They call her “G. Veg,” short for “Grandma Vegas.” She’s one of the most dedicated artists at the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, and without her, no production would look the same. Because G. Veg, also known as Barbara Smith, makes the dancers’ costumes — for free.
“I want the dancers to have quality and securely made costumes because I believe they will dance better if they know the costumes will not fall apart on stage,” she says.
Smith, a 73-year-old retired sixth grade English teacher, began volunteering for Missouri Contemporary Ballet about five years ago, not long after she moved to Columbia from Las Vegas to be closer to her only child — the artistic and executive director of Missouri Contemporary Ballet, Mama Vegas herself, Karen Mareck Grundy.
“I saw the state of her costumes, and she didn’t have the money to pay a costumer, so she talked me into doing it,” Smith says.
Smith wasn’t sure she was good enough. Her experience in designing stage costumes was limited to what she had sewed for Grundy’s childhood. Even now, after several shows, Grundy says her mom still doesn’t give herself enough credit.
“When we come to her with a design or a thought, always, initially, she’s like, ‘Ugh, I don’t think I can do that,’ ” Grundy says, “and I’m always like, ‘Yeah, I think you can.’ Then she takes some time to think about it, and she always figures a way.”
In most cases, Smith starts with an illustration, which someone else draws to capture the vision of the choreographer. Once Smith has talked through the design, she looks to see if an old costume can be reworked or if she’ll need to order a new pattern. Sometimes, she makes the pattern herself. During a “sewing season,” as Smith calls the three or so months she spends preparing for a season at Missouri Contemporary Ballet, Smith spends about 20 hours a week sewing.
Helping Smith is Alex Gordon, a male dancer who is learning costume design. He’s often the one who draws the costume sketches for Smith, and he says it’s amazing how she immediately understands his vision.
“Instead of having comments on the drawing per se, it is more right away about material and how it is actually going to happen,” Gordon says. “And what’s so great about her is she protects the creativity. When I show her a sketch, she tries to make it to a T. … As an artist, I am allowed to say, ‘This is what I want,’ and she has the level of detail to make that happen.”
“She’s a perfectionist,” Grundy says, “which, I’m sure, is where I learned that.”
One production that required an exceptional amount of thinking and sewing time, too, was last summer’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Details such as a backless dress for Alice and a skirt with some stiffness in the hem to make it fluff were essential to creating the show’s magic and presented new challenges to Smith.
Gordon was a big help for “Alice” — but before he could help, Smith had to teach him how to sew. It was just one more example of her generosity, Gordon says.
“She’s the kind of person who gives a little more than you expect from someone,” he says, “and that makes you feel like family because that’s what family does: They give a little bit more than a friend would.”
Grundy describes her mom’s relationships with the dancers in terms of family as well.
“My dancers are, in a way, my kids, which I think makes her feel like they are kind of her grandkids,” Grundy says.
Smith agrees, adding that it’s not uncommon for the dancers to come to the home she shares with Grundy for meals or for them to go watch a movie together.
“I get close to all of them,” she says. “There are dancers leaving this time I will really miss. It’s hard to talk to them right now because they are getting ready to leave, and I will miss them and they will miss me.”
The relationships are Smith’s reward for her volunteering. Unlike the dancers who perform their art out of a passion for the art itself, Smith doesn’t sew for sewing’s sake.
“I don’t specially like doing it,” she admits with a little laugh. “I just like doing it for them.”