BWW Interview: Zane Philstrom Talks Company XIV's NUTCRACKER ROUGE

BWW Interview: Zane Philstrom Talks Company XIV's NUTCRACKER ROUGE
Costume sketch by Zane Philstrom.

Company XIV's NUTCRACKER ROUGE is back and it is the inaugural performance in Company XIV's new dedicated theater and lounge space in Bushwick, Brooklyn - Théâtre XIV. Using Louis XIV era inspired visuals NUTCRACKER ROUGE fuses dance, theater, circus, opera, and burlesque. To get the inside scoop on this year's effervescent and sensual spectacle, we sat down with costume designer Zane Philstrom to chat about the magical and eye-catching garments (or lack thereof) worn by the cast.

Tell me about your history with Company XIV and NUTCRACKER ROUGE.

I've been with the company almost since the beginning, so about eight years. I feel like this may be our fifth or sixth reincarnation of NUTCRACKER ROUGE.

Your costumes capture the magic and whimsy of traditional costumes for THE NUTCRACKER, but you also make them sexy for the burlesque aspects of NUTCRACKER ROUGE. How do you balance the whimsical and the sensual?

I think that the choreography is referencing very sophisticated ballet, but - like you say - the design is more about burlesque and the romanticized idea of night life in the city. So, I am really looking at all those vintage ideas of burlesque and then trying to fuse it with other types of dance. There's not a lot of straight up ballet in NUTCRACKER ROUGE. There's the pas de deux at the end, which seals it as referencing the original NUTCRACKER. But, most of it is fusions of all these other kinds of dance.

For burlesque, the costume design and the choreography have to work together for the reveals. How do you design a costume with that in mind?

That sort of evolves over time. When Austin Mccormick [founder and artistic director of Company XIV] and I were initially working together, we would design the costume together, troubleshoot it, and adjust the choreography to make the strip more pleasing to watch. There's nothing worse than watching someone awkwardly struggle out of their costume on stage. But, now, he knows how and what layers need to come off, and we've both been working together so long that it's just much more natural. When I'm in fittings, I just automatically layer things in such a way and figure out the closures and the ways in which clothes can be taken off based on what we've done in the past.

As the cast changes over the years, how have you designed new costumes for new members of the company?

We recycle a lot of the same looks year to year, but every year we add a new suite section or do something to change the whole evening. We add new costume elements every year. We also have a huge stock of vintage circus costumes, lots of different underwear from different periods, and lots of contemporary stuff. We just restyle the performers in the overall company aesthetic, so we have a lot to choose from, and we're not cemented in reproducing the same production that we did the year before. We let it evolve and work with what we have.

The acts in NUTCRACKER ROUGE aren't just burlesque acts, so you have to design costumes for aerial numbers and more. How do you approach these multidisciplinary needs in your costumes?

It's just a very close relationship with the performer. If they're an aerialist, they have certain areas of their body where they need to keep their skin in touch with the pole or hardware. So, we make sure to leave those areas free of any slippery fabrics or even clothing. We definitely change the design as we go. Sometimes we put them in a costume, we do the act, and then realize that it's not going to work. So, we always have two or three other ideas waiting in the back room. That's definitely one of the biggest challenges - trying to get something really beautiful on stage, but then something that they can actually do their amazing act in.

BWW Interview: Zane Philstrom Talks Company XIV's NUTCRACKER ROUGE
Costume sketch by Zane Philstrom.

What is the fitting process like? What is the conversation you have with the performers like?

I try to always flatter the specific body type that is going to be on stage, so we work together to find shapes and cuts of clothing that they feel really confident about and that we like from the company's aesthetic. Everybody grows into empowering their own body and this confidence. Sometimes performers start off a little shy, but then they learn to love it. It's definitely tricky. There are times when performers are really uncomfortable, so we come up with some other version of a costume that they feel better in. It's just really flexible. And, I actually, don't often really sketch. I mostly, for this company, just sketch if we're building a complete costume that's going to be stripped off. For a lot of the dancers or circus performers, we just have this overall vision of the company and what it looks like, so we just style it based on what we have. I don't have a finished idea of what's it going to look like in my head. We get there together.

That's cool. There's a lot of input from everyone, it sounds like. So, it's really collaborative.

Yeah. Austin, especially. He definitely has a very clear vision of what he wants the overall aesthetic to be, so he has a lot of ideas.

What is your favorite moment or moments in NUTCREACKER ROUGE?

The moments when I am actually watching it with an audience and I hear their reaction and how excited they get based off of some sort of confident surprising striptease they didn't expect coming. Or the elements of comedy that, in tech, you didn't know if it was really that funny, but then the audience members, looking at it with fresh eyes, find it hysterical. Knowing that the costume is a big aspect of why they are finding it so funny, that's really, really rewarding.

Are there other costume designers, films, or other formats of art that you draw inspiration from in your designs?

That's always evolving and always changing. As a designer, I feel like every few years I am someone different. Right now, I'm into femme fatales and these fallen women and men and telling stories through that. I'm really into David Lynch, and I feel like everyone is thinking about him again because of the reboot of TWIN PEAKS. But, I really like all of his older movies, and the film noir quality to them. I'm inspired by him.

As a costume designer, what advice would you offer to someone looking into costume design as a career for themselves?

I would say that when you're first starting out whatever opportunities you can get or are given, you just have to throw yourself in one hundred percent. You may not have a lot of money or support, but you just have to give as much of yourself as you can to those early opportunities and build off of those. I mean, I have people that I have been working with for over ten years, and we started off doing really low budget, unsupported work. But, I just worked for those people really, really hard. Some of them have gone on to have really amazing careers, so I've gotten to sort of make that leap with them.

NUTCRACKER ROUGE runs through January 14, 2018 at Théâtre XIV (383 Troutman St, Brooklyn, NY 11237). For tickets and more information, please visit

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