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From the bargain bin to the belle of the ball
How Fort Wayne Ballet costume designer Tess Heet creates the fairytale world of "Cinderella".
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
When the Fort Wayne Ballet first launched as an incorporated not-for-profit organization in 1956, its premier full-evening ballet was Cinderella. And to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Fort Wayne Ballet is performing Cinderella over a two weekend run starting March 16 .
The story of Cinderella has been told for centuries, but the ballet adaptation only arrived in the mid 40s, which means that when the Fort Wayne Ballet staged it as their first full-length work, it was around 10 years old. “When you look at it that way… it’s sort of avant garde for a regional organization to present a ballet that was so new and not tried and true,” says Fort Wayne Ballet artistic director Karen Gibbons-Brown.
You’ll remember, of course, that Cinderella puts up with an awful lot from a wicked step-mother, evil step sisters, lost slippers, and a carriage that threatens to turn in to a pumpkin by midnight. She handles it all with grace and fortitude, and gets her prince in the end. In a way, it’s a pretty apt metaphor for what any dancer playing Cinderella has to go through. In addition to executing some demanding moves, including a complicated lift sequence, the part requires a lot of stamina, since the dancer is on stage for the majority of the three-act performance. Two dancers, Lucia Rogers and Barbara Schoen, will play Cinderella over the course of the ballet’s two-weekend run, so one of the Cinderellas gets a rest and dances a smaller role.
Two other very difficult roles in Cinderella are the step-sisters Drizella and Anastasia, played in this production by Leah Heet and Adrianna Rogers. “They’re supposed to dance technically beautifully, but they’re supposed to make it look like it’s bad ballet,” Gibbons-Brown says. “And bad ballet only works when it’s done with a good dancer with good technique. It’s not funny if it’s really bad ballet.”
Besides the dancers, one of the people largely responsible for bringing the fairy tale world of Cinderella to life on stage is the Fort Wayne Ballet’s costume designer Tess Heet. Gibbons-Brown says that Heet had quite a job in front of her: when Cinderella went in to pre-production over a year ago, there were no costumes. The Fort Wayne Ballet usually refurbishes costumes for productions like the annual Nutcracker, but Cinderella had not been performed in its entirety since the mid-90s. “Anything we had that could have been refurbished, that was in the appropriate style of this ballet, was no longer… refurbishable? Is that a word?” laughs Gibbons-Brown.
Heet, working with a handful of volunteers, created all the costumes for the production from scratch — that’s the tutus, the tunics, the head pieces… everything. “It’s all very time-consuming,” says Heet, who has been the full-time costume designer for FWB for four years. “It’s not all just pretty stuff. There’s lots of things that go on here.” She points to the costumes worn by the seasonal fairies, each of whom bring a gift to Cinderella before the ball. “These flowers are made by hand before they’re put on. Each one of these leaves on here is cut out and put on with an appliqué stitch.”
Heet buys the majority of the fabric and materials she needs from vendors in Fort Wayne, and with creativity and resourcefulness she can transform something she finds discarded in the bargain bin of a fabric store into something a princess might wear. She holds up some polyester chiffon found on the dollar-a-yard table. “When you think of the street value of this fabric, nobody is going to go in there and look at it and have any idea what they could use that for,” she says. “So it didn’t sell, and it got dumped on the dollar-a-yard table where I grabbed it.”
Creating costumes for ballet dancers means juggling your aesthetic sensibilities with practical considerations. “There’s a lot of considerations helping the dancers maintain their safety and their dignity,” Heet says. She explains that tutus have three layers. “The inner and middle layers are the same type of fabric. There’s a shirting I really like, usually cotton, something that absorbs well.” (nothing destroys the fairytale illusion like seeing a princess perspire).
As for the outer fabric, the one the audience sees, it can’t be slippery. Though the story calls for Cinderella to slip through the prince’s fingers, Heet has to make sure that’s in the figurative and not literal sense. “If someone is going to be lifted, the one doing the lifting has to be able to maintain a grip on the dancer,” Heet says. “If I like a particular fabric, but it’s too slippery, I’ll take a clear thread or a thread of the same color and do a cross-stitch that can’t be seen from the audience, but still doesn’t slip.”
“We’re very fortunate,” Heet explains. “A lot of dance companies are doing without costumes these days. But it’s actually a savings. If I were to order this tutu, it would probably cost $1300. And I can make them right here for much less.”
Saturday, March 17 2:30 & 8 pm
Sunday, March 18, 2:30 pm
Saturday, March 24 2:30 & 8 pm
Sunday, March 25 2:30 pm
Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $25/adult; $20/seniors; $15/children 3-10; $20/youth11-18
Matinee performances include a special meet and greet following each performance in the Ian Rolland Gallery. Enjoy sweets and punch while you meet Cinderella, get autographs and take pictures with selected members of Cinderella's cast.
Call the Fort Wayne Ballet at (260) 424-9646 for tickets, or drop by their offices at 324 Penn Avenue.