New ‘Midsummer’ fairies emerge from Deborah Overturff’s chrysalis

OMAHA — April 17, 2018 — We finally convinced our incredibly talented and prolific costume designer, Deborah Overturff, to put down her needle and thread to chat with us about her exquisite work in the upcoming production of Oskar Antunez’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha on May 5 and 6.

As she speaks affectionately of her love of costume design and ballet, it is clear Deborah is as exceptional, thoughtful and sparkling as her creations.

favorite creations

Costume designer, Deborah Overturff, with daughters Shanna (left) and Erika.

 

Are you designing/redesigning all of the costumes for Midsummer?

As the years go by, our goal at the ballet is not only to increase our inventory of unique costumes, but also to maintain and utilize those treasures from our past.  For this production of Midsummer, we do both.

Some of the new costumes I created this year are for fairy queen Titania’s four fairies — Moth, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustardseed — and for Fee, the impish companion to the mischievous Puck.

These are new costumes with a twist, because they are actually new versions based on the original costumes we used in our first season’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and those costumes were originally the ones I had made nine years previously for Montgomery Ballet, on loan to us for that 2011 production.

How closely did you collaborate with Oskar (or Erika) in coming up with the concepts and ideas for Titania’s fairies’ costumes?

I was lucky enough to be involved with the choreographer, Oskar Antunez, from the time this production of Midsummer premiered in 2002 when he was the associate artistic director for Montgomery Ballet with Priscilla Crommelin-Ball, the director. They provided me with sketches and information around their concept, but also with freedom for my own creative interpretation.

As for Erika, she and I have always bounced ideas off each other.  In fact, I have some of her original drawings for Midsummer from 2002.  She has a knack for costume design.  Erika and I collaborate on every production.

What costume design changes/updates should someone who has seen the 2011 production anticipate in the upcoming production?

cobwebs wings

Cobweb’s wings

When I think of the different scenes in this ballet, there is something new in each and every one of them — and at the same time, something familiar in each as well.

Ballet productions are archival in the sense that original costumes for a production are preserved and maintained.  Whenever a new production is mounted, those costumes become part of the history of the production and just as integral to future presentations as choreography.

While ballet costumes are designed to last, we do continuously build on what we have begun.

Tell us about the original Midsummer costumes you created for Montgomery Ballet, and how they came to be used for Ballet Nebraska’s first spring production in 2011. 

I originally made a set of these costumes for Oskar’s premiere of Midsummer in 2002.  They took months to make, and were some of the more labor intensive costumes I have created. These were the costumes we used for our 2011 production, courtesy Priscilla Crommelin-Ball and Montgomery Ballet.

In 2011, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the fourth production in our very first season. We had a tremendous amount of work to accomplish that year in terms of costume construction, among other things. I was more than grateful to be able to use the beautiful costumes I had made nine years before. (Thank you, Priscilla!) I never would have had the time to recreate that caliber of costume that first season.

Do the new costumes for Titania’s fairies pay homage to those designs?

Yes, some of the new costumes are reminiscent of the preceding ones.  Moth, Mustardseed, Peaseblossom, and Cobweb are perfect examples of this.  I created a set of costumes for these four fairies that will remain a part of our permanent costume inventory.

I like variety, so of course I made some changes to the original concepts.  However, I loved the originals, so the new fairy costumes are still very similar to the original designs.

What did you ponder as you were creating — and recreating — these costumes?

In the ballet world, it is considered an honor to dance in an original costume created for the first time; but it is also equally prestigious to dance in a well-loved, oft-used costume or design that represents those that have come before.

The new costumes for Titania’s four fairies are a little of both: a reworking of a prior favorite and a journey into the future with new surprises in store!

I had many conflicting emotions…..could I do it again? Yes, they were beautiful, special, magical — but they were also a ton of work. Did I have the strength?

Ultimately, I decided that we could not live without them, as these particular costumes embrace our personal history and journey that has led us to this day, and also the newness and discovery of our future in a community that has shown such overwhelming support for “The Ballet.”

So YES, I had to make them again.

No costume is typical — but how long did it take to bring all of these concepts to life?  

It takes an embarrassingly long time to make each and every one.

I started on Cobweb, Mustardseed, Peaseblossom, Moth, and Fee in January and now, about three months later, they are finally complete. The last of the fairies had their final fittings last week — early April! WAIT!!!!!! I almost forgot! I still need to go back and revisit an issue with Moth that came to light at the final fitting, so the final fitting was not the final fitting after all.  Moth’s next fitting will actually be at the theater!

What does it take to maintain these costumes during and after the shows?

moth costume

Moth’s wings

The work on a costume never ends. Even as they are being worn for performances, we continue to make adjustments and repairs right until the curtain comes down.

After performances are over, we clean and repair everything for storage.

How do you juggle so much work?

During the three month period I was working on the fairies, I was also working on costumes for the productions in our soon-to-be-announced Season 9.

Each year, as we prepare for our final program of the season, we are also preparing costumes for promotional photos for the next season. We are always working at least one season ahead!

Tell us about your incredible headpieces. Where does your inspiration come from?  

A wise woman and mentor, Tanya Bechenova, once told me that no costume is complete without a headpiece — and I do take her seriously!

Sometimes a headpiece may take as long to make as the costume itself, as with our Snow Maidens in The Nutcracker.

I am inspired by many things in the creation of a headpiece, but my end goal is that it should complete the character.  I always do research around every costume or topic.

In addition to the headpiece, the hair itself is an important aspect of the character. You will find that our dancers change their look — both headpiece and hair —  multiple times during some productions, such as Momentum.

That sounds like it requires some skills!

It does! If you ever want a good chuckle, go behind the scenes on the first run-through of a fast-paced piece like our production of Party Animals back in season four. Every quick-change is two to three minutes long at most, and includes a change of costume, headpiece, and sometimes shoes and hair.

The first time through, there are about a million things that could go wrong, and most of them do! But by the time of the performance, everything runs like clockwork and you would never know!

Did you try to make Titania’s fairies look different from Oberon’s fairies?

Yes, Queen Titania’s fairies are all about long lines. Each one has her own style of fairly large, elaborate wings.

The fairy king, Oberon, has a more spunky entourage  — Puck, and his sidekick, Fee.  There is a lot of partnering between Puck and Fee. The wings on Fee’s costume are more sedate than the other fairies’ costumes to allow for the close work between the two, including lifts.

Tell us more about Fee’s costume.

painting fee

Debbie Overturff handpaints fabric for Fee’s costume

Fee’s costume includes a flirty little overskirt of net that is reminiscent of a toned-down tutu in combination with her long silk skirt. This costume is made of stretch velvet and is very comfortable.  At the same time, it is highly constructed: the body of the costume has about 32 pieces and the skirt has over 32 pieces as well.

Erika did have a lot of input regarding Fee. She didn’t want it changed in any big way over the original one. This costume is also a favorite of company dancer Erin Alarcón, who danced the role of Fee in 2011.

Fee’s notable role in this production is a conscript of Oskar’s, and is unique to this version of Midsummer.

Who are the elves (or fairies!) who help you in the costume shop?

So that I could concentrate on the time-consuming fairy costumes, Shanna Zordell has run the show with all of our fittings for Midsummer. She had great helpers with that task including Amy Voogd, Wendy Linville, company dancer Rebecca Brenner, and other community volunteers.  In fact, all of our dancers pitch in whenever we have a fitting day. It is true that many hands make light(er) work!

Lance Glenn, our production manager, is also part of the costume crew in that he works on props and set pieces, some that require efforts from both the costume and production arenas.

Most importantly, the prior work of the talented Mona Schlautman always lives on in our productions in many ways, as well as the work of Travis Halsey, who is now a major costume designer in his own right.

What if someone in the community wants to help with future productions?

If anyone missed out on the fun for this production, there is always next time! Just send an email to shanna.zordell@balletnebraska.org and we will be sure to snap you up!  No skill necessary! We can teach you what to do, and we have fun doing it.

How did you become interested in costume design?

fees costume

Fee’s costume and headpiece

My dad bought my first sewing machine on a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska when I was 12.  It was an old, blue, metal Dressmaker and cost $10.00. I have it to this day for nostalgic reasons.  Both my Aunt Ellen and Grandmother (Nana) claim to have taught me to sew, and each in their own way did!

At some point along the way, I became interested in draping and pattern making.  In high school and college, I was fortunate to take additional classes, though my career was actually in dental hygiene. Still, sewing was a passion.

My dad called me a “sewing” machine, and thinks that the $10 was probably the best investment he ever made.

How long have you designed for the stage?

I started specializing in ballet costumes over 30 years ago, and that has been my niche ever since.  I started working with Tanya Bechenova, a former dancer with Ballet Russe, Col. De Basil. Tanya knew what a ballet costume should be and what it should do, while I in turn, could make it happen — so we were a good team.

My goal is that our ballet company should have a complete complement of all the significant and necessary costumes to last well into the future.

What are some non-Ballet Nebraska productions you’ve designed for?

Swan Lake, Coppelia, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Littlest Angel, Golden Glow,  and others.

Do you design and create fashion pieces or costumes in your own time for family, friends, clients?

Not really. All my time belongs to the ballet, and I need a little more of it!

What’s your favorite costume piece you’ve designed?

My favorite costume piece is always whatever I am currently working on. Right now, Titania’s four fairies and Fee are my favorites.

And I have a new favorite that I just finished for the spring of next season!

Can you reveal which ballet that is for?

Come to Midsummer to find out! I think people will be as excited as I am when next season’s productions are finally announced!

What else are you excited for in the future?

sneak peak sunday costume

Peaseblossom costume

In looking to the future, I must first look back at our past.  I am so grateful to Matthew Carter and Susan Chowning for stepping forward to give the ballet a home eight years ago, and for being wonderful to us all for all these eight years.

Thank you to Greta Vaught and John Ritland for purchasing a costume base from The Rose Theater. Thank you to the remarkable Kristin Harper for her extraordinary work on tutus and costumes throughout the years, and to Thom Peterson for his contribution to our first production of The Nutcracker.

Thank you to our earliest supporter, Mrs. Rebecca Liu, who unselfishly made things so nice in quiet ways in the early days.  Thank you to Dr. Thompson, Hal Daub, the Maser family, the Deweys, and so many others.

Thank you to my mother, who has helped with costumes for years before her hand surgery, but now keeps me fed and well taken care of while I spend most of my time sewing.

Thank you to our dancers who always go above and beyond. Thank you Lance Glenn, Jim Williams, Jolie Koesters, Shanna Zordell, Clyde Overturff, and Tom Cox who have been with us since the beginning.   And thank you to Erika Overturff and Sarah Maloney, who started this all.

I am bubbling over with excitement as I prepare for next fall, and for the future seasons when we make our  home in the Hoff Family Arts and Culture Center.

What specifically are you looking forward to?

I am looking forward to having a wonderful costume shop right next to the dancers’ rehearsal area. I am beyond excited that we, the ballet, will have costume storage also in the same building. All this will make life so much easier and productive for me, personally.

There are so many people making this possible: the foundations and the people behind them, Eve Simon, Pete Tulipana, and everyone who has helped make our dreams come true.

Do you have any final thoughts as Ballet Nebraska transitions to American Midwest Ballet after this season?

As we move forward to embrace becoming American Midwest Ballet, I am feeling very grateful for the many ways our generous community has supported the ballet for these past eight seasons, and for a bright and promising future for our company.

What does it take to make a costume? A little thread, some fabric, a beautiful dancer to show it off. What does it take to make a company? It takes a community like ours, and it takes people like you! Thank you, all.

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See Deborah Overturff’s exquisite costumes as Ballet Nebraska performs A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Orpheum Theater in Omaha on Sat., May 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Sun., May 6 at 2:00 p.m.

Tickets are on sale now.