BWW Interview: Menagerie of Costumes in MKE Ballet's ALICE (IN WONDERLAND) Captures Stunning Magic

Rachael Malehorn, Photo Credit: Tom Davenport

How curious and curiouser an English children's fantasy written in 1865 for three sisters has been translated into 174 languages and never been out of print since, never once. Author Lewis Carroll's surreal tale "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," usually shortened to "Alice in Wonderland," appears on stage at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts when Artistic Director Michael Pink and Milwaukee Ballet present Alice (in wonderland), choreographed by Septime Webre and first premiered at The Washington Ballet in 2012, With this immense production of Alice, MKE Ballet Costume Manager Mary Piering completes 32 years in the company's costume shop at 5th and National to refit the more than 120 costumes for the one weekend only performances. A visit to the shop the week of rehearsals found Piering stitching a small headpiece, putting the finishing touches on the entire cast's wardrobe.

Piering oversees all the costumes for each production, most notably building, purchasing and refitting the 60 plus costumes for this season's World Premiere Dorian Gray, while also keeping the close to 160 costumes for the holiday's The Nutcracker in top condition for the three week December production run. The Alice (in wonderland) costumes arrived, on rental, from a recent stay at the Colorado Ballet six weeks before Milwaukee's May opening. Each costume must then be specifically fit to the double casting of major dancers the MKE Ballet enjoys. In this production, Alice, Queen of Hearts, Mad Hatter, Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat and the Dodo Bird need to be fit for two performers each.

Carroll's crazy menagerie of anthropomorphic characters would be a delight for any costume shop to fit and fill. Liz Vandal, who also designs for Cirque du Soleil, envisioned the original costumes where text subtly defines her designs. On the yellow and blue jodhpurs of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (characters borrowed from a Carroll's sequel Through the Looking Glass), their names flow up and down the length of their trouser legs barely noticeable. In a similar motif, Alice's name .appears on the familiar white and blue garments she wears in the performances. Approximately one dozen wigs accent the fantasy costumes from Alice's underground world discovered when falling down the rabbit hole, including exotic headpieces and hats royally fit for the King and Queen of Hearts along with the Mad Hatter.

Piering also explains pointe shoes, a mainstay of the ballet, require the priority for any wardrobe production budget, 70 percent of the budget to be exact. Each female dancer chooses a specific brand of pointe shoe, which needs to be special ordered weeks in advance because their classic toe shoes will be constructed by hand. In Alice, each pointe shoe must then be painted to match their costume--Alice in white shoes, the Queen of Hearts, red, and for the "roses" in her garden, the shoes will be colored green or red, never white because the Queen of Hearts hated white roses. Often two or more pointe shoe pairs will be required by each main dancer during the weekend performances, while adding in the male dancers and the children, keeps the wardrobe mistress on her toes back stage.

Besides the adult dancers, this production features between 100 to 105 children in the roles of Cards, Flamingoes, Piglets, Small and Large Doors or those darling Hedgehogs. At dress rehearsal last week, six fuzzy hedgehogs strolled in the hallway along with several flamingoes. Up close and personal, the hedgehogs's fur appears soft and fuzzy, begging to be stroked, while the pink birds' tails float behind them, nearly touching the floor. MKE Ballet's renowned dance academy offers their students these incredible professional experiences throughout any one season, a child's dream come true, while the audience admires these tiny dancers in their costumes from the surrounding seats in Uhlein Hall.

All these dreams begin in Piering's costume shop--a scene or scenes rarely acknowledged or noticed by audiences. During the production, one person overseas the wigs accompanied by six dressers and a wardrobe mistress for any one performance. In this world of quick changes, Piering relates that in one Romeo and Juliet performance, Romeo injured his foot during a dance and was unable to continue. The dancer switched roles with his alternate, also in the show, and the dressers hurriedly pinned the Romeo costume to fit. Unbeknown to the onstage Juliet, a different Romeo emerged onstage for the following scene. For one split second, Juliet questioned who was who and then leaped into the correct costume, her new Romeo.

Piering continues with another story: Before a curtain call at the end of a performance, the ballet ensemble crossed behind the stage before the final bows and curtsies. During the shift, a collision occurred and one dancer actually broke her nose, blood spotting the tutu. Fortunately, the performance had ended, although the ensemble missed their applause. These incidents, few and far between, require the physician and physical therapist who stay "on call' behind the scenes for any such emergencies. Afterwards, the cleaning and washing of every costume begins for each performance, fresh for any other extraordinary or ordinary wear and tear.

The audience remains blissfully unaware of these behind the scenes maneuvers, stitching up tears or reattaching any loose pieces, so a performance achieves perfection. Alice in Wonderland represents one of the grandest MKE Ballet productions to date, with Pink's acclaimed World Premiere Peter Pan requiring only 70 costumes. The ballet also features the the imaginary, wild puppets brought to life by La Crosse, Wisconsin puppeteer Eric J. Van Wyk. Van Wyk fashioned Carroll's Jabberwock, a huge creature with a wing span measuring 25 feet and manned by seven dancers. Each element, costume, pointe shoe or puppet, requires meticulous attention to maintain the mystery of the ballet on stage that entrances audiences.

Ballet, an art of incredible athletic beauty and timeless grace defined by body movement, excels in enchanting audiences with performance magic through these fascinating and fabulous costumes. Piering underpins that theatrical magic with practical expertise and skill, also perfected over years, similar to the undimmed popularity of Carroll's curious Alice. Experience the fantastic adventures of Carroll, Michael Pink and MKE Ballet when they perform Septime Webre's Alice (in Wonderland). Relax in those seats and be amazed at the invisible and visible, what happens behind the scenes and out front on center stage. Piering elaborated by sharing, "The costumes are exceedingly clever, [it's] a visually stunning show."

Milwaukee Ballet and Artistic Director Michael Pink present Alice (In Wonderland) at Uhlein Hall in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts May 19 through May 22. For information on the 2016-2017 season or tickets to the performance, please call: 414.902.2103 or

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