Mary Shaffer is an industrial seamstress who has sewn an outdoor awning, custom sailboat upholstery and even reusable coffee filters.
This year, Caroline Kurz, administrative director for the Garden City Ballet, called Shaffer with a different request. Mother Ginger in "The Nutcracker" needed a new costume, one with a skirt large enough to hide the tiniest dancers before they scurry out from underneath, and light enough for the actor to withstand its weight.
The design had to be collapsible, not too bulky to more easily accommodate transport.
In use some 20 years, the old getup was deteriorating, and part of it couldn't be taken apart and washed, Kurz said. "It was just nasty." So she reached out to Shaffer.
"I couldn't think of anybody else in Missoula. Not to put any pressure on you, Mary," Kurz said as she recalled the conversation.
Shaffer, who has sat in the audience for productions of Tchaikovsky's classical ballet, said the word "intimidated" doesn't quite describe her reaction to the request. She hadn't ever worked on costumes before.
Now, just a few weeks before opening night Dec. 13 of the 35th anniversary of the local ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," Shaffer has not only sewn and built the brand new Mother Ginger costume, she's working on yet another iteration to improve it.
"I'm refining again because I can't help myself," she said this week. She said the theater production is "remarkable," akin to spinning 20 plates in the air at once, and she's been pleased to work with the other seamstresses and artists on the show.
"Being on the inside like this gives me such an appreciation for how incredible it is that Garden City Ballet puts this on year after year after year. It is such a huge thing," Shaffer said.
Mother Ginger's outfit is the most intricate new costume, possible with a $5,000 donation from an anonymous family, but it isn't the only one. This year, Kurz said the fairy tale will showcase more than 20 new costumes, having invested upward of $10,000 into the pieces all told.
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"It's an unbelievable accumulation of costumes that we have and probably one of our greatest assets as an organization," Kurz said.
All the new Gingersnaps who hide under Mother Ginger's skirt have new costumes, replacing ones that were some 20 years old and "indestructible."
"They've been hemmed and altered and hemmed and altered. They've lasted because they're polyester and cheap and washable," Kurz said.
A couple of enormous butterflies will debut in this production as well. Kurz said a textile artist who recently graduated from the University of Montana and lives in Bozeman is painting silk that's 12 feet by 7 feet and will serve as the dancers' giant wings.
The Snow King has a new costume, as do several other characters. Some of the costumes can cost $500 to $3,000 apiece, and Kurz said the elaborate and exquisite work is an important part of the education and opportunity the ballet provides to young actors.
The costumes are at least on par with ones used by the Pacific Northwest Ballet or New York City Ballet, she said.
"To be on stage in front of 500 people for six sold-out shows, that's another thing," Kurz said. "And wearing a costume that costs $500, $1,000, $2,000 — it just takes it to a whole different level."
So far, the actor playing Mother Ginger said he feels comfortable in the new costume, Shaffer said. The construction required not just measuring and sewing, but drilling and threading metal rods, and metalworking assistance from a blacksmith friend.
Shaffer has a ticket to one of the shows, but she might peek in the wings, too, where Kurz said the actor dons the bloomers, blouse, vest, "gigantic crazy hat with wig curls" and more that transform him into Mother Ginger.
"It's a big ordeal to get him dressed in the wings in the dark before he goes onstage," Kurz said.