Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Step through the entrance of the Milwaukee Ballet’s National Avenue offices, past the reception desk, and into the small cubicle-lined room where telephones ring and administrators chat. Continue down the carpeted hallway, past racks of costumes, and be careful not to step on dancers who are sprawled on the carpeted floor, grabbing a few spare minutes to stretch. Turn a corner, then another, and there they are: dozens of dancers who are leaping and bouncing as a pianist beats out a music-box tune.
But this is not your destination.
Step through another door, down a dark cement stairway, past a gathering of rummage-sale sofas and chairs, and you have arrived.
Open the door, and behold the domain of 89-year-old Mary Belle Potter, the ballet’s wardrobe mistress.
Thousands of costumes from dozens of productions hang on poles that run the length of the room. Under them, hundreds of neatly labeled cardboard boxes hold extra fabric for repairs: Giselle (1982), Stars and Stripes (1995) and so on. The costumes, too, are labeled, but Potter doesn’t need to look. For her, each show is more than spandex and stitches. It’s a chapter from her 40 years working with the ballet.
As fluorescent lights hum, Potter leads the way down one of the aisles. She has stories to tell.
“Oh, this is an old ballet; this is Coppelia,” she says, stopping and pulling out an outfit reminiscent of a Scandinavian folk dancer. “We just got a call from Tennessee about renting these, and I told Mary” – she means Mary Piering, costume manager – “we can’t charge the usual $75 for these. They’re 30 years old.”
Walk on, U-turn around to the next aisle, notice the signs between the hangers identifying each production. “Here are the huntsman’s outfits from an old Swan Lake,” she says, pulling out a leather jerkin that could have adorned the Sheriff of Nottingham.
“We got all kinds of free leather from the Gallun tannery because someone was on the board.” She picks one of them up and feels the weight. “Oh”– her eyes light up as she remembers –“we did the show in De Pere. We used to tour quite often, and there was a man who drove up from Madison to be a ‘super,’” which is a non-dancing extra.
Her hands float out from her hips as she whispers, “Well, he showed up and was this big.” On the road away from the shop, she had to improvise: To give his outfit added girth, she cut up a pair of tights and sewed that material into the back seam. “I gave him a cape to cover his back,” she says, “and no one knew the difference.”
Back up the stairs, squeeze into Potter’s tiny office, which she shares with hundreds of ballet pointe shoes. There’s a box for each female dancer in the company, and a label keeps a tally of how many remain on hand. “They go through two pair every week,” says Potter. And since it takes up to eight months for an order to be delivered, the stockpile needs to be monitored closely.
Close by in the hallway, an armoire-sized shipping crate on wheels stands ready for the next performance. As head dresser, Potter and her case – sewing machine, fabric, paint, pins, etc. – are there for emergencies. And there have been many.
But her work at the ballet has been only a second career. Born in Milwaukee, Potter’s mother wanted her and her brother to grow up in “the country,” so the family moved to her grandfather’s farm near Muskego. Her first ballet classes were with the Joyce Potter School of Dance, and they certainly made an impression. Potter eventually spent years running her own ballet school, long before the city even dreamed of its own professional company.
When the Milwaukee Ballet was founded, she joined the Ballet Friends, volunteering wherever she was needed, until she was recruited to take charge of the costumes for the company’s first production of The Nutcracker. Even though “the only experience I had in sewing,” she says, “was in 4-H.”
Since then, she’s been the fixed pointe around which the company’s history has twirled. Potter has worked in three different buildings, served under eight different artistic directors, and helped on 38 productions of The Nutcracker. This edition of Swan Lake – a true swan song – will be her 11th.
She’s a reluctant retiree. “I love this job,” she says. “I’m lucky. I’m healthy. But my husband is 94, and he is not too well. And I need to take care of him.”
But for Potter, she still has work to do around the ballet. There are binders of costume lists for every ballet the company has performed. It needs reorganizing, and she’s working on it. “Even if I don’t finish before I retire,” she says, “I’m going to come back and do it.”