Dispatches from Tutu Retro at MAM
All photos from Tutu Retro by Milwaukee Ballet’s Jenn Mazza
Behind every ballet performance lays yards of fabric, feathers, sequins, rhinestones, tulle, satin and thread waiting to be fashioned into magic. Forty to sixty hours or more may go into constructing just one costume for each professional dancer in the troupe. For every dream or ephemeral stitch, someone has to do the laundry. At age 85, the role happily stays with Mary Belle Potter for the Milwaukee Ballet.
After 37 years, Mary Belle Potter still hand-launders, dry cleans and stores the attire that has traveled through the company since 1973. Her first 10 years were all volunteer. Potter currently works 35 hours a week, because, she says “I love it. I love working with all the young people.”
The Milwaukee Ballet recently launched its 40th anniversary season with a fundraiser for its dance school, community outreach programs and the company itself. Attendees of Tutu Retro at the Milwaukee Art Museum paraded past costumes and accessories from the Ballet’s long history and enjoyed sneak peek at the upcoming season. Potter, with previous Costume Mistress Mary Pierieng close by, spoke to the crowd about certain items in her care. A silent auction at the event offered the chance to sponsor a lead character’s costume for the world premiere of Peter Pan by Michael Pink. The company raised over $24,000 for that effort alone.
Beginning this October, the fairy tale legend Cinderella takes the stage in all her midnight mystery. With the costumes already in process and strewn across sewing tables in the workshop, the Milwaukee Ballet is attempting to re-work or newly fashion 75 of designer Peter Gazalet’s garments for the production. Gazalet instructed the company to make the glamorous, wish-bestowing fairy godmother “look like she walked through stars.”
But it doesn’t end with Cinderella. The holiday season continues with The Nutcracker in December. In that production, we’ve been promised jewel-colored velvet dresses, shiny gold-buttoned jackets and sparkling crystal snowflakes on the romantic tutus. These costumes all hang preserved from the ceilings of the ballet offices, ready and waiting for Christmas to come for their yearly outing.
In February and March of 2010, the ballet premieres new contemporary works through Innovative Motion and Pure Dance. The mixed repertory programs offer a trio of selected performances that showcase new choreography. According to Wardrobe Mistress Mary Belle Potter, “These programs this year will require the work of our own staff because many of the costumes will be made here.”
In the May finale to this extraordinary season, Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink plans to mount a full production of the Peter Pan story. This will require a full-size pirate ship, flying boys and girls, and the fantastic set of Neverland. Judanna Lyn’s intricate and detailed costume designs for this world premiere were on display Wednesday night.
To tantalize attendees, Tinkerbell’s translucent yet sequin-studded nettings were spread across a table in dramatic profusion, along with the designer’s watercolor portraits of Wendy’s soft white cotton nightgown and Captain Hook’s menacing red coat. The boy who never wanted to grow up will steal center stage in a dashing outfit on May 13, but this night Peter’s costume was already spoken for by a winning bid.
Fun fact: Mary Belle Potter’s caretaker role also includes being Shoe Manager, which means securing toe shoes for every dancer. It requires placing orders up to eight months in advance from worldwide locations and each performer has a favorite, often a custom-made style or maker of toe shoe. At a cost of $30 to $60 per shoe, the satin slippers with ribbon laces demand a significant portion of the company’s budget.
While this illustrious past was honored at “Tutu-Retro” last week, the future of the Milwaukee Ballet remains brilliant on this impressive anniversary. The company touches 30,000 people throughout the community while boasting the third largest, and now officially accredited ballet school in the country.
You can find out more about the upcoming season and ticket packages by visiting the Milwaukee Ballet website.