Costume designer Donna Jefferis on Sleeping Beauty’s magical costumes

RNZB Donna Jefferis interview

Donna Jefferis, Head of Costume Design for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Image by Stephen A’Court.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s magical production of Sleeping Beauty opened last week in Wellington before taking to stages around the country throughout November and December. The beautiful ballet is staged by the RNZB’s Artistic Director Patricia Barker and features gorgeous costumes designed by RNZB’s Head of Costume, Donna Jefferis.

Donna has been creating costumes for over 30 years now and has been in her role at the RNZB for three years, bringing with her a wealth of experience in theatrical design. Her job involves working with the choreographer or director from the conception of the show through to delivering the final designs that enchant audiences under the stage lights.

It’s a fascinating process and is different every time depending on the requirements of the production which keeps Donna and her team on their toes. While Sleeping Beauty may be a traditional ballet, Donna has gone for somewhat of an untraditional approach to the costumes with delightful results.

We caught up with Donna to find out more about how she got into designing costumes, what her favourite part of her job is, and of course, how she came up with Sleeping Beauty’s charming costumes?

How did you first get into making costumes?
It was a bit of a weird route to be honest. I used to sew with my mum because I’m old enough to come from a generation when most people sewed at home. When I went to university I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t get accepted direct entry, ended up doing a regular Bachelor of Science. During that time, I worked at Downstage Theatre in Front of House which was my first exposure to theatre. My parents took us to theatre sometimes but I didn’t really have much of an interest and I didn’t want to do fashion, but I liked character, character interested me. I met an American woman who was a costume designer and I started doing stuff with her and that was the time my husband went to America to do a PhD. The American woman told me that I could study theatrical design there, which you couldn’t do here, and so I did. I got a Master of Fine Arts in Theatrical Design at the University of Georgia in the late 80s/early 90s. Then we moved back, and I’ve worked here consistently ever since.

Firstly, I worked in theatre, then later I took a job at Toi Whakaari in the mid-2000s, teaching in the costume construction area and also at the New Zealand School of Dance as they’re in the same building. I was the supervisor for the dance costumes which meant I got to do a lot of experimenting and learning while I was there with them. Because I had a child I wasn’t after full-time work, so it was a perfect situation for me. Now that I’m older, I work more than full-time (laughs).

How did you get your role at the RNZB?
A job opened up and I applied. The role was the highest that I feel I could go in New Zealand in any functioning workroom. There’s not very many performing arts companies that have workrooms anymore. I think The Court Theatre is the only other one left that has a permanent workroom. There are a few people that have set up workrooms but they’re independent.

RNZB Donna Jefferis interview

Sketch for Aurora’s pink tutu by Donna Jefferis (left) and the finished Aurora costume (right). 

What has the costume process been like for Sleeping Beauty and how many costumes have been created for the production?
Sleeping Beauty can be very period based but I just didn’t feel that I wanted to make period costumes for it. We were also a bit short on budget and time for this one, so I decided on a different approach and that was more fashion and a fusion of period but acknowledging the fact that it’s a ballet so all the skirts are net and tulle in various shapes and silhouettes. We have bodices that are not exactly traditional ballet bodices and we fused different sleeves from different periods. So far, I think we’ve got 170 outfits in the production and of course all of those looks are made up of multiple parts. It’s a big production.

How did you go about creating lead character Aurora’s look?
I did Aurora in pink but I did ask why she had to be pink and they said it’s because she’s always pink because she’s a rose, and I said ‘but roses come in other colours!’ Anyway, I’ve stuck with pink because you can’t deviate too far otherwise people get grumpy (laughs). The pink is quite a strong pink so are some of the other colours so I think it will be quite strong on stage and look good.

The imagery and the short video for the production is beautiful, Aurora looks beautiful.
Thank you, it’s funny because the neckline of that pink tutu, is a real 50s neckline, and filling it in with all the flowers like that, I’ve wanted to do that for years! I’ve always thought that would be a really cute look for a tutu because I do get a bit sick of the traditional tutu look. It came together with 650 hand-cut flowers sewn on that tutu.

With that many costumes and that much detail it must take quite a few people to get everything done, how big is the RNZB’s current wardrobe team?
There are four permanent people including myself and we’ve had a fantastic stitcher part-time all year working away on making tutus and then we’ve got another fabulous stitcher and a new person for the last month as well as Vic who is our millinery/prop/mask person. So, that’s eight and we have a wardrobe person who tours with the show to look after the costumes.

They’re the person makes sure everything gets washed and is ready for the show each night?
Yes, many things get washed as they get sweaty on stage. The boys have a separate under bodice that is washed as we can’t really wash the tailored jackets over the top. The girls all have a leotard underneath that is washed too. It’s a lot of washing after every show.

This year has been a pretty chaotic one, how has it affected your work and getting everything done for the RNZB’s shows?
Luckily I was able to do most of the design during lockdown, it was hard for us though as while you can sew at home we were gearing up for our first show Dangerous Liaisons when we went into lockdown which was then cancelled. At the time, we were making mock-ups and starting to pattern make things, but we didn’t have anything cut out or anything prepared so my team just had to go home and be with their families.

We couldn’t do anything at Alert Level 4. They did make arrangements at Alert Level 3 where we are able to pop in and out if needed. Covid didn’t really affect the tour that was cancelled for costumes because some of the pieces were hired and we only had two to make. It’s just sad though when you’ve spent time on doing fittings and sorting things out and the show doesn’t happen. I haven’t felt too badly, as we’ve just had to carry on. We’ve always had Sleeping Beauty at the end of the year as the goal to achieve.

I took a whole lot of fabric and patterns home during lockdown as I thought I’d get all these things done but I didn’t actually do any of it. I designed the show and my husband and I went for our regular walks, but it was weird I didn’t get half as much done as I thought I was going to.

RNZB Donna Jefferis interview

The finished Aurora costume in an image for Sleeping Beauty (left) and sketch for Carabosse’s costume by Donna Jefferis (right).  

What is it that you enjoy most about costume design?
I actually love it all, I love the whole process. Funnily enough by the time we get to the opening night we’ve already in our minds moved on to the next thing. And I think maybe it’s the changing nature of what I do and what keeps me engaged, is that it’s never the same and it’s always different every show. Each production can be a different genre and that’s what I love about it is the changing nature of it and you can tell a story or you can just do interesting shapes or colours. It depends on what the piece calls for. Some of the contemporary pieces aren’t very narrative driven so it can just be about colour and texture. And the dancers are incredible so anything I can do to help facilitate their job is always first in my mind.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty is on tour:

29 October – 7 November, Opera House, Wellington

11 November, Civic Theatre, Invercargill

14 November – 15 November, Regent Theatre, Dunedin

19 November – 21 November, Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch

25 November, Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North

28 November – 29 November, Municipal Theatre, Napier

3 December – 6 December, Aotea Centre, Auckland

11 December – 12 December, Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna

Find further details and ticket information at rnzb.org.nz

Images by Stephen A’Court and supplied.

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