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Costumer clothes Minnesota Ballet dancers in works of art

Sandy Ehle puts fairy costumes back on a rack at Symphony Hall recently. Ehle has made costumes for the Minnesota Ballet for years. (Steve Kuchera / / 2
Members of the Minnesota Ballet conduct a dress rehearsal of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Duluth’s Symphony Hall on Tuesday. Sandy Ehle has made many of the costumes used by the ballet over the years. (Steve Kuchera / / 2

There is a good chance Sandy Ehle notices what you are wearing when you walk into a room.

When she watches “Downton Abbey” or old movies, she’s seeing lines and hems.

At dress rehearsal for the Celebrity Dance Challenge in February, she eyed a civilian dancer and insisted the dancer find a different jacket to complement her Michael Jackson choreography.

When the Minnesota Ballet’s longtime costumer created the looks for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — which opens Friday at Symphony Hall — she was tuned into the shades that are found in nature.

“It’s the way my mind goes,” Ehle said recently in a makeshift office at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, where the company has been rehearsing for the past week. “I’m very visual.”

Ehle designed, sewed, adjusted or otherwise touched every piece the dancers wear on stage. And whether audiences know her by name, they regularly comment on her work.

Often they ask, “ ‘Where did you get them from?’ ” said Robert Gardner, artistic director. “I say, ‘They’re made and designed here.’ They think we buy them from a costume house in New York.”

‘Midsummer’ looks

Ehle has temporarily set up shop backstage at Symphony Hall this week.

She’s got two racks filled with costumes, a sewing machine, wigs, hairpieces and lists in a notebook on a folding table.

She started the week unpacking costumes from the ballet’s recent tour to Missouri. She has laundered and hung them. As it gets closer to show time, she can tweak and adjust.

Company member Alana Gergerich is dancing the role of Helena and will end up in an Ehle-made wedding dress in Act II. The dress has a bodice that fits like the top of a tutu, which makes it tight-fitting and stretchy — making it possible for the dancer to move and breathe, she said.

Aesthetically, the dress is simple and white, but it still pops from the show’s sets. Gergerich credited Ehle with creating a stunning piece.

“Something as simple as a white dress can be so stunning,” she said. “And it moves so nicely.”  

When a show is on the horizon, the designer and wardrobe supervisor will listen to Gardner’s vision for a performance and then sketch ideas and find the right colors and textures of fabric.

For the fairy costumes, which play prominently in “Midsummer,” Ehle wanted green, blue and gold bodices with lace and Tinker Bell cuts for the skirt.

“I love working with fabrics,” she said. “With the ballet, they’re pretty fabrics and flow-y. This is what I love.”

Ehle’s eye

Ehle got her dream assignment in 2013: She was asked to design the costume for the principal role in the ballet’s production of “The Firebird.”

“I’ve always wanted to do a ‘Firebird’ tutu,” she said, referencing the piece based on Russian folklore featuring music by Igor Stravinsky.

In the story, Prince Ivan is wandering in a garden and catches the Firebird, who agrees to help Ivan in exchange for her freedom. She tells him the secret of how to shake Kashchei so he can marry one of the princesses in his posse.

There is some crazy dancing and hardcore napping, and all ends well for Ivan, his love interest and the bird.

“I wanted to have a modern take on 19th-century Russian illustration, like in nesting dolls,” Gardner said. “A modern look with cleaner lines and not so fancy.”

Ehle said she wanted a costume that looked like it was on fire.

The end result was a nontraditional tutu with longer feathers down the back, with a front piece with swirls on top in red, orange and wine.

She considers it her favorite piece.

Ehle has done costume work for Ballet Palm Beach, a Florida-based company, based on the recommendation of former Minnesota Ballet dancer Rogelio Corrales for the past two years. She just returned from a 10-day trip that landed between performances of “Romeo & Juliet” and “Don Quixote.”

The former watercolorist has only recently begun to consider herself an artist, she said.

“I always thought everybody could sew,” she said. “I thought they could see how things go together. But not everybody knows that.”

A life of sewing

First she made clothes for paper dolls. When she got her own sewing machine, first she made doll clothes, and then she made her own clothes.

She has created costumes for the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Cats.” She got a gig working on costumes for the movie “The Good Son,” which was filmed in the Northland and led to a job on “Iron Will,” which also was filmed locally.

She joined the Minnesota Ballet about 16 years ago. She has designed the animal costumes for “Old Turtle,” a collaboration between the Minnesota Ballet and the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra.

“She’s very good at what she does,” Gardner said. “She’s always been a great constructionist. She can always put things together. She’s got a great eye for creating period pieces. She understands where I want the legs to show, so she knows where to put the slit in the skirt. She understands what we need for dancers, which is different than for actors: movement, flow and hemline. She’s just really creative that way.”