TORRINGTON — The soothing, rhythmic hum of sewing machines fills the air in a brightly lit, spacious room of the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory. Towering wooden shelves hold large plastic bins of fabric, smaller bins of buttons, snaps, hooks & eyes, scissors, measuring tape and much more. Head seamstress and wardrobe supervisor Pat Eldredge is sewing bejeweled gold lace onto the sleeve of a turquoise costume for “The Nutcracker.” Costume shop director Sue Fazzino is just finishing up the fitting of a new costume to a Nutmeg student, who will wear it on the Warner or Bushnell stage in just two or three weeks. And among all the activity, a squat, copper-colored spaniel named Penny wanders from person to person, as if admiring their work.
“She’s been with us for six years,” says Fazzino, scratching behind Penny’s floppy ears. “She keeps us company.”
Fazzino designed this sewing space herself 18 years ago, working with Nutmeg Conservatory architect Tommy Thompson. “I was able to build it the way I wanted it,” she said. “Before we moved here, the dance shop was on Water Street, and it was literally a closet.”
The dance shop is always busy this time of year, as the calendar counts down to the opening of “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 7, but this year the sewing machines are getting an even greater workout. To mark Nutmeg’s 50 years of existence, colorful new scenery has been created, and more than half of the production’s 1,200 costumes have been modified or redesigned and built from scratch.
“It was a huge project,” Fazzino said. “It was really more than we could handle by ourselves here and so we hired two designers, Susan Aziz and Janessa Cornell Urwin. In house, we created 11 new costumes for the Arabian scene, and we made a new gown for the Prologue. And we are in the process now of doing fittings and alterations on the older costumes that we didn’t replace.”
All costumes, whether sewn on-site or elsewhere, are finished at the Nutmeg site. “Starting at the beginning of September when they came in, we had to put on hooks and elastics and hems and do a hundred other tasks,” Fazzino said. “And it has to be fitted on the body. It has to be altered.”
The new set, created by Boston theatrical designer Roger LaVoie, includes a panel showing a girl in a turquoise costume and pants, which do not match last year’s Arabian costumes of red tops and gold skirts, Fazzino said. “So we really felt that we had to modify Arabian to kind of go with the panel that would be front and center on the stage,” she said.
Fazzino designed the patterns on the Arabian costumes, as well as on tutus stacked high on a table like fluffy pancakes. “Each tutu is layers and layers and layers of tulle of different lengths,” she said. “There is a four-inch layer, a six-inch layer, a seven-inch layer, an eight-inch layer, and then you put them on a panty that you build out of stretch material, and then you sew the layers on the panty and then you have a tutu.”
It takes five seconds to explain, but each tutu takes at least two weeks to make from scratch. In her 30 years with Nutmeg, she has made more than 50 of them. “They are expensive and they are the most time-consuming. You start with the tutu, the netting underneath, and then you put a basque on that. That fits her tightly, and that’s what keeps the tutu from moving when she spins. And then you build the bodice, and get the bodice to fit her perfectly, and then you put it all together.”
In “The Nutcracker,” tutus are worn by the Snow Queen and the Sugarplum Fairy, but they do not appear onstage together. “If we did ‘Swan Lake,’ there could be 25 tutus out there at one time,” she said.
She said things will quiet down in January, but only briefly. In February, the shop will be working on costumes for two spring performances that may have excerpts from classical and modern works. She finally gets vacation and gardening time starting in June, she said.
But these days, “We are just humming along here,” she said, as Penny the spaniel looks up at her in apparent admiration. Luckily, Fazzino is not alone: Besides Penny, she has help from Pat Eldredge and seamstress/crafters Louise Porto, Barbara Zordan and Nicole Bittner, who make sure that seams are straight and hems are perfect.
Tickets for the 2019 production of Nutmeg Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” are now available through Nutmeg’s newly designed website, www.Nutmegconservatory.org. Warner Theatre performances are Dec. 7 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. Performances at The Bushnell in Hartford are Dec. 14 and 15 at 12:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.