June 30, 2020
What do you do at ABT?
"Working in Wardrobe can be very demanding, and it helps to be very organized and attentive to detail, which strangely enough, I enjoy."
By Vernon L. Ross
To be a supernumerary in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s production of Firebird at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. was a life-changing experience for me at the age of 21. It was the impetus for my changing the course of my career path after graduating from college. Having studied mostly modern and African dance because ballet training was less accessible, I had the opportunity to take company class for a week while DTH was in D.C. and consequently was invited to attend the summer intensive workshop that year. At the end of the summer intensive workshop, I was invited to return in the fall as a student in the professional training program. I was a student in the school for two years and was given an apprenticeship the following year. At the request of Mr. Arthur Mitchell, I was asked to work with the wardrobe department. Of course, as an aspiring dancer I was not thrilled with this decision but was hopeful. As part of my apprenticeship, I was given the opportunity to travel with the company and to take daily company class before starting my wardrobe duties. My career at DTH spanned the course from student to wardrobe assistant to wardrobe supervisor, culminating as the production manager for the professional touring company.
Touring nationally and internationally and working in some of the world’s most renowned venues was an invaluable experience for both my personal and professional development and growth. To witness firsthand the multifaceted complexities of live theater kept me focused and knowledgeable. There were always hurdles and challenges that I would have to face when coordinating and setting up shows – I would often have to “pull a rabbit out of a hat.” I look back on my trajectory and sincerely believe that the transition from a wardrobe assistant to the wardrobe supervisor brought me the most joy and satisfaction, which is why I now enjoy working at American Ballet Theatre. Working in wardrobe can be very demanding, and it helps to be very organized and attentive to detail, which strangely enough, I enjoy.
I started working as a dresser for the Principal men at ABT in May 2006; and in January 2017, I was hired as the assistant wardrobe supervisor for Principal men. Keeping up with the details, logistics and maintenance of the wardrobe for a company of 90-plus dancers, which tours extensively, can be very challenging. Documentation and organization are paramount to stay on top of all of the tasks and responsibilities required of the job. There are so many moving pieces that you have to be organized to a fault. How we pack the wardrobe equipment and costume crates before we travel, and unload them when we arrive at the theater, are crucial for seamless and successful engagements and performances.
I enjoy many aspects of my job, such as assuring that the dancers look their best and feel as comfortable as possible when performing on stage. This is achieved by way of individual costume fittings and alterations. I also collaborate with my fellow co-workers on ways to improve and streamline some of the basic wardrobe daily operations. The least favorite aspect of my job, only because of the personal stress it causes me, is preparing and assigning costumes for the dress tech rehearsals at ABT. While it is exciting and I am always happy to see dancers promoted with the opportunity to perform new roles, it’s unlikely in the ballet world that each dancer performing in a new role will have his own costume. In addition, we often do not run the rehearsals in program order, which prevents me from having sufficient time to properly prepare the costumes for the next cast as precisely as I would like. Oh well, welcome to the world of ballet!
Vernon Ross has been a valued member of ABT’s Wardrobe Department since 2006.
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Vernon Ross has been a member of the wardrobe department with American Ballet Theatre for the last fourteen years, however, working behind the scenes was not Vernon’s first love. Born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, Vernon made his way to New York as a dancer in 1981, joining the Dance Theatre of Harlem pipeline, first as a student in the school and then as a dancer with the company before eventually taking over the production department. In a pinch-hitting situation, (“I didn’t even know how to sew!”), Vernon was plucked from the studio and into the wardrobe department by Arthur Mitchell himself. Vernon quickly became an integral part of the creation of skin-tone tights and shoes for all of the company’s dancers. Vernon spent countless hours standing over 30-gallon boiling pots of water concocting the perfect shade for each individual company dancer. For the first time in ballet history dancers of color were embracing their skin colors on stage that celebrated them instead of covering them up with the traditional “ballet pink” toned tights, “All of them [the dancers] would treat tights like gold, because they wanted to look their best. It was one of the biggest aspects of my job because Mr. Mitchell was really a stickler about the flesh-tone shoes and tights. And, really, he set the platform for it being what it is today.”⠀ ⠀ #Juneteenthdancebreak | Thank you @MoBBallet for the inspiration. ⠀ ⠀ #BalletRelevesForBlackLives #AmplifyMelanatedVoices ⠀ ⠀ Photo Credits:⠀ Photo 1: Eddie Shellman and members of the Harlem Dance Theatre rehearsing Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments”, New York, New York, 1970. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)⠀ Photo 2: Tights and shoes on exhibit at “Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts.” Photo by Gene Ogami⠀ Photo 3: Vernon Ross. Photo courtesy of Vernon Ross