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Dancers and flowers and bears: ‘Nutcracker’ costume designer dresses them all

"Davis Children's Nutcracker" costume designer Ellen Griesemer checks the fit of a doll costume during rehearsals Wednesday afternoon at the Veterans' Memorial Center. Six performances of the holiday classic are planned next week. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | December 07, 2012 |

Details

What: “Davis Children’s Nutcracker”

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 12-15 and 2 p.m. Dec. 15-16

Where: Veterans’ Memorial Theater, 203 E. 14th St.

Tickets: Officially sold out, but check the message board in the Vets’ Memorial Center for ticket trades

For much of next week, the various rooms of the Veterans’ Memorial Center will be filled with loud, happy, excited creatures.

There will be furry brown bears, sleek black cats, pink flowers, white snowflakes and colorful dancers of every kind. They will be clustered in small groups with their teenage leaders, eagerly awaiting their moment on stage or excitedly reliving the moment they just had — 260 children in all participating in six performances of the time-honored tradition that is the “Davis Children’s Nutcracker.”

For 35 years, the show has given thousands of Davis children between the ages of 6 and 12 the chance to be a part of this holiday tradition. Many children participate year after year, and once they age out, return to lead the young cast following in their footsteps, teaching them the role of a mouse, the choreography of a Spanish dancer, the craziness of the clown.

And there in the midst of all of them will be the person responsible for turning all 260 of these children into their “Nutcracker” characters: costume designer Ellen Griesemer, now in her second year on the job.

Griesemer has been immersed in the “Nutcracker” world since October, preparing costumes and making new ones. Some of these costumes are as old as the show itself, which can be a challenge when it comes to finding matching material for repairs or duplicate costumes. She got lucky this year, Griesemer said, when she was able to find exactly the right fabric for a few new Spanish dancer costumes she needed to make.

For much of this week, she’s been busy fitting all those costumes on her young charges and making alterations. Next week, she will be at the ready, armed with sewing machine and repair kit, to take on the casualties that occur when hundreds of excited children and their sometimes intricate costumes collide: ripped pants, flying buttons, lost tails and torn hems, all inevitably needing fixing just minutes before the kids appear onstage.

Leaders know to be vigilant, Griesemer said, watching for costume mishaps and getting those costumes into her hands as quickly as possible.

Some costumes take a beating during the show — particularly those worn by the clowns, who do a lot of tumbling and exuberant dancing onstage.

“The clowns require a lot of repairs every year,” Griesemer said.

“During the show, I’m running all the time,” she added.

It’s a good thing she has the background for it.

Over the summer, Griesemer finished her last required class at UC Davis for her degree in design with an emphasis on textiles and fashion.

Sustainability in design is one of her interests, and one she’s brought to her job as “Nutcracker” designer. Hesitant to see any old costume materials “end up in the landfill,” she’s found ways to reuse and recycle. In need of more skirts for the dancing flowers, for example, she hand-painted old white snowflake skirts in shades of pink.

“We’re always trying to find new ways of doing things,” Griesemer explained.

On top of her design expertise, she’s also a natural with kids — she is a longtime gymnastics teacher with the city of Davis. One of her favorite parts of this job, she said, is seeing all the familiar faces that file into the costume room for their fittings.

On Wednesday, that included the bears and the dolls.

Griesemer and her lifelong friend and “Nutcracker” assistant, Hilary Shontz (both are Davis High School graduates), had the children line up so they could be sized for costumes.

“Stand like soldiers,” Griesemer told them, “even though you’re dolls and bears.”

All immediately stood straight and tall, arms at their sides. Griesemer then moved quickly by, holding up costumes to find what looked to be the perfect fit for each child, then handed each a costume to try on over their clothes.

“I’m a bear now,” growled one little boy as he finished dressing.

“You’re a teddy bear,” a doll primly reminded him.

The dolls, Griesemer said, are taller this year, meaning she’ll need to find a way to lengthen a couple of the dresses that are too short.

“I want them all to feel comfortable onstage,” she explained.

She takes photos of costumes and makes notes to help her remember which costume needs which alteration, then has leaders label each costume with that child’s name.

Later, often at home, Griesemer will make the alternations. There will be many hours of work crammed into just a few weeks to help pull off this Davis tradition, but Griesemer said it’s all worth it.

“It’s really fun,” she said.

Exhausting, but fun.

As of Thursday, all tickets for next week’s shows were sold out. But people frequently end up not needing the tickets they’ve purchased and post notes on the bulletin board at the Veterans’ Memorial Center offering them up. Check the board for available tickets.

This year’s performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, Dec. 12-15, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15-16, all in the Veterans’ Memorial Theater, 203 E. 14th St.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

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