At the beginning of Nutcracker Rouge, amid wafts of frankincense, the virginal Marie Claire (Laura Careless) finds herself in a haunted forest where she’s surrounded by a storm of snowflakes. Dancers appear on stage clad in lace corsets, tutus, Swarovski-encrusted masks and matching jewelry. Their skeletal, horn-shaped headpieces are frightening. To the tune of Vivaldi’s Winter, they twirl and encircle the wide-eyed Marie Claire, who wears an iridescent turquoise rococo gown paired with a red, ruffled cape.
“Red and turquoise is my favorite color combination,” explained Nutcracker Rouge’s costume designer Zane Pihlstrom. “There’s some sort of vibration and I try to use it whenever I can.”
Nutcracker Rouge, a racy reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, is the holiday show of Company XIV, a theater company that mixes dance, circus, and singing in its baroque-burlesque productions. (Its East Village run was just extended through January 18.) For these louche, vaudevillian affairs, Pihlstrom plays with 1700s opulence, fin-de-siècle decadence, the sharp lines of Art Deco, and the glitz and glamor of old Hollywood. His costumes match the eclecticism of the music selections (everything from Vivaldi to Lana Del Rey).
Originally based in Gowanus and now permanently relocated at 428 Lafayette Street, Company XIV has made a name for itself in the realm of independent theater, as have Pihlstrom’s costumes. In his Times review of Nutracker Rouge, Neil Genzlinger noted that they make you feel “as if you’re in a club when you ought to be in church — guilt merged with anticipation.”
Pihlstrom sees himself as “more colorful than other costume designers,” as he likes to play with color combinations that create some sort of electricity (apple green and pink is one of his favorites). He’s inspired mostly by the rococo era and its pannier skirts, over-the-top headpieces, ruffles, ribbons and necklines meant to expose a lot of cleavage. “There is something about those silhouettes that I find most attractive, then there’s the decadence and the drama,” he said during our recent visit to his Chelsea apartment. He loves decadence because it serves no function. “It is the perfect mirror of human nature and self-adornment and how people are just ridiculous.”
Pihlstrom credits much of his creativity to a champagne-colored mare named Chablis that he got when he was eight and living in a bucolic farm in rural Oregon. He didn’t really like to ride her. “We just liked to hang out,” said Pihlstrom. That usually entailed dressing Chablis up as particular movie characters: once, Pihlstrom sewed a chiffon and sequined saddle and put ornaments in her hair to make her look like Lawrence of Arabia’s horse. On another occasion, he made a vat full of pink dye and turned her into a replica of the horse from The Wizard of Oz.
As a child, Pihlstrom built his own puppets for puppet theater and sketched animation, mainly from the Star Trek universe, that he filmed in stop motion. His eureka moment came at the age of 14, when his parents took him to see a production of Phantom of the Opera in Portland, a three-hour drive from their home: he was blown away by the set and costumes, and was impressed that part of the musical spoofed what Opera was like in France at the end of the nineteenth century.
He and his best friend and little sister tried to recreate the Opera de Paris in the family farm’s hay barn, singing along to the Phantom soundtrack. Curtains and candles were part of the rudimentary set design. “We almost burned the barn down,” said Pihlstrom. The homemade production of Phantom ran all summer long (Chablis was never part of the cast – she just watched).
After an adolescence spent designing sets for a community theater, Pihlstrom decided to major in set design at DePaul University. Upon graduating, he packed a U-Haul and headed to Yale for an MFA. There, he paired set design with costume design, though much of his training consisted of sketching and studying the history of clothing rather than actually crafting. “I describe myself as a fake sewer,” he said.
After graduation, he and his roommate Gina Scherr, who has designed lighting for Company XIV, shared a railroad apartment overlooking the Fairway market in Red Hook. They tried to get each other jobs. The arrangement would sometimes become strained when Pilhstrom took over the whole apartment to put costumes together. Once, he recalled, Scherr walked in to find the place covered with rabbit fur that he was using to make corsets. She wasn’t pleased.
In 2007, Pihlstrom met Company XIV’s artistic director and founder Austin McCormick; they started working together a year later.
The company’s members revere Pihlstrom’s designs. “There are so many layers of texture and shine,” said make-up artist Sarah Cimino, who has been collaborating with Company XIV since 2007, “and he manages to blend period baroque references with burlesque as well as modern fashion influences.”
In Nutcracker Rouge, singer Shelly Watson plays the role of Frau Drosselmeyer, who is both an emcee to the audience and a guide to Marie Claire. While belting out Madonna’s “Material Girl,” she wears a Marie Antoinette-inspired purple gown paired with a five foot-wide pannier skirt embellished with bows and stripes. “It’s definitely the most grandiose costume that I’ve ever worn and I immediately fell in love with it,” said Watson.
As is customary in Company XIV’s shows, 18th-century gowns alternate with skimpy panties and bejeweled pasties. Watson actually feels sexually empowered when wearing Pihlstrom’s more revealing creations. “I am a person of size, and he really keeps in mind my curves, my giant boobs. All things people try to hide, he has them shown off, which is wonderful,” she said.
Actually, Pihlstrom prefers working with fuller figures, especially when it comes to corsets. “If you have something to push and move around, you get those shapes that you want. The dancers are so fit that the corset is not doing anything. It’s like…hugging a tree trunk,” he said.
For male dancers, the challenge was to create burlesque costumes that weren’t too feminine or homoerotic. In the “Spanish Dance (Chocolate)” divertissement that closes the first act of Nutcracker Rouge, statuesque male dancers partially ravish Marie Claire, pinning her against a column. While dancing to a Spanish-Celtic rendition of the lullaby “All My Pretty Little Horses,” they wear leather corsets, gilded bull masks and bolero-inspired shoulder plates and knee-length leggings. “We wanted it to feel very aggressive towards Marie Claire. I don’t know if we succeeded but we wanted it to feel very masculine,” said Pihlstrom. Well, the sexual tension of the scene is potent.
In addition to his work with Company XIV, Pihlstrom also has a burgeoning career in Europe, where he collaborates with director Yana Ross, a fellow MFA classmate at Yale. In 2008, the duo curated a production of Macbeth at Berlin’s Volksbühneand and gave it an East Berlin vibe by setting the play in a family-owned laundromat. “Everyone was wearing a work uniform and a hair net,” said Pihlstrom. “It was an intentionally gritty, ugly production.” In Helsinki last year, they staged a production of Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl. Pihlstrom created a plastic bubble in which the heroine is trapped. “It’s a beautiful metaphor, as well as a practical object, forcing you to feel safe at the start and then trapped and claustrophobic,” said Ross.
Pihlstrom already has the 2015/2016 season planned out: Company XIV will present its adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood in February and Pinocchio in May. Beth Morrison Projects, a beacon in the indie opera industry, invited him to design a trilogy of operas to be performed in Boston: he can’t reveal too much, but the work of fantasy will be set in mythological Eastern culture. “It won’t be specifically like Chinese clothing: it will have eastern influence to it,” said Pihlstrom. He’ll also design the sets for a show on ice to be performed in a theme park about to open on the outskirts of Shanghai. The skaters will be dressed as butterflies and the ice rink will be located in a replica of a rainforest.
Amid all the new projects and endeavors, Pihlstrom dreams of producing the sets and costumes for an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, an opera that deals with how gambling consumes one’s life, destroying love and relationships. Having conceived of the project in graduate school, he has already created a scale model for Greed. “It’s a giant red skull entirely made of rubies – a golden skeleton with joints that are made of jewels!”