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Chances are, no one save "Cake" composer Karen LeFrak, who's standing at the sidelines, will catch the reference to the Seventies flick starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones. The oldest dancer here is 20 years old. But the message to ABT's junior company here is clear: In this ballet, the clothes matter.
And, indeed, a few moments into the rehearsal, the mood shifts as designer Charles Nolan arrives with missing costumes and props. The girls are given their frothy — and slightly panniered — frocks, befitting their roles as part of the Queens' royal court. Nolan also hands out cone-shaped tulle hats, by theatrical milliner Roxanna Ramseur, meant to mimic 18th-century piled-high updos. "Each one had to be adjusted to the dancer's hairline," Nolan notes.
"Cake" marks the second collaboration between Nolan and the ABT. Two years ago, he partnered with choreographer Sean Curran to dress his dancers in "Aria," set to music by Georg Friedrich Handel. But this ballet is more of a challenge. "'Aria' was about sound and movement. Curran just needed his dancers not to be naked," he says. "Here, the costumes have to tell a tale — Marie Antoinette, the French court, the Sheep Meadow. And I had to make sure that they could dance in them." Thus, there are armholes in each ruffled and ruched dress so the girls "are able to do all the lifts and stretches they need," he says. "And the netting in the skirts is industrial mesh, not crinoline netting."