Photo Lindsey Abendschein. Courtesy of Shepherd Express.
After 40 years of working at Milwaukee Ballet, Mary Belle Potter has plenty of stories to tell, each one more interesting than the last.
“We did a show in Aurora and the washing machine was flooding, so we went to a Laundromat close by. We accidently set off the alarm and the police showed up!” she laughs in her classic way, eyes sparkling.
“You know, [former Artistic Director] Jean-Paul Commelin once called me from Sweden and begged me to fly out and help open his show? I said, ‘Jean Paul there is no way I am flying out to Sweden or Norway or wherever you are!’”
At the end of this season, this chapter of Mary Belle’s story will close as she retires to spend more time with her husband.
“Mary Belle is so much more than a wardrobe mistress. She’s the guardian of the Company’s history,” explains Artistic Director Michael Pink. “She can touch any of these costumes and tell you which ballet it was from, who choreographed it, and who wore it. The entire Company, past and present, adores her and can’t fathom not seeing her every day.”
Mary Belle was a volunteer before Milwaukee Ballet even had a costume department. Before the Ballet had a truck to transport costumes and scenery, Mary Belle plopped the tutus in the front hood of her Volkswagen Beetle and drove them to taverns, performance halls and wherever else the Company had a show.
The first ballet in which she worked backstage was "Coppélia." “I’ll tell you, those dancers,” she laughs, “some of them could barely get on pointe. But you know what, I felt like Cinderella backstage. It was wonderful.”
Cleaning up after the show was less magical. “When the ballet was over, all the costumes were in a big heap on the floor. Greta Assaly [the Company manager] picked up the costumes one by one; I’d make a note and put it on the hanger. That took over two hours! After that, I told them, ‘I’m sorry. If I’m doing this job, I’m going to find a way to do it faster.’”
Forty years later, she has perfected the job. She knows exactly which tutus can be hand-washed and which need to be dry-cleaned, as well as the proper location for every costume.
Ballet shoes, and a tight shoe budget, are also her responsibility. Pointe shoes are highly specialized and each dancer has a favorite style. Many of the retailers are overseas, so slippers must be ordered up to eight months in advance. Mary Belle has a tried-and-true method of tracking the shoes orders: labeled cardboard boxes and index cards with tally marks. That’s right, Mary Belle does everything by hand!
Have you noticed a pair of bright red slippers for Scotch Symphony or black slippers on an evil queen? Mary Belle also hand-dyes all the slippers to make sure they match the costumes perfectly.
During performances, she is backstage with a small pair of scissors around her neck and a sewing kit nearby, just in case anything should need an immediate repair.
Costume Shop Manager Mary Piering, who has worked with Mary Belle for nearly 30 years, succinctly calls Mary Belle “the perfect role model,” praising her knowledge, dedication and passion.
The one thing Mary Belle doesn’t want to talk about is leaving. “It’s too hard for me. I think about it, and I just start to cry. I wish I could just tell people how appreciative I am.”
Mary Belle is truly one-in-a-million. She is at every show, staying late into the night to make sure the costumes remain in perfect condition. She will dig through the vault of costumes in the basement to find the right tunic and then tell you a story of how Fernando Bujones wore it before Rolando Yanes. Even at 89, she has no problem lugging costumes up and down stairs from the costume shop to storage. Any offer to help will be greeted with an “I’ve already got it.” She is one of the hardest working, encyclopedic, fascinating people in the business. It is hard to imagine how she fits all of that amazing energy, spirit and dedication into her tiny office across from the laundry room.
Longtime Milwaukee Ballet Board Member Katie Heil sums it up beautifully. “Mary Belle Potter is the heart, soul and MEMORY of Milwaukee Ballet,” she says. “As a quintessential wardrobe mistress, she has lovingly cared for and organized thousands of costumes from hundreds of ballets. She has been the ‘mother hen’ of the wardrobe and surrogate mother to decades of dancers. Mary Belle is consistently delightful. She is my ‘go to’ person whenever I cannot remember a piece of repertory, a dancer’s name, or ‘what year we do did this piece?’ Most often, when I am looking for her at the studios, I will find her perched way too high on a ladder, or in the bowels of the basement. But, you always want to find her. Mary Belle will be missed....”
Milwaukee Ballet will feature Mary Belle in an Artist Series luncheon on April 25. "Swan Lake," the penultimate ballet, will be presented in her honor in May. Mary Belle received the Daniel Forlano Award at the annual meeting, where she was given a teary-eyed standing ovation. If this is any indication of how "Swan Lake" will go, you may want to bring Kleenex.