‘Cinderella’ behind the glitter: In the studio with Maine State Ballet’s longtime costume designer

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FALMOUTH — Rows of hand-dyed tutus and freshly glittered costumes hang on racks outside the fitting room at Maine State Ballet.

On the door, in large cursive letters, is a sign that reads: “Madame”– a name the associate director and production designer, Gail Csoboth, has earned from her 29 years as head of the ballet’s costume and set department.

At her desk, amid coffee mugs and cans of hairspray, Csoboth prepares for one of her final fittings of “Cinderella,” the full-length classical ballet that opens Friday, March 22 and runs through April 7 at the Lopez Theatre in Falmouth.

“This is one of the busiest days of the year,” Csoboth said as she marked the inside shoulders of the new Cinderella ball gown in red sharpie. “The big thing is the fittings. Each costume has to be adjusted to fit each dancer, and sometimes multiple dancers wear the same costume, so you have to make up ways for that to fit two or three girls.”

Csoboth grew up on Peaks Island and danced at the Dorothy Mason School of Dance, which later became Maine State Ballet. When she was in high school, she moved from Portland to Manhattan to study art at Julia Richman High School and train with the American Ballet Theatre, a classical ballet company.

While in New York, Csoboth received grants from Julia Richman to pay for her dance classes and was asked to perform in the American Ballet Theatre Choreographer’s Showcase. At 19, she decided that being a ballet dancer in New York City was too competitive, and moved to South Portland to raise a family.

Even though she was no longer dancing, Csoboth carried a passion for ballet performances. To entertain her two young daughters, Csoboth made dance costumes for their dolls and re-enacted classical ballets on a makeshift stage.

“I never thought that I’d be making them for real girls,” Csoboth said as she recalled sewing doll-size Cinderella dresses.

In 1990, when her children were older, Csoboth joined Maine State Ballet as the costume and set designer. Three years later, she created the costumes for the first production of “Cinderella.”

“I originally built ‘Cinderella’ in 1993, but then it’s been added to,” Csoboth said as she pointed to the new, light pink Cinderella ball gown hanging in her studio. “I re-glitz them and remake some of them.”

Csoboth is now in her 80s and works six days a week alongside eight other seamstresses preparing for “Cinderella.”

“It takes me about three months to produce the costumes and sets for a ballet we have already done and about one year for a new ballet,” said Csoboth, who is starting to gather materials for “Beauty and the Beast,” a new production for Maine State Ballet that will open next year.

Together she and her seamstresses do what she calls “building” costumes, not just “making” them.

“I start at the base, do some fittings, and add to it,” she said. “If it doesn’t fit, I rearrange it and do another fitting. It’s a process that you can’t measure in time.”

To help guide her, Csoboth has a book for every one of her ballets. Inside are her hand-drawn renderings of each character and costume, a list of upcoming fittings, and pictures from past performances to remind her of smaller details, such as shoe colors and headpieces. She also hand-paints pictures of the backdrops and sends them to Cobalt Studios, a scenic painting workshop in upstate New York.

“All of her work is so beautiful,” said Janet Davis, the artistic assistant and principal dancer. “We are very lucky to have her; she really knows what she’s doing.”

Down the hall from the fitting room is a large stockroom where every costume, set piece, and backdrop is stored.

“This is what we call tutu alley,” Davis said as she uncovered a row of white skirts adorned with little white petals, one of Csoboth’s newest creations. “The way these move on stage under the light makes it look like snow is falling.”

Csoboth said the inspiration for costume design comes from listening to the music of the ballet and researching its history. While she finds learning about different time periods and parts of the world fascinating, she looks forward to seeing the finished product.

“I create the costumes so that I can sit in the audience and watch them,” she said. “It makes me happy to see something that I’ve created come to life on stage.”

Janet Davis and Glenn Davis rehearse “Cinderella” at Maine State Ballet in Falmouth, in costumes designed by Gail Csoboth.

Costume designer Gail Csoboth in her fitting room at Maine State Ballet in Falmouth. Csoboth has been dressing the ballet company’s dancers for nearly 30 years.

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