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Monday, Nov. 23, 2009

A Career in Costume at Milwaukee Ballet

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Wardrobe Mistress Mary Belle Potter has worked with the Milwaukee Ballet for 37 of its 39 years, more than twice as long as anyone in the company.

What has changed over the course of your tenure at the ballet?

The company is so much more professional. The different artistic directors have upgraded the quality of the dancers’ technique, so we have a top-notch group. They come from all over the world. The school is one of the largest in the country and one of the few accredited.

What do you love about the work?

I love being with these wonderful dancers. I suppose in many respects I’m a mother to them—or a grandmother! I love ballet. At one time I had a ballet school in Hales Corners, the Mary Belle Potter School of Ballet. My mother wanted to dance, but when she was young in the late-1800s—she lived to be 100—she had to learn piano instead. So I was trotted off to dancing school. But Milwaukee didn’t have the professional training it has now. It takes good training. Women need to start by 10. Men can start a little later, but it’s very difficult. These dancers have bodies like rubber bands.

What does your work entail?

I take care of the costumes. We have about 3,000 in stock. I have them organized. I know where they are. You have to have a mind like an elephant! Tutus have to be washed by hand. If we send them to the dry cleaner they come back like dishrags. A tutu costs $2,000—they have to be hand-made. It takes time to sew every layer and decorate it with sequins and things. 

I’m the shoe manager. Dancers go through one or two pairs a week—in a difficult role, one per show. There’s flour in the toes. It turns to paste when they perspire. I have to dye the shoes to match the costume. Sometimes, I’ll mix four different colors. Then I’ll see it under the lights, and it’s still not right.  Does anyone notice? I do.

And I’m the head dresser backstage. I’ve rarely missed a performance. The first time, I felt like Cinderella. It’s such a different world. I wish everybody could share it. We’re there to help the dancers. I hire the other dressers, essentially volunteers. I tell them, “Don’t talk to the dancers about their private life; that’s not what they’re thinking about!”

Disasters?

A zipper on a boot broke during a performance—no way to fix it. The dancer said, “Spray my leg brown.” By a miracle, I had brown spray with me. If a costume breaks during a performance and we can’t do anything else, we sew the dancers in.