancers to come to me with any problems. Any problems at all.”
Hayden got her introduction as a designer for Eugene Ballet working on Mowgli, the ballet’s 2013 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, also supported by Richard Haugland.
“That was a radical departure for me in terms of how I work with color, shape and texture,” she says.
After Mowgli, Haugland told the ballet he’d like to fund another new show. That was the beginning of Snow Queen.
“A year and a half ago, Toni sent me an email with an outline of Snow Queen. ‘You in?’ it said.”
Hayden thought about it for a couple days, and said yes.
She is basing much of her Snow Queen design on the work of the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, former head designer for Givenchy. His early fashion work established him as an enfant terrible for his use of dark, exotic and primitivist imagery. McQueen once described himself as a “romantic schizophrenic.” McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010 at age 40, had also worked as a stitcher, Hayden says, giving them common ground.
“His technical skill for fit, for shape, for line, is mind boggling,” Hayden says. “He made wild, disturbing, amazing things. He has done more to push fashion than any other designer. His work always had a sharp edge and a philosophical side.”
The McQueen sensibility will be used for the characters in the ballet, inhabitants of the icy cold world of evil.
“The ice world all comes from Alexander McQueen,” Hayden says. “Everything from the warm world is all curvilinear, Pre-Raphaelite. Not angular and sharp.”
In Hayden’s west Eugene studio, she has racks and racks of costumes, with dancer’s names pinned to their shoulders, in the process of being tried on and fitted and adjusted. Some glitter with an icy look. Some are being built of butterfly images printed on silk, and painstakingly stitched together. Some are covered with black feathers. All have to be washable. Dancers sweat, a lot, on stage.
All need to be finished by her deadline of Jan. 30.
One of the first things Hayden did after taking on the job and establishing basic design ideas for the costumes was go for a wild shopping spree with Pimble in the fashion district of downtown Los Angeles. The trip, she says, was sheer delight.
“That’s like the Powell’s of fabric,” she says. “We were looking at fabric that was $175 a yard….”
This is the fourth story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new Snow Queen. The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment. See Part One, on artistic director Toni Pimble; Part Two, on scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson; and Part Three, on composer Kenji Bunch.
Eugene Ballet premieres The Snow Queen at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.
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