Bradon McDonald talks about Project Runway

Bradon McDonald, the Mark Morris veteran, talks about his second career as a designer and contestant on Project Runway

Time Out New York: How has being a dancer prepared you for this? 
Bradon McDonald:
You have to have nerves of steel in both industries. The drive, the focus as a dancer, the fact that your foot is split open and bleeding halfway through a dance that’s two hours long makes no difference—you have to perform. Curtain up. And that is the same thing, every day, in the fashion industry. You have to produce. You can’t wait for the muse to fly out of the sky, and suddenly you design. It’s 24 hours.

Time Out New York: It’s so funny when people on the show start crying; I think of you: Have you ever cried and not gone onstage?
Bradon McDonald:
I’ve cried onstage before. [Laughs] Dido and Aeneas. That role is the greatest to dance, and I was so honored to be able to perform it, but I was also so anxious before those shows. I had to transport myself to another place to do it and I would weep onstage, especially after I died at the end; upside down, I would be filling the stage with sweat because it was dripping off my head, but 20 percent of that was also tears just because it was so emotionally taxing and physically grueling to go through it that you just break down. Thankfully you sweat, so nobody can tell.

Time Out New York: Did you ever consider choreographing?
Bradon McDonald:
Yes. I thought maybe after performing I would do more choreography for operas. I had done a lot of work choreographing operas, both at Juilliard and in St. Louis, at Berkshire Opera, and Aspen. And I would teach opera singers dance classes at Houston Grand Opera. I taught at the Bolshoi. I taught at L.A. Opera. I thought that would be where I would go. I choreographed—I made some work that I really liked at the time and set work on different companies, some in Venezuela, some in this country, some in the U.K., but I didn’t have the drive and I thought maybe I would have a couple of good dances in me, but not a career’s worth of choreography.

Time Out New York: Do you think of designing as a different sort of choreography?
Bradon McDonald:
Absolutely. It’s more like choreographer/director because of the different departments you have to deal with: the pattern-makers, the production, the marketing, the budget, the models, the runway show, the accessories, the shoes, the styling, the makeup, the hair and—oh yeah—you’ve got to design something too. It’s not like you just design all day. A designer does a million different things—working with the buyers, working with the sellers. It’s more like director-choreographer of an entire Broadway show, basically every season.

Time Out New York: What is Project Runway really like?
Bradon McDonald:
It is grueling. The time frame is so real. I thought, Okay, they say 30 minutes at Mood, but maybe you get a little extra time? No. It’s down to the second. You have 30 minutes to sketch, and then your sketchbooks go away. A one-day challenge is really a one-day challenge. I thought there was a little extra wiggle room here and there, but there really isn’t, and to make garments in a day that you are proud of is so difficult. You have no patterns, no textbooks, nothing. It was frightening and thrilling and so exciting and completely exhausting.

Time Out New York: Did you love anything you made or did you always wish you had more time?
Bradon McDonald:
Everything I wish I had longer for. You have to let it go at a certain point, and I think that’s true with anything that you create. The exciting part of Project Runway is, what can you make in this amount of time? I love strict guidelines. I think that’s a lot like being a dancer, especially for Mark Morris. You have a very specific map of choreography. It’s basically a second score, and how you perform that choreography is so specific to the music and what the music is doing. There’s not a lot of room for interpretation. And yet you have to bring yourself forward and pour your heart out and present everything as fully fleshed out at every moment that you can, and that drive, that push, that understanding of embracing the restrictions and letting yourself go within that—it focuses me. And I don’t like it when I’m unfocused. I go crazy.

Time Out New York: Do you think about the movement of clothes?
Bradon McDonald:
Yes, I do. But I also think about how sculptural the piece is. If I’m doing a moving piece, I have to see it on the model. I have to see the model walk. It could look great on the dress form and not so great on the model. Or vice versa. I’ve made things that don’t look so hot on the dress form and I’m kind of disappointed and then the model puts it on and it’s a completely different garment because it’s got a live body, because it’s moving, because maybe the model likes it and lights up and it changes what the garment is depending on who’s wearing it.

Time Out New York: On the show, do you help your model with her walk?
Bradon McDonald:
I have, absolutely. For the diamond challenge, I made a jacket that had a focal point in sequins on the center back and the gown was backless basically. I worked with Ya, my model, on choreographing a little turn in the center of the runway so she could drop the jacket. I worked with her on the rhythm of the turn: When to turn and when to drop the jacket and when to step forward without restricting her and just letting her do her thing, because she’s an amazing model and she knows what she’s doing. But I had a certain idea of how this jacket could come off to both show the jacket and the gown and to let her shine. I think that goes back to working with opera singers. You can give opera singers choreography, but they’re not dancers. You can’t give them something so specific if they’re uncomfortable with it because it will destroy everything. So it’s working with models in a sensitive way to bring out their personalities, to bring out the clothing, and if anything starts to get shut down, I immediately back away and change it. It’s most important that the model feels beautiful and confident. Or the woman feels beautiful and confident in what she’s wearing without a judging eye from the designer—that’s the last thing anybody needs.

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