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PBT costumier gets troupe ready, as usual, for 'Swan Lake'

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Janet Groom-Campbell's ballet background is extensive and varied. Her artistry has been featured in everything from Balanchine classics to contemporary pieces by some of today's top choreographers.

This weekend, her work will be spotlighted in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's revival of "Swan Lake" with the orchestra at the Benedum Center, Downtown. She won't be on stage, but she will make sure the dancers look their best in costumes stitched with the skills she's gained as the company's costumier for 40 years.

‘Swan Lake’ with the orchestra
Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Tickets: Start at $25.75 at or 412-456-6666.

Her anniversary is an amazing feat, says artistic director Terrence Orr. She's been with PBT for all but four years of its existence and has had a hand in more than 500 tutus for 200 productions during her career. She also oversees the storage of approximately 2,000 costumes, plus shelving units filled with accessories.

PBT is fortunate to have such an extensive costume shop and storage, Mr. Orr says. During his time with American Ballet Theatre in New York City, many of these resources were not available on site.

At least a month before a production, Ms. Groom-Campbell retrieves costumes from storage and begins making any needed repairs and alterations. When building a costume from scratch, she listens to the ballet's music and talks to the choreographer about the vision. She also travels and attends performances by other ballet companies to observe their costumes.

"I like to mock up things on the mannequin for the choreographers," Ms. Groom-Campbell says. "They're amazed. They talk to me a bit, go to a rehearsal and come back, and there's a costume on the mannequin."

She also makes sure dancers have their custom-fit shoes (some of which must be sized and ordered 11 months in advance) and know what accessories go with which outfit and how to style their hair.

At the theater, Ms. Groom-Campbell tries to watch all performances from the audience to see how the costumes look on stage and relays tips for adjustments to the costume supervisor, who manages dressing backstage.

"I enjoy going to every show," she says. "After you work on a ballet for so long, it's nice to see it as much as you can."

She understands that costumes are an essential tool a ballet uses to tell a story or convey a theme. In "Swan Lake," the dual personas of the pure, reserved white swan Odette and the malevolent black swan Odile are reflected in their respective tutus' styling. The costume for the former is soft and demure, Ms. Groom-Campbell says, while Odile's is sharper and more severe.

"It's a totally different feel," she says.

But if a dancer doesn't feel comfortable in a costume, it's not complete -- no matter how good it looks.

"Let's make it work," she tells them when a costume is restricting their movements.

"I appreciate her keen eye and expertise," says principal dancer Julia Erickson. "Bottom line is she understands that she is integral in facilitating the dancer's best show."

A genuine appreciation for the arts has kept Ms. Groom-Campbell interested in her work for all these years.

"There's a little spot in my heart that says 'ballet,' " she says. "I love music, and I love the expressiveness of dance through music."

Early on, she combined this passion for performing arts with her sewing skills, studying fashion design at the Fashion Academy of Pittsburgh, then on Fifth Avenue, Downtown. She landed a job as a stitcher at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Some of the women she worked with there also helped PBT with costumes, and when the company needed some extra assistance one summer they recommended Ms. Groom-Campbell.

Not only did she find her career at the ballet, she met David Campbell, her husband of more than three decades. He was technical director, and then production manager, during his tenure.

"It's good to be married to someone who you've worked with because they know what your career involves," she says.

She recalls one year when she was in between assistants before the annual "Nutcracker" run and had four laundry baskets filled with shoes to color. She told him she wouldn't be home until midnight because of the workload.

"I can spray the shoes," he offered, and she got to go home by 9 p.m.

She also cherishes memories of her daughters accompanying her to work when they were little, she says.

Through her career, she's witnessed PBT evolve into the company it is today.

"We had a lot of well-known people in the dance world here," she says.

PBT's founder, Nicolas Petrov, was artistic director when she came on board. Then came Patrick Frantz in the 1970s, followed by former New York City Ballet principal Patricia Wilde.

"She really brought a lot of the musicality of Balanchine" as artistic director, Ms. Groom-Campbell says.

When Mr. Orr took over in 1998, she watched him add to the repertoire more contemporary works and European ballets, such as PBT's 2012 production of John Neumeier's "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"It takes a lot of people to keep a company surviving," she says. "Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to support a ballet. We each have our special job here."

She keeps in touch with many of PBT's past employees, inviting former artistic directors and ballerinas from the 1970s to her house for special occasions.

At one gathering, Mr. Petrov told her, "You've stuck with the ballet through thick and thin, and you've made a nice career for yourself."

"You know," she remembers telling him. "You're right."

Sara Bauknecht: or on Twitter @SaraB_PG.

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