Inside The Australian Ballet’s Wardrobe
The Australian Ballet’s Coppèlia is a comic ballet set to Leo Delibes’ score and tells the story of two lovers, Swanilda and Franz, and their eccentric toy maker neighbour, Dr Coppelius.
The ballet transports its audience through a masquerade of fantasy and romance. The 200 costumes from the revived 1979 production, which were designed by the late Kristian Fredrikson, have been restored to make an exquisite comeback this season.
woman with drive met The Australian Ballet’s Head of Wardrobe, Musette Molyneaux, to find out what happens behind the scenes in the costume department.
How long have you worked with the Australian Ballet?
I have been full time with Australian Ballet for five years. Prior to that I worked between Sydney and Melbourne as a freelancer in theatre, ballet, opera and film. But this job is in the area I am most passionate about; I love the ballet.
When did you start working on the restoration of Coppèlia’s costumes and what did that process entail?
We got the costumes six months before opening night. We began by looking through the collection to see what needs to be repaired, what fabrics need to be dyed and what trims are required.
We also needed to make additional costumes because our dancers are taller than those in the original performance in 1979. We always keep a sample of the original fabric and trim, and we hand make every costume with an original design aesthetic in mind. We have our own in-house dyer and outsource the embroidery locally.
How do you modernise Coppèlia’s costumes while remaining true to the integrity of the original design?
We keep to the original patterns and proportions but alter the silhouette a little. Also, when Coppèlia was first done in the 70s, it had a very specific colour palette. You could see the era in which it was made. There was a lot of rust and really bright mustard. Those warm tones are less popular now. When it comes to reproducing a ballet like Coppèlia, we also dye all the fabrics to keep in tone with what is relevant today.
Where are all the Australian Ballet costumes archived?
We have a warehouse in Altona where we keep the costumes from every ballet ever performed. We have samples of original fabrics and photographs of the first cast of dancers who wore them. All the costumes are categorised in a full database, and it is a great referencing system that makes it easy for us to find what we need.
How many staff work behind the scenes in the wardrobe department?
Apart from myself, there is an administrator who does the paperwork and two coordinators. They project manage and liaise with the ballet staff and external contractors to make sure all the elements are there for the costume team to get on with their job.
We have five cutters who cut patterns and do fittings with the dancers. They decide if we need to make new costumes and who can wear which outfit with what we already have. There are also 10 costumiers in the workshop but this number fluctuates depending on the workload. It can double when we get really busy.
How quickly can costumes be repaired if they are damaged during a performance?
We have an amazing touring wardrobe team. They are experienced in dealing with things that come up at the last minute, and can mend on the spot and in between shows. We build and plan the costumes to be as strong as possible, but in dance, anything can happen!
Designers love silk because it catches the light beautifully and can add a depth to a costume without adding weight, which is ideal. But silk can be fragile over time, does not last as long as synthetic fabrics and is the most difficult for our team to maintain. Previously, an original silk skirt could last 10 years before it needed to be replaced. Now you are lucky if it lasts seven years.
The Australian Ballet has collaborated with Australian designer, Akira Isogawa, for Romeo and Juliet in 2011. How do such collaborations come about?
The ballet does an average of two new productions a year but they will always have their own designer who is part of their creative team. In ballet, a costume and set designer are one and the same. Quite often these relationships, like that of Akira, happen organically via a meeting or discussion. Sometimes it might take years for a creative partnership to develop.
By the time it gets to our end, we are dealing with the practical issues of bringing their designs to life. It always makes for an interesting experience to work with both fashion and theatrical costume designers. Fashion designers come from a different background and perspective and it is quite different walking them through a ballet production.
Jean Paul Gaultier has designed the haute couture costumes for France’s Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White. Would the Australian Ballet ever collaborate with an international fashion designer?
Being so far away makes this hard from a practical perspective. It does not work. We build in-house and foster local talent so we do not do anything offshore. It is amazing for us because it means we honour our talent, costumiers and designers and can deal with last minute changes in-house. That is an investment the company chooses to make because they see the value in having that resource on hand. And I think our costumes are the better for it.
The Australian Ballet will perform a special Melbourne season of Coppélia at the Palais Theatre from 23 September to 1 October, before touring to Sydney Opera House for a festive-season run from 2 to 21 December.
Main image credit: Kate Longley
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