Marissa McCullough is right at home managing costumes for "The Nutcracker"

In Act One of “The Nutcracker,” the dancer performing Clara has 32 seconds to change from her party dress into her nightgown. Fortunately, she will have expert help. Dance Costume Shop Director Marissa McCullough will be waiting in the wings when the annual holiday extravaganza opens on Dec. 9 at the Stevens Center, and she will be there for every performance during the show’s run.

“It’s the quickest of three quick changes,” says McCullough. “I always do that one myself. I just feel more comfortable doing it. It can be really stressful for the dancers. It’s my job to take that stress away.”

Marissa McCullough

Dance Costume Shop Director Marissa McCullough. / Photo: Amber Renea

Assistant Dean of Ballet Jared Redick says McCullough is her own stock car pit crew. “She gets them in, gets them changed and back out, and she does it with such care for the dancers. The students know she will be there and will take care of them.”

“I know this place like the back of my hand”

After four years as the costume supervisor, McCullough became the Dance Costume Shop director in 2018. But her connection to UNCSA runs much deeper. Her parents met and fell in love as high school dancers. After dancing professionally for two decades, they returned to the school — this time married and with their five-year-old daughter Marissa. Her mother was dean of the School of Dance for 20 years.

“I have very distinct memories of growing up here, in the costume shops, studios and rehearsal rooms,” McCullough says. “I know this place like the back of my hand.”

Associate Professor of Ballet Dayna Fox remembers McCullough as a preschooler. “I remember seeing her in the door of Studio A watching Nutz rehearsals. She was imitating all the dance moves.”

McCullough studied in the Preparatory Dance Program for several years. After graduating from a local public high school, she headed to Manhattan Marymount College with her hopes pinned on a career in musical theater. Still desperate to be involved with the show after not being cast in the annual musical her junior year, she found herself in the school's costume shop. Literally, she found herself. She worked on costumes for every single show until she graduated and then found plenty of work in New York City. Her experience includes full-time employment with the Metropolitan Opera and American Ballet Theater.

Redick says McCullough embodies all the qualities needed in a costume shop manager: extreme organization, meticulous attention to detail, and time efficiency. But what really sets her apart is her ability to connect with students.  McCullough might be the first person ever to take a student’s body measurements or fit a costume. “Marissa has empathy for the students; she can make them feel comfortable and safe in sensitive situations,” he says.

I can’t imagine being as fulfilled anywhere else as I am here.

Marissa McCullough

McCullough’s background in ballet is readily evident, and she quickly earns the respect of students, Fox says. “They adore her. She can relate to them both as a performer and a costumer. And she has a positive energy that students appreciate.”

High school junior Chloe Webster will perform as a party mom in “The Nutcracker” this year. Six years ago, she was a Prep Dance student performing as one of the children in the party scene. “We were all so excited to be in our big poofy party dresses, and she was yelling at us to stop twirling,” Webster recalls during a recent costume fitting. “I remember thinking she is the one who makes us happy little princesses.”

McCullough recalls another student who attended UNCSA for six years. “Anytime she wore a hat or a headpiece on stage, I had to be the one who put it on her. She said if I didn’t do it, it would fall off,” McCullough recalls. “That wasn’t true, of course, but it made her feel comfortable and confident, which is important for dancers.”

A year-round endeavor

People often think “The Nutcracker” is the busiest time of the year for the Dance Costume Shop, but McCullough says that is not true. “It’s a very large production, but the actual production time is very controlled and consistent,” she explains. “It is less stressful than other shows because we are not making the costumes from scratch. It’s a known entity, which is comforting, and we can anticipate needs early on.”

Costume Shop staff begin working on “The Nutcracker” as soon as they return from Winter Break. “We start talking about what we can do differently next year, and we work on that list throughout the year.”

Just days before “The Nutcracker” opens — after hundreds of fittings and countless hours spent adjusting and stitching — a tractor-trailer moves costumes to the Stevens Center. There,  McCullough and her staff organize them all in one large room for easy access by dancers and a crew of first-year Design and Production students.

This year will provide an even bigger challenge for a busy costume crew. The cast will grow from about 80 dancers to about 120, plus the Preparatory Dance students. “Every ballet student at UNCSA will have the opportunity to be on stage,” Redick says.

That means triple the flowers, triple the snowflakes. “The costume has to fit just right for each dancer who wears it,” he says. “The dancer has to be able to move and feel comfortable.”

Redick adds he is not worried about McCullough’s ability to manage the complexities of triple casting. “I marvel at what she does and how she does it,” he says.

Marissa McCullough

Every year Marissa McCullough works with every dancer to make sure they feel comfortable and confident in their costumes. / Photo: Peter Mueller

When the curtain comes down on each show and the dancers hug it out and head back to campus, the costume crew is still in action. They are doing laundry, making repairs and organizing for the next show.

“Marissa has it down to a science,” Fox says. “Everything is in perfect order. It’s amazing that she can be in 20 places at the same time while creating a sense of calm and organization backstage.”

It may not be McCullough’s busiest time of the year, but it is her favorite. “I very much enjoy watching these dancers and being part of their support system,” she says. “They need to be focused and steady. It helps that they get used to seeing me there as a constant, reliable source of support.”

She also enjoys teaching dancers what is expected of professional dancers. “Many of them have never been in a show as big as this. They might not have shared costumes or done quick changes,” she says. “And many of them are very young and very social. I tell them this is work time. I can’t expect them to know coming in how to respect a costume fitting.”

A very special moment in time

McCullough tells students that the UNCSA production of “The Nutcracker” is in a class by itself. “Professional company productions don’t come close to this. They don’t perform to live orchestras, with costumes as elaborate as these,” she says. “This is a very special opportunity in their training. They need to take it seriously but also enjoy it and appreciate it.”

She also reminds them that “The Nutcracker” is a special event for the audience. “You might be dancing for someone who has never been to a live performance. You might be someone’s first date or birthday present. You are contributing to a very special moment in time.”

It’s a special moment in time for McCullough as well. “I can’t imagine being as fulfilled anywhere else as I am here,” she says. “Nothing will ever compare to the sense of family – because of my history.”

“I do what I love to do,” she says with satisfaction. “I get to be a part of creating a magical experience for students and the audience."

by Lauren Whitaker

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November 14, 2022