Dress rehearsals for Owensboro Dance Theatre’s 26th production of “The Nutcracker” took place over the weekend at Johnson’s Dance Studio. Over 210 dancers, including 160 extras, will be seen in two school performances on Friday and the full production on Saturday on the RiverPark Center stage.
The costumes range from Victorian period dress to contemporary stylings known to Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre and the Radio City Rockettes, and local costume designer Anne Welsh has created each costume for the production since its first show. By her estimates, she has worked on over 1,000 costumes for ODT productions.
Welsh said that it feels like she has been a costume designer for all of her life. She learned to sew at an early age but did not think of it as a career. In fact, her college degree is in music education.
“I wish I’d known I had the talent to do this,” Welsh said.
In the early 1980s, Welsh was performing in a Theatre Workshop of Owensboro production as the lead. The director and producer wanted her to have a specific costume, and she decided that she could create it — and has been creating costumes ever since.
Through online classes and reading, along with “making it up” as she went along, Welsh has learned costume management and design. She said that everything she does to costume a production is what is taught, but the main difference is that she doesn’t have a staff helping create, inventory and alter each piece.
“It’s just me,” Welsh said.
In 1993, Johnson’s Dance Studio owner and Artistic Director Joy Johnson reached out to Welsh to make costumes for its first Nutcracker production. Welsh made all of the “Waltz of the Flowers” classical tutus by developing her own pattern and since then, has collaborated on the costume designs for Owensboro Dance Theatre productions as well as performing in each ODT Nutcracker production and even choreographing two scenes.
As a freelance costume designer, who works nationwide, Welsh said that she is sometimes asked if she can make something from an idea they have, and most often, she tells them she will try.
For example, when Owensboro Dance Theatre staged “Beauty and the Beast” for the first time in an “In Concert” production, Welsh was asked to create a piano costume and also Chip, the teacup. Welsh said that she decided foam would be the best material for the piano as she wanted the arms and head of the dancer to move, but that Chip posed some creative issues.
“You’d be surprised at how much geometry goes into something like that,” Welsh said.
She built the teacup around an elastic-waisted skirt so that when the dancer wearing the cup moved, the cup also had movement.
Welsh’s costuming creativity can be seen in all Owensboro Dance Theatre productions. When directors realized that the dancer who portrays this year’s Rat Queen has a quick costume change and that applying makeup would be a limitation, Welsh was asked to make the costume portray a more sinister element since it couldn’t be on the dancer’s face.
“There is more to what I do than just sitting in a room sewing,” Welsh said.
Welsh created a collar for the Rat Queen, much like an Elizabethan ruff, that has pointed and jagged black tentacles that rise up around the dancer’s head. Welsh used floral wire, black velvet and sparkly tulle, and the fingers of the collar can be shaped.
The darker element of this costume design also visually portrays the character to the audience, influencing the audience to decide if they are bad or good. All costume and lighting designers consider this as they work on the technical elements of a show.
Welsh’s permanent workroom is above the garage of her home, where she said she has floor-to-ceiling cabinets that house fabrics and add-ons. She has boxes of patterns, some purchased but most originals, that are labeled by period or performance and sewing machines, dress forms, a steamer and a large table. It is here that she said she begins each new or modified costume design by putting out different fabrics and accessories and deciding what works and what doesn’t.
“What I do is figure out how flat fabric can go around a three-dimensional shape,” Welsh said.
For the dancers in each show, Welsh must consider not only the character’s appearance but also the fabric that will allow the dancer to move as intended.
Of the costumes in “The Nutcracker,” some are new, some are modified and some remain the same. However, each year, the dancer wearing the costume changes, which means that Welsh has to make alterations on every costume.
“The costumes I make are made to last year after year,” Welsh said. She also creates the pieces with a front and a back, which is different than most clothes, because it allows alterations to be made on a side seam and not change the front or back.
Once the dancer or extra is assigned a role, Welsh takes each costume and uses the sizing each has supplied to make the necessary alterations. She then attends a rehearsal for each number to have the dancers try on the costume. She takes the costume home and makes the necessary alterations before the dancers receive their costume to wear for the studio dress rehearsal, which Welsh also attends. At the stage rehearsals, which take place the week before the performances, Welsh has a travel workroom at the RiverPark Center where she can do quick fixes, if needed.
Company and apprentice company members wear several costumes for each production, so Welsh measures each of them and uses her dress forms to fit each costume for accuracy.
Welsh also creates the costumes for the “In Concert” spring show, which changes annually.
One of Welsh’s proudest designs for an “In Concert” show was the three birds that were in “The Jungle Book.” Each costume was vibrantly colors and had feathers that ran from arm to arm. When the dancer extended their movement, the feathers ran in what appeared to be a semi-circle but were more so the arms could have over-the-head range.
In February, Welsh and the directors of the spring show will begin creating original costumes for the show. Welsh renders a drawing to show the directors and then they discuss it, making color or design changes, if necessary.
Johnson said that besides Welsh’s talent that many speak of, Welsh is a “type-A doer.”
“You just know it will get done and be gorgeous,” Johnson said. “If there is something to be changed, she will do it. Anne cares about what each production looks like, not just the costumes.”
“My name is on it,” Welsh said. “If it doesn’t look good, it is on me.”
Tickets to the 7 p.m. Dec. 7 public performance of ODT’s “The Nutcracker” can be purchased by calling the RiverPark box office at 270-687-2770 or online.