From Company to Costume Shop: Howard Merlin’s Journey with Boston Ballet - Boston Ballet

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From Company to Costume Shop: Howard Merlin’s Journey with Boston Ballet

Howard Merlin and Heidi Wolfe in Coppélia

Photographer unknown

Having dedicated over 30 years of his career to Boston Ballet, Merlin offers a wealth of institutional history and anecdotes. Go behind the scenes as he shares his journey, from making his mark onstage to making beautiful creations for the next generation of dancers to shine.

Howard Merlin rehearsing Swan Lake with the Company in 1989

Photo by Jerry Berndt

Howard Merlin with Draper Sara Kirk in the Boston Ballet Costume Shop

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

Can you share a favorite memory from your time as a dancer with Boston Ballet?
I joined the Company in 1988, and there are many memories that come to mind. A favorite is when I was chosen to perform onstage with Fernando Bujones. Bujones was a famous male ballet star back in the 70s and 80s and would frequently perform with the Company as a guest star. He came and set his version of Raymonda Variations. There is a pas de trois section with three men. He was in the center, and I was one of the men to his side. He was such a great person and very humble. His technique was incredible, and he was intimidating at times, but he made sure we all looked the best we could.

Why did you decide to transition from being onstage to behind the scenes?
In 1997, I hurt my back and was informed I might want to think about retiring from dance. As the life span of a professional career in dance in America is short and I already had a full career behind me, I felt it was time to think about what to do next.

During my down time as a dancer, I had been working as a dresser backstage. Amy Persky, the Director of the Costume Shop then, took notice. When I had this injury, she asked if I would want to learn the ins and outs of Costuming for the Company. With her guidance and that of former Director of Costumes for Atlanta Ballet April McCoy, I had the best hands-on training for this field of work. They are still good friends, and I still rely on them for any guidance.

Do you ever make appearances on stage today?
Most dancers, when they retire, don’t fully retire and are asked to perform character roles. In my early training days, I was lucky to have teachers and coaches who encouraged me to learn all types of dance and theatre. I encourage all dancers to not turn away opportunities to be cast in character-type roles in a story ballet, but to embrace that form of artistry. You never know when or where someone might need that type of artist.

I appeared in Ballet Apetrei’s The Nutcracker as Herr Drosselmeyer. Ballet Apetrei is a regional ballet company outside of New Orleans that gives young kids who might not otherwise have access the opportunity to enrich their lives with dance. I was also recently asked to portray the role of the tutor in Mikko Nissinen’s version of Swan Lake. It was a true honor to be able to perform once again with Boston Ballet and for Boston audiences.

How do you think your background as a dancer helps inform your work in the Costume Shop?
There are very few former dancers that go into costuming for a living after dance. With my knowledge of what it feels like to wear various types of costumes while performing onstage, I can help guide the Costume Shop team to make sure freedom of movement is met without compromising on the design in all aspects of the full costume.

Howard Merlin in the Boston Ballet Costume Shop

Photo by Brooke Trisolini

What does a typical day in your life look like?
I am lucky to have an internal alarm clock, so I am up at 5 or 6 am at the latest and usually the first to arrive to open the shop, even after those late nights in theater. As Associate Director of Costumes, my main responsibilities include making sure the budget stays on track, providing information so the staff can produce the works of each designer in a timely fashion, ordering the supplies in order to achieve those goals, and acting as the liaison between the whole organization and our team. We are a team of professional artisans creating costumes for dance, and it takes all of our input to make sure these costumes get onstage looking their best.

What has been your favorite memory from your time in the Costume Shop?
One of my favorites was being able to meet David Walker. He designed our SLEEPING BEAUTY SETS AND COSTUMES, as well as many other famous ballets around the world. Another was working with Robert Perdziola on shoe coloring for MIKKO NISSINEN’S THE NUTCRACKER and Swan Lake. Perdziola is renowned for his costume designs in ballet, theatre, and opera.

A personal favorite that I hope to bring back to the shop and Company is hosting Halloween breakfasts. The costume shop would decorate the space and provide a buffet type breakfast. Everyone was invited as a way to meet and enjoy the company of our colleagues, who help make everything run at the ballet.

Why have you chosen to dedicate so much of your life and career to Boston Ballet? 
In 1982, I had the privilege to see Boston Ballet at the World’s Fair in my hometown of Knoxville, TN. I auditioned back then, but didn’t get in. I said to myself, this is the Company of my dreams and I was going to do whatever it takes to get in. I joined the Company in 1988. Boston is where I met the love of my life, my husband Yakov Dov, and Boston is our home.

To me, Boston Ballet is a Company that strives to educate, promote, and show the city, state, and world what live dance performance can do for the mind, body, and soul. When I retired from the Company, I knew I wanted to stay in Boston and be involved with dance in some shape or form when I retired. When the opportunity arose to stay, I took it. I think it is a little of both, Boston Ballet chose me, and I chose Boston Ballet.