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The Dayton Ballet’s resident costume designer talks about his life and art

This is part of an ongoing series of visits we make to those who are making an impact in the arts community throughout the region.

The ooh’s and aah’s that greet an opening curtain at the Dayton Ballet are often a reaction to the beautifully designed costumes that seem a perfect fit for the drama about to unfold.

For many years, those fanciful designs have come from the rich imagination and talented hands of Lowell Mathwich, the Dayton Ballet’s resident costume designer. Mathwich, a former dancer, currently spends much of his life in the costume shop on the fifth floor of the Victoria Theatre building.

The upcoming premiere of “Cinderella,” the second full-length ballet of the current dance season, will showcase Mathwich at his best. The show, which opens on Thursday, Feb. 7 for a five-performance run, features a musical score by Sergei Prokofiev.

Recently, surrounded by sewing machines, sergers, and floor-to-ceiling boxes of fabric and trim, we talked with Mathwich about his interesting career and the upcoming production of “Cinderella.”

Q: Were you always artistic? How did you become interested in sewing?

A: I was in the choir, took violin lessons, played in the orchestra, all in my hometown of Minot, N.D. My mother sewed and she had five kids and made almost all of our clothes as children. She taught me to sew, and I used to make all of my own Halloween costumes as a kid. I made doll clothes for my sister’s doll.

Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?

A: Originally an architect, but then in my first year of college I joined a dance organization on campus and started taking dance classes. It was suggested I audition for a college in Missouri that had a scholarship in dance, so I went to Stephens College.

Q: What did you like about being a dancer?

A: I loved the performing part. It’s fun, you can lose yourself in it and be somebody else for a while. I danced professionally for 15 years. I danced with the Dayton Ballet for 10 years.

Q: Are you very disciplined?

A: I can be. That might have been some of the attraction of dancing — the fact that you go to the studio and are forced to be disciplined, you don’t have to think for yourself, the discipline is part of the art form. When I was dancing on and off in the summers, I would throw my dance bag in the back of a closet and not dance for months.

Q: How did you end up changing professions? Why did you stop dancing?

A: The two professions always went hand-in-hand. Because I was able to sew, I would make extra money building costumes for the company. When I came to Dayton Ballet in my first year, I was an apprentice and to make sure I had a full salary, I acted as assistant to Barbara Trick, who was doing costumes.

We had a designer here from New York — Mimi Maxmen — who was building head pieces for Swan Lake and I worked with her. She was a friend of Stuart Sebastian’s in the late ’70s and ’80s, and at a certain point, Stuart gave me the opportunity to design a small piece he was doing. And the pieces got bigger and more frequent, and in 1989 I was given the opportunity to design “Dracula.” That was my first full-length ballet.

I stopped dancing because it wasn’t fun anymore. And I still do perform. I still do Drosselmeyer in “Nutcracker” and I’ve done Lord Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Q: How has the costume department changed over the years?

A: When I was here as a dancer, there wasn’t a costume shop. People would work at their homes or in a kitchen area on the fourth floor of this building in the old studios.

Q: What do you like about sewing and creating costumes?

A: I think it’s the idea of being able to create something pretty from nothing. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in that. And I do love fabric. I have a collection of fabric I’ve purchased for myself just because I like it. A lot of the costumes I design start with a general idea in my head but the final costume is based on fabrics I can find.

Q: Where do you get the fabrics?

A: For “Cinderella,” I went to New York in June on my own. The first time I went to the garment district in New York I was getting ready to design and build “Dracula” in 1988. It was just amazing! It’s sad now because the garment district is shrinking and many of the buildings are being torn down and they’re building office towers in their place.

A New York fabric store is different than anywhere else. It’s not very organized; it’s like a treasure hunt. I get in and work my way through the store with ideas in my mind, and they’re good about giving you samples. You just work your way down the street and go from store to store and then start over again!

I don’t do color renderings any more at the beginning because I’ve had experiences where I’ve had a specific idea of what I wanted and then wasn’t able to find it, so I had to come back and create my own fabric.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: For the first “Nutcracker” in 1983, I wanted a plaid look for the underskirt of an evening gown, and we couldn’t find it so we ended up with fabric and ribbons and made our own plaid which was very time-consuming. Here, (pointing to Annette Stewart, a stitcher sitting at a sewing machine ), we’re working on Cinderella’s ball gown. It’s net with metallic dots woven into it. I wanted her to represent a ray of light, so I’ve added bands of gold and silver and iridescent ribbons so she’ll dazzle when she enters the ballroom.

Q: So you feel this is your calling? How many costumes do you think you’ve designed over the years.

A: It’s got to be thousands. “Nutcracker” alone has 200, and I’m about to start designing a new “Nutcracker.” I’m designing 47 for “Cinderella.” I think it must be my calling. It’s stressful, but most days it’s fun. The creative part of it can be exciting, the designing can be great, but getting it all built isn’t always fun.

Q: Do you design for organizations or individuals other than the ballet?

A: I have designed for The Human Race and am doing “Next to Normal” for them at the Victoria in May. I have been asked, numerous times to design for the Wright State Theatre department, but have always had schedule conflicts. I’ve done a few wedding gowns or veils, but only for very close friends. I have no interest in getting involved in the Wedding / Bridezilla business.

Q: Do you have favorite shows or costumes?

A: I think my favorite show for costumes was the “Christmas Carol” ballet we did. There was such a range of costumes because you had Past, Present and Future. This fairy-godmother costume will be one of my favorites.

Q: What was your inspiration for designing costumes for Cinderella?

A: We wanted to make sure it had a fairy tale setting, it has to be magical. I had Louis XIV in mind, the mid-17th century. I do a lot of research when I’m designing costumes. You can take an era and adopt it. It doesn’t have to be authentic to that period but it has to be close.

There is a color scheme for the show. The fairy godmother represents the night sky so she wears deep blues and purples. Her costume is a ballgown. We wanted something that looks floaty, so there’s a full skirt with layers of tulle and silk organza and an embroidered lace bodice with rhinestones and sequins. And I took appliques from the bodice and rhinestones and applied them to the skirt. The fairies are the four seasons, so the trios share the same color palette.

Q: Do you still sew?

A: I like sewing individual costumes, but I hate it when there are 15 of the same one to make.

Q: How do you make sure the costumes work for dancers on stage?

A: Because I was a dancer, I know what you can and cannot do. For example, I know where you don’t put trim. We have one or two fittings on the dancer, but I always keep in mind what the costume needs to do.

Q: What is the relationship between the choreographer and the costume designer?

A: You have to have a good working relationship and understand each other. I always ask outside choreographers if they have specific colors in mind for a ballet, when Amy Seiwart was here (from San Francisco) I listened to her music and watched her choreography.

Q: What happens to all of the costumes when a ballet is completed?

A: It’s not like a theater production, the idea of a repertory ballet company is that you’ll repeat ballets every two or three years. So our costumes get cleaned and put into storage and used again. But not always. We did an American version of Robin Hood that took place in upstate New York in the 18th century, and we’re not going to do that again. When the economy was so bad, we had no budget for “Casanova” so we were able to reuse many of those costumes. I used some of the leftover fabric from the Christmas Carol costumes for ” Jekyll and Hyde. “

And there was a company in New Jersey that lost its sets and costumes and purchased three-fourths of our old Nutcracker costumes.

Q: What do you do when you’re not working?

A: I’m here 12 hours a day seven days a week. I like to cook because I like to eat. I read — mostly fiction — and there’s a great mystery series set in Italy by Donna Leon. And I love to travel. I loved Antwerp and would love to go to Paris, England.

Q: What do you do when you can’t sleep at night?

A: I’m a perfectionist. My mind is always on costumes and figuring out how to put things together. I’m notorious for adding as we go along… even at the final performance of a show!

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