Photograph by Paul Kolnik
“If you can find that joy in your life where you wake up in the morning and you go in and you just absolutely love what you do every day, that is one of the best things in life,” says Marc Happel, director of costumes at New York City Ballet.
Happel lives by this rule, having early nurtured his passion for costuming in musical theater, film and at The Metropolitan Opera’s costume department before assuming the role of director of costumes at City Ballet nearly six years ago. This summer he’s hard at work supervising close to 20 people in the costume shop besides overseeing the wardrobe, wig, hair and shoe departments as City Ballet preps for its Sept. 20 gala, which will be co-chaired by Maria Bartiromo, Giancarlo Giammetti, Pamela J. Joyner and Sarah Jessica Parker.
The evening will celebrate the legendary Italian fashion designer Valentino who, with Happel’s help, has created extravagant costumes for four works, three by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins and one by Christopher Wheeldon.
“Valentino and Peter Martins have been very good friends for something like 30 years, and they have always in some way thought about at some point working together and it took until now to make that happen,” Happel says.
“It will certainly bring the attention of the fashion world once again to City Ballet. We don’t seem to have too much trouble with that lately, because we’ve had a lot of fashion designers,” he adds, referring to collaborations with Stella McCartney, Rodarte and Gilles Mendel of J. Mendel.
“But you know, Valentino is kind of the top, and he’s the last really of the great couturiers so it will bring a whole different level of attention.”
Working with Mr. V
Happel says the design team has been working hard since April to complete pieces in time for upcoming photo shoots and rehearsals. Audiences should expect “very ball gown-oriented, very black, white and red, very large (and full) dresses and men in tuxedos” from one Martins piece. Meanwhile, City Ballet will pay tribute to the signature Valentino red with a performance of George Balanchine’s “Rubies,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra with costumes by City Ballet’s previous costumer, Barbara Karinska.
“You know, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Happel says. “I just have such admiration for him, especially now that I’m starting to work for him because unlike many designers, both theatrical and fashion, he knows exactly what he wants and you understand why he became what he became because he zeroes in on exactly what he wants very quickly. When he makes a decision, you kind of look at it and just go, ‘That’s exactly right.’ Not right in that he made the correct decision, but just that it makes sense and works perfectly with the scheme of everything else.”
Happel says the two share a “great working relationship.”
“He comes dressed in either a suit or a jacket and a pair of pants and a tie. He’s very well-dressed and put together every day, and,” Happel adds, laughing, “I’m usually standing there in a pair of shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, because that’s what I wear to work. So it’s quite a contrast, the two of us.”
Happel describes Valentino as “very hands-on, which is amazing. Especially with fashion designers, although he’s retired, it would still be the kind of thing where you’d almost think he might just do the sketches and send them in and say, ‘That’s it.’ But he’s very much a part of what’s going on. He loves to be involved. He loves to be in the fittings, and he loves to be a part of all the changes or decisions that have to happen.”
Heady as it all is, City Ballet has kept an eye on the bottom line, Happel assures.
“We did have to work within some kind of budget. It’s not just a blank check.”
Suiting the performer
“Because fashion designers are very much about a model or a dress that is just a few feet away from them, I have to, many times, get them to be conscious of the fact that what they’re designing is 40, 50, 60 feet away from them.
“You have to think about scale differently. You have to approach things in a larger house in a more graphic way….I’m not saying you compromise anything … but at the same time you just have to know where to place your attention because there are details that will just get lost on stage.
“You have to really be careful with color, especially in ballet, because it can be very distracting…. That’s why many times some of the ballets we have are in black and white… and many people will say, ‘Well that’s not a costume,’ but in actuality, it is a costume, because someone made a conscious choice that these dancers would be wearing that white leotard.”
Happel’s experience in various arts helps him understand the different aesthetic and physical needs.
“With opera it was always about the diaphragm, the throat, can they breathe? ….Then with dance it’s all about pure movement….Musical theater and film is so much about character. You have actors that will many times deal with almost anything.”
Happel’s comprehension of the role of costumes on stage and in film began at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Pluck and luck brought him to New York City at 24.
“A friend of mine told me that Bob Fosse was doing this production called ‘Dance on Broadway’ and they were looking for people to come in and work on it and was I interested? And we packed up our station wagon and drove to New York thinking, ‘Well, let’s go for it and see if this works.’ I immediately got a job, and from there it’s just been a rollercoaster ride.”
Today Happel lives in Long Island City with his partner of 30 years, Herby, a fine artist. It’s a far cry from his first days in New York where he knew just “one other person at the time” and was living in the Meatpacking District.
“It was a totally different world. It was a meatpacking district,” he says with emphasis. “I lived on Jane Street and I would walk out of my apartment and more often than not, I would turn the corner and there would be a large Dumpster filled with meat parts, baking in the summer sun. It always smelled like barbecue.”
With quick hands and a natural eye for showbiz, Happel’s credits grew to include musical theater productions like “Kitty Killer,” “Charlie,” “Tell-Tale,” “Seeing Things,” “Kiki & Herb Alive on Broadway” and a Rufus Wainwright tour. Yet his ascension to the classical music world was “a bit of chance,” he admits, explaining that his introduction to ballet and opera costuming was facilitated through his work at Barbara Matera Ltd. After costumer Barbara Matera passed away, The Metropolitan Opera offered Happel a position.
“I worked with some amazing singers. Working with soprano Debbie Voigt was amazing. She’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever been around. Many of the tenors and baritones were great, too. You had access to a very different kind of designer there, because we worked with so many European designers who would come in and just the scale of the productions is so different.”
But after a while, “I was becoming increasingly unhappy,” Happel confesses.
“And one day I just stood at Columbus Circle and I just kind of said out loud, ‘I need to change my life. I’m not happy about it anymore. I need something to happen to make my life the way it was.’”
Two blocks later, his cell phone rang. It was a voice mail from the City Ballet about the director of costumes position.
“It was a total turnaround for me and after I started here, I couldn’t have been happier – all over again.”
Benefit-priced tickets for the New York City Ballet’s Sept. 20 gala, which include the performance, a pre-performance reception and black-tie supper ball, are available through the NYCB Special Events Office at (212) 870-5585. Tickets to the performance start at $29 and go on sale Aug. 6. Visit nycballet.com or call (212) 496-0600.