In a major departure from traditional tutus and tulle, fourteen dancers in David Parsons' new work for American Ballet Theatre, The Pied Piper, will be wearing rather unusual rodent costumes created by master puppet maker and sculptural engineer Michael Curry.

The Pied Piper premieres on May 18 during ABT's New York City season at The Metropolitan Opera House. Lighting is by Howell Binkley, non-rat costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, projections by Misha Films, and animation design by Michaela Zabranska. The piece was composed by John Corigliano, with a libretto by Mark Adamo based on Robert Browning's 19th-century poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

For Curry, who also created the animal/actor puppets for The Lion King on Broadway, "It is very different working with ballet dancers. The experimental nature of my work is not part of their world, as they don't often have to break out of certain boundaries. But when they see the illusion of the rats in the mirror, they like it."

Rather than dress the 14 dancers as furry little creatures, Curry has created a flat rat concept that works against the vertical nature of ballet dancers. "The spine of the rat is like a low horizontal gesture," he says, "with a strong horizontal line across the shoulders. This is a line I use a lot." The rats have pointy heads and tails like bull whips, both controlled by the dancer's hands. "They provide great contrast with the classical lines of the principal dancers," Curry notes.

The spines of the rats are made of plastic, while their heads are of cast neoprene to be rubbery and flexible (the dancers nudge at each other with them). The complex tails are made using a series of urethane foam disks joined by a flexible core and covered with a Spandex tube. The bodies are a furry, textured polyester in mottled gray and black that Curry has dyed and painted to add a pearly luster.

"The rat sits like a sandwich board on the dancer; it's like putting a broom behind your shoulders as we did as kids," explains Curry. Another of his costume concepts is a long cape intended for a beautiful male dancer to wear in a scene change. The cape has a 35' train covered with 80 small rats. For another moment, Curry envisions 140 rats on sticks converging on a dancer in a spotlight. "You can't see the puppeteers since they aren't in the light," says Curry, "so it looks like the rats are covering the dancer like a bee keeper covered in bees." Pretty creepy stuff.

Sketches courtesy of Michael Curry.