Portland Festival Ballet seamstresses whip up costumes from mushrooms to Mad Hatter

by: SUBMITTED: PORTLAND FESTIVAL BALLET/DASA OBEREIGNER - Since dancers must speak without language, in 'Alice,' this dress will represent a tear.Angie Gende never had any formal design training. She learned to sew by watching her mother, who she says still makes her look like a kindergartner when it comes to thread and needles. Sometimes she sketches out her visions, but mostly she doesn’t. When asked if her projects are based on trial and error, she says that it’s usually more error than trial.

And yet the costumes that she and fellow seamstress Teri McGarry make for every Portland Festival Ballet production are innovative and professional. They’re creative in a way that maybe could only have been learned by practice.

“Teri and I are complete and exact opposites in the work room,” Gende said. “She’s very organized and detail-oriented and structured. I’m like a whirling dervish. I come in like a hurricane, and there’s stuff everywhere, and I’ve got a thousand things going at once.”by: SUBMITTED: PORTLAND FESTIVAL BALLET/DASA OBEREIGNER - One of Angie Gende's biggest challenges with 'Alice' was creating cute and comfortable mushroom costumes for the young dancers.

With “Alice in Wonderland,” Gende and McGarry worked with Artistic Director John Magnus to create the basic idea for each costume.

They worked out of the same storybook Magnus used for his own vision of the production, and then took it from there. For the most part, he gave them creative freedom. As Gende says, it’s his name on the production, so it needs to be what he wants. But everyone around knows that it’s her and McGarry’s names on the costumes, so ultimately, it comes back to them if something doesn’t look good.

“There’s a lot of problem solving in this room,” said Gende. “It’s not like street clothes, where there’s rules. So, you’re trying to break the rules but work within what fabric will do. It has to look good, it has to move well, it has to be relatively comfortable.”

This means finding creative ways around the obvious design challenges of making mushroom and teacup costumes fun to wear. Templates don’t exist for such things. Gende and McGarry just have to dream it all up. For the spring production alone, 121 new costumes were created by the two seamstresses and several other parent volunteers.

“We want there to be a balance,” Gende said. “I don’t want the costumes to wear the dancers, but at the same time, the costumes have to be as good as they are, and these kids work really, really hard. I want them to feel like a million bucks when they walk on stage — I don’t want them to worry that they look like a dork.”

Both Gende and McGarry have daughters in the ballet company, so the costume-making hits at a more personal level than it might at a bigger company. It’s not just creating costumes for dancers — it’s creating specific costumes for specific dancers.

Larger companies usually have three versions of Gende and McGarry: wardrobe mistresses who organize and make alternations, costume mistresses who design and seamstresses to sew. At PFB, Gende and McGarry take charge of it all.

On top of their regular jobs, the women often work upwards of 20 hours a week. Prior to production, those hours tend to creep closer to 30. With the show’s premier on the horizon, Gende and McGarry are crunching to finish their collection.

“We’ll get there. It’s just going to be a matter of how much sleep we get before the show,” Gende said, glancing over at a bright blue caterpillar costume that still has plenty of opportunities to give her grief. “It never stops surprising me. There’s always something that doesn’t go the way I think it’s going to go, (but) you just have to keep rolling.”by: SUBMITTED: PORTLAND FESTIVAL BALLET/DASA OBEREIGNER - Bodices, like those on the Courtier dresses for 'Alice in Wonderland,' can take up to 20 hours to create.

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