Tours en l'air organizes ballet-themed escorted holidays to see the best companies perform great ballets in beautiful places. You can join a trip from anywhere. A highly knowledgeable balletomane who has enjoyed 100s of performances in over 20 cities around the world,I speak English, French, and German, and am a Travel Industry Council of Ontario certified Travel Counsellor. I also teach ballet appreciation courses.
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Saturday, October 27, 2012

A visit to the National Ballet of Canada wardrobe department

Every time I have the great pleasure of visiting the National Ballet's outstanding wardrobe department, I am struck with awe at the incredible talent and devotion of the people who work there. This week, at the gracious invitation of Marjory Fielding, the NBOC's head of wardrobe, I was able to accompany the group  who are taking my "Fokine, Nijinsky, and Diaghilev's Ballets Russes" ballet appreciation course to see what was going on as the wardrobe works on the mammoth task of building John Neumeier's Nijinsky, which the NBOC will be performing next March.
This ballet is designed by the choreographer, but also recreates many of the famous designs from the original Ballets Russes ballets in which Nijinsky performed: Afternoon of a Faun, Petrushka, Les Sylphides, Jeux, Spectre de la Rose, among others.

In this clip from the Hamburg Ballet production, we see Nijinsky and his wife Romola, with Nijinsky doubled by another dancer who depicts Nijinsky as the Faun (the roles performed by identical twin brothers Jiri and Otto Bubenicek).

The Faun is wearing a headpiece which is an exact replica of the one worn in the original production. We saw  this headpiece under construction in the NBOC millinery shop, a painstaking job requiring the weaving of yards and yards of a type of gold piping called soutache:

One of the challenges for a wardrobe department is sourcing the fabric and notions they need for their costumes. Finding this one was apparently particularly difficult; it was finally tracked down at a company in Montreal that supplies for military uniforms, but... it costs $5 a yard. And many yards are needed.
Marjory pointed out that creating the headpiece took a very long time, much of it spent figuring out how exactly to do it (since ballet costume designs do not come with IKEA-like instruction booklets!). And then a second backup headpiece has to be made as well. The headpiece that we saw was a beautiful bright shiny gold, but it needs to look less bright, so it will have to be painted to get the exact colour. The milliner will also be busy making turban-like headdresses for the society ladies of 1919 attending Nijinsky's last performance.
These society ladies wear stunningly elegant dresses, white or cream with incorporated black jackets in different fabrics, one of them a beautiful cut velvet in a pattern like this:

and others decorated with beading, sequins or applique. Some of the dresses are "antique pleated" which requires wetting the silk, rolling it up into a tight cylinder which is then hung to dry with a weight attached.  This creates a ripple effect like this:

Needless to say, with repeated wearing, these pleats will come out and the piece will have to go through the pleating process again.  But this attention to detail is what ensures the authentic look of the characters in the ballet..
Attention to detail was also evident in the bodice of the Les Sylphides costume for Tamara Karsavina. Instead of using a Sylphides costume from the National Ballet's storage, chief cutter Ruth Bartel noticed that in the Victoria and Albert Museum's stunning companion volume to their "Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes" exhibit, the picture of the actual costume had a kind of mesh over the bodice and floaty cap sleeves, so they recreated the original costume from 1909.

Ruth also showed us how she had devised a way to make the cream jersey dresses for Jeux (supposed to be tennis attire) all one piece so that they could be changed out of more quickly.

Getting the exact colour is an obsession for Fielding, who is a master dyer. We saw piles of fabric in bright colours, reflecting the love of  intense hues for which the most famous Ballets Russes designer, Leon Bakst, was renowned. They looked fine to us, but no, Marjory explained, they needed to be dyed to get the exactly right colour. "And it's polyester," she said ruefully. Polyester doesn't take dye as well as silk, but costs have to be trimmed somehow in such an enormous undertaking. Marjory had also been dyeing the petals for the Spectre de la Rose costume.
Silk, so favoured by designers for its fluid qualities and ability to shimmer, was, however, on view elsewhere. The costumes of  the Afternoon of a Faun nymphs are made in an extraordinarily diaphanous silk tulle (dyed gold), a fabric not intended to stand up to the wear and tear of performing. Extra costumes will have to be made lest one comes to an unhappy end.

When I see the amount of talent, creativity, and hard work that these unsung artists put into making the designer's vision come to life, while considering the practical issues (the costumes have to be danced in, and sometimes a very quick change from one costume to another is required), I think about how we all know the names of the famous designers of Diaghilev's ballets: Bakst, Benois, Roerich, but we know nothing of the anonymous seamstresses, cutters, milliners, and jewelry makers without whom  those designs would have remained just pictures on paper. The people in the wardrobe department deserve our bravos just as much as the dancers and choreographers do.
Next week I am off to the NBOC's set and prop production workshop

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