We have a celebrity in our midst. In the 12th Season of Project Runway (Lifetime), Bradon McDonald, a former dancer-client of Career Transition For Dancers, came in 3rd place! What an achievement. We are all very proud of him and recently CTFD’s board member Caitlin Carter phoned him in L.A. for an interview:
C.C. – Tell me about your dance career and how it all started.
B.M. – Dancers usually start at a very young age and I was no exception. At six years old, I started with tap, then jazz, clogging with an Irish fiddle band, and modern dance at the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga Springs, NY. I studied under the tutelage of Carolyn Adams and Julie Adams Strandberg along with Graham, Taylor, and Limón teachers. For a teenager from a small, northern NY rural dairy town (Lowville), this opportunity and access to high art in essentially my backyard was amazing. So that’s how it all started.
C.C. – And after high school, where did you go?
B.M. – My teachers told me I should audition for the Juilliard School and I said, “Well, I don’t do ballet.” They said, “We’ll figure it out” [laughs]. So, I figured it out and was accepted into Juilliard right after high school. During my junior year at Juilliard, I also apprenticed with the José Limón Company. I started performing with Limón full time just a few months before I graduated. I stayed with Limón for three years then auditioned for the Mark Morris Dance Group and was with that company for ten years (2000-2010).
C.C. – When did you start to think about your post dance career, when did those seeds start to get planted? I mean, you’re smart enough to know that a dance career can’t go on forever. Also, how did you go in the direction of fashion design?
B.M. – In high school, I studied fine arts. In this small town, we had an amazing program that taught painting, drawing, and sculpture from 7th grade on. I loved it and thrived in that environment and kept it going wherever I was. After that point, I always had some connection with fine art.
I knew I wanted to dance, that was never a question. It was a matter of how I was going to get the fine arts in there. I decided to just dive in head first with dance – I could always have a fine arts career after my dance career. So that was always the plan.
So when I was touring, I would go to famous museums around the world and buy fabric without knowing what I was going to do with it. I was just hoarding fabric. I felt like fabric was affordable fine art and the fabrics were paintings. So my fiancé, Josh, bought me a sewing machine. I taught myself how to sew and started making bags because dancers carry bags and I was living in NYC and everyone in NYC carries bags. It was a great way to use the fabric by making artful panels, whether it was embroidery, different textiles together, in a cut out or collage kind of way. Whatever technique I was working with I could put handles on that painting, mount the bag, and somebody would buy it instead of it just hanging on the wall of a gallery for people to say, “oh, that’s lovely.”
C.C. – So you have a wonderful fine arts foundation and then you have your dance. And the fine arts foundation segued into actual bag design. How did that morph into fashion design?
B.M. – Even before that, Paul Taylor for example, mixed fine arts with athleticism and that’s how he connected with modern dance. That’s what happened to me in high school. I was doing competition dance and I had this fine art background and then I discovered modern dance and I thought, “Oh wow, dance is fine arts on stage.” Then the bags happened. And then I started making costumes for a burlesque show in NY – it was my first time constructing garments from scratch and I did a lot of shopping at Home Depot.
C.C. – That experience probably set you up for Project Runway.
B.M. – It really did. Working with a shoestring budget and unconventional materials makes you really resourceful!
C.C. – I’m curious as to how you heard about CTFD and how were we able to guide you?
B.M. – I knew about CTFD from Juilliard. They told us about it in school. And I attended a meeting that Mark Morris Dance Group hosted at their headquarters while I was still performing there. I always had the organization on my radar. So when I went to FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) in L.A., I applied for a grant.
C.C. – Wonderful! And what did that provide for you?
B.M. – Tuition. It went directly toward tuition. That was money that didn’t have to come out of my pocket for repaying loans or interest on loans.
C.C. – Fantastic! Was there any moment that was challenging during the transition and how did you handle it in terms of leaving your performing career.
B.M. – It was the idea of leaving performance and dance. It was a petrifying idea because that’s what I had done my whole life. Still, I retired at 35 from dance. I felt like I needed to start a second completely impractical career while I was still young and dumb enough to do it [laughs]. If I waited any longer I might get a little smarter. So, I thought, let’s do this. Let’s do this now. I scheduled my last performance with MMDG and 12 hours later I started at FIDM.
C.C. – Wow, and that’s great advice for someone who is transitioning. It doesn’t work for everybody. For some people, that might be a little daunting to walk away from the final performance and go right to school, but dancers need to be constantly inspired and challenged. It’s good advice for people to set those goals and plans and move forward.
Did you have an “aha” moment where you thought you were going to be okay or did you question yourself, “Am I going to make it?” “Is this the right decision?”
B.M. – When you go back to school at a later age, you work harder because you want so much out of it. It was a very intense schedule and in my head, I was telling myself that I had to start a new career now. I have to hit the ground running when I finish school and I have to get a job in the industry.
C.C. – What qualities as a dancer or performer helped you the most as you transitioned into a new career?
B.M. – It’s the discipline, the drive, the focus. It is the ability to work in groups, work with other people, work on a team, work for a demanding boss like Mark Morris, which taught me so much. It is learning how to navigate those situations to bring out what is best for the work and what is best for the audience.
C.C. – So, why did you audition for Project Runway?
B.M. – I have watched the show since the first season and I have always loved it. Partly because it shows how much work goes into making garments and I knew that from selling all these years. For instance, it is completely improbable for a simple white t-shirt to exist: from grilling the cotton to making the yarn to selling it to a textile mill to knitting the fabric and then that fabric gets put into another textile distributor and then a company might buy that fabric to use and a designer picks that fabric and then a store picks that fabric and then it’s shipped to that store and somebody puts in on a hanger and hangs it on a rack and then you look at it and say, “$19 for a t-shirt? That’s crazy.” They should be more like $10,000 a shirt for the amount of work that goes in the simple white t-shirt. That is fascinating to me. I don’t remember the question you just asked.
C.C. – I asked why you auditioned for Project Runway [laughs].
B.M. – Years ago people would say to me, “you should be on Project Runway, you are so great.” And I thought, “I don’t even know how to make clothes…are you kidding me?” So through the process of going back to school, I thought maybe Project Runway would be in my future. I started working in the industry and I saw that Season 12 was accepting applications and I thought what the heck. What do I have to lose?
C.C. – What are your ultimate dreams and goals for yourself in this new career?
B.M. – I would love to start a label. I would definitely go back to bag designs which are more than a hobby now. The dream is to have a label that has men’s, women’s, accessories, home, and fragrance…the whole thing!
C.C. – What words of advice would you give to your fellow CTFD clients as they begin their transitions from dance into the many varieties of new careers? What would be your words of wisdom?
B.M. – I think just finding things that you love and trusting that there is going to be a job related to whatever that is. Whether it is fine arts, or design, or anything. Dancers dance because they love it, they have to do it. There is no other reason to be doing it. It was scary for me because I never thought I would find anything else that I loved as much as dance and maybe nothing else that I could be as successful at, but my confidence is slowly growing with each accomplishment.
I would also say, do it today.
C.C. – Start planting those seeds now while you are still performing. You can start by just doing that. Go back to school on a part-time basis. We always say that to our clients, but to hear that from a client first-hand just helps to reinforce that. There is nothing more powerful than hearing from someone who has gone through it.
B.M. – I love the organization and I can’t wait until I have some money to support you guys. I don’t get paid for being on Project Runway [laughs].
C.C. – We are working on getting an alumni group together and getting our former clients to get involved and give back, so we love hearing those words from you. Thank you!