SALT LAKE CITY — As Bradon McDonald was heading to the Juilliard School, his mom gave him a credit card.
“Only use it for emergencies,” she told him.
At that time, in 1993, McDonald was an 18-year-old pursuing modern dance. At the Juilliard School, he danced 12 hours a day. The grueling schedule often took a toll on his body, but the young dancer didn’t go straight to his dorm room to sleep.
He went shopping. But he was good about not using the credit card — until the one time he wasn’t. To this day, he can still vividly remember his self-discipline dissolving as soon as he wandered into ABC Carpet and Home, an upscale fabric store in New York City.
“There was this exquisite jacquard (fabric). So many colors, so thick. Floral, paisley, I couldn’t even believe it,” McDonald said. “And it was half-off of $160, down to $80 a yard. Crazy expensive — especially for 1993. And I realized it was an emergency.”
So with his credit card, McDonald bought one yard and hoarded it in his dorm room. As he continued to dance, his fabric collection grew. At night, his dorm room became a workshop where he transformed old jeans into denim rugs, hand-stitched quilts and book covers, and then, when he got a sewing machine for Christmas, experimented with handbags.
After designing 10 bags, the dancer decided it was time to put his hobby to the test. He grabbed a sheet, traveled 5 miles to New York’s SoHo neighborhood and set up shop. He sold out in 30 minutes.
Performance I love ... but the bag, whether (customers) know me or not, they touch it and feel it and love it and get compliments on it and carry their stuff all day long in it and it lives beyond me. – Bradon McDonald
“The jewelry guy next to me said, ‘You know you have to have a permit to do this. You're going to get arrested.’ But I think he was just jealous because no one was buying his jewelry,” McDonald said with a laugh. “But it was fulfilling in a different way than dance. … Performance I love, but the curtain goes down and the audience just walks away with a ticket stub and a memory. But the bag, whether (customers) know me or not, they touch it and feel it and love it and get compliments on it and carry their stuff all day long in it and it lives beyond me.”
McDonald graduated from the Juilliard School in 1997, and after touring with the Limon Dance Company for three years, became a modern dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group from 2000-2010. But even all of his performances couldn’t keep him away from his other passion. In fact, throughout his touring years, McDonald’s handbag offerings grew from 10 to 100, and from $20 to $200. And in the back of his mind, each night on stage, the dancer always believed he would one day have a chance to pursue a designing career.
That chance came when McDonald turned 35 — the average age for a dancer to retire. Twelve hours after his final performance with the Mark Morris Dance Group, a Sunday matinée in Berkeley, California, McDonald began classes at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.
“I did not want to be bored for a second. I knew that would be a downward spiral, so at 35, I just jumped back into school with 18-year-olds and went for it,” he said. “I literally still had remnants of stage makeup on my first day of school. … I just figured I should leave while I was young enough and dumb enough to start another completely impractical career.”
Since transitioning to the fashion business, McDonald has competed on the 12th season of “Project Runway,” where he made it to the finale and placed fourth in 2013. The dancer-turned-designer’s latest work will be on display in Salt Lake City May 4 and May 6, when Utah Opera performs a semi-staged production of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera “Norma” at Abravanel Hall.
‘Costumes speak volumes’
On “Project Runway,” McDonald didn’t have time to waste. The show required challenges to be completed within a day, and resources and materials were limited. McDonald, who won several challenges on the show, quickly learned to make the most of what he had and run with it. The efficiency he developed on “Project Runway” has helped him in other projects, including designing costumes for Utah Opera’s “Norma.”
“It’s so expensive to be in the theater for opera for one day,” he said. “It’s like, that minute just cost us $5,000,” he said. “There’s no time to pretend. … You’ve got to go with your gut.”
With Utah Opera’s “Norma” taking place at Abravanel Hall (the company’s regular venue at Capitol Theatre is undergoing a six-month renovation), McDonald’s gut told him to capitalize on the unique concert hall setting. Although the tragic opera is set around 100 B.C., during the Roman occupation of Gaul, the fact that the orchestra musicians are dressed in concert black and visible onstage — as opposed to being in the stage pit at Capitol Theatre — immediately places the story in a modern setting, McDonald said.
Which is why he decided to give “Norma” a contemporary makeover.
“I came up with a scenario that the Metropolitan Museum in New York would be presenting ‘Norma’ as their costume collection and costume gala for the year,” McDonald said. “I can imagine Lady Gaga walking up the steps of the Met in (Norma’s costume), but it also works for Norma.”
Specifically, it’s Norma’s giant, earthy cape spanning 40 feet that McDonald said gives off the Lady Gaga vibe. The wide robe exploits the width of the Abravanel Hall stage, offsetting the narrow 12-foot length separating the opera’s principal singers from the stage’s edge.
“We’re making the costumes speak volumes about who these people are,” said stage director Crystal Manich. “When (the characters) move across the stage, the way that the costumes move, it’s our intention to have that really be the crux of the storytelling. The large robe that Norma wears, it’s a huge landscape, so it’s essentially the set. … It also represents her power.”
To help the other characters in “Norma” “pop,” McDonald has dressed Roman leaders like Pollione — who wants to leave the high priestess Norma for her dear friend Adalgisa — in clashing shades of “in-your-face red” that the designer finds both parts regal and scary. The character Adalgisa, who has less authority and experience than Norma, is dressed in lighter tones and more delicate material.
McDonald’s fashion-forward take on “Norma” drives the story, but it also helps drive his ongoing journey as a designer as the performers grow in confidence while wearing his costumes. In fact, McDonald considers that as much a confidence boost as being a finalist on “Project Runway” or selling his 10 bags on a flimsy sheet in SoHo. And it tells him that switching careers at 35 maybe wasn't so impractical after all.
“I could never stop that visual arts drive. …,” he said. “The hardest thing about leaving (Mark Morris Dance Group) was that I was an excellent dancer. I was at the top of my game, and I’m still trying to get there in design. It’s such a much bigger monster because everything’s new, but I’m getting there. I’m like halfway there.”
If you go …
What: Utah Opera presents Bellini's “Norma”
When: May 4, 7:30 p.m.; May 6, 7 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $15-$108