Making the beautiful costumes for the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

Royal New Zealand Ballet Romeo and Juliet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet is on tour in New Zealand now. Image supplied.

Romeo and Juliet is a classic Shakespearean love story and the Royal New Zealand Ballet has brought it to life in a stunning new production by Italian choreographer Francesco Ventriglia. The brand new ballet features incredibly detailed sets and costumes designed by Academy Award winning designer James Acheson (The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons) which stays true to the gorgeous original setting of Renaissance Verona.

We were curious to find out more about this amazing new production and specifically how the beautiful costumes came to life so we chatted to the head of the RNZB’s wardrobe department, Esther Lofley. We asked Esther about how the costumes were created, what they have to keep in mind to make garments suitable for the demands of ballet and how it feels when it all comes together under lights in the theatre?

Since Romeo and Juliet is a world premiere for the RNZB with costumes by James Acheson how did you go about creating his designs for this production and is everything made in-house?
It’s always a wonderful opportunity working with the talented designers that have worked on our various productions. This production has been a steep but very satisfying learning curve, as I took on the role of wardrobe supervisor and head women’s wear cutter for this season. We had a wonderful team of machinists, cutters, dyers and milliners working on Romeo and Juliet. I had been looking forward to working on Romeo and Juliet since it was first announced, and was very excited to discover that I would be working with James Acheson. I didn’t have much experience making 16th-century costumes on this scale so I was very much looking forward to the challenge.

At the very beginning, before I had seen James’ designs, we spent a great deal of time going through Renaissance portraits and focusing on particular details like collars, sleeves, necklines etc. We then moved onto making toiles and trying various techniques, keeping in mind that we were making very heavy looking costumes for dance, so they have to move with the wearer. When the dancers would come for their fittings, I would focus on getting the fit right while James focused on the details and proportions of each costume element.

How long have you been working for the RNZB and what training did you have for making costumes?
I have been working at the RNZB for 10 years. I learned a great deal on the job, with additional training as I’ve needed it.

What’s it like when the dancers come in for fittings and you get to see the costumes come to life?
Especially with this style of costume as they’re so grand and so regal, as soon as they get into them the dancers can’t help but get into character. Seeing Abigail Boyle try on the first of her three lady Capulet dresses was a revelation – seeing her instantly transform into her character, going through the steps and getting accustomed to the weight of the heavy braided velvet gown with a train. She’s fantastic to fit actually because she just instantly starts going through the choreography in her head and acting out parts so she can let me know what I need to do to make it work with the choreography.

All the ball gowns have got long trains at the back so that was a big challenge, we did a fitting down in Studio One with all of the ball ladies and they did a little bit of the choreography and we realised that the trains were far too long for them to step sideways and there’s a bit where they step backwards even. So we knew early on to cut that down but the trains still needed to be there because of the style. Generally, I do two fittings for each costume, but for some of the larger and more elaborate costumes, we fitted them more often while letting the dancer move around and get used to the feel of it.

Royal New Zealand Ballet Romeo and Juliet

Part of the ball scene in the RNZB’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

How do the dancer’s movements inform the fabric choices for the costumes?
A lot of the fabrics that we used were lighter-weight velvets. Something that does tend to get used a lot is furnishing fabric which we stayed away from which meant the costumes were lighter in weight than normal although give or take by the time you’ve got all the braid and embroidery that adds a bit of weight as well.

You have a lot to consider when creating the costumes, what are some of the other things you keep in mind?
There’s a lot to consider but also in five or six year’s time if or when we do the production again with a complete turnover of dancers they need to fit a completely new cast so the seam allowances mean they’re completely alterable. So there’s a lot to consider in the fabric, fit and the longevity of the production.

Since this is a new production for the RNZB are all the costumes original?
Yes, everyone that is wearing a costume on the stage, that costume has been made specifically for them so the fittings have been done with them. Unless there has been a cast change due to injury or anything but for the original cast all the garments are made for the character and the artist wearing it.

It’s such a detailed production with a big cast and quite a few costume changes, how many costumes are there in total?
There are 180 costumes and that’s across all three casts and then there were 28 extras costumes as well. In each town the extras are new to the cast so those costumes have to be alterable to fit all the different extras over the season. The extras costumes were done by the students at the costume school up at Toi Whakaari. It was a great opportunity for them to collaborate with a professional company and see the tight timeframe that there is to make a garment. You don’t have six months to make a final garment like you might do in fashion school or costume school. In the industry it’s a really quick turnaround.

Royal New Zealand Ballet Romeo and Juliet

Romeo (left) and Juliet (right) in the RNZB’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

There are twelve Juliet dresses in total, six for each of the two leads, how long did they take to make?
On average each costume took about sixty hours. That’s including the pattern drafting, cutting out, fittings, alterations and then finishing. So that’s about the average entire process, some take a bit longer and some take a bit shorter.

Juliet’s beautiful white silk wedding dress is dragged around on stage after Juliet dies, how did it feel to watch that the first time?
When I first saw the rehearsal and I saw her being dragged across the stage in her white silk dress I was like ‘Oh my god!’ but it really did withstand the durability test. It wasn’t damaged which is important. She doesn’t wear it for that long but there were a few frightful moments watching that.

I’m sure there are a few surprises when you see the dancers in rehearsal in their costumes?
Especially for this one as I wasn’t able to go down to the studio and see much of the choreography over the rehearsal period. I did for the ballgowns like I said as I needed to because of the trains but for everything else I was pretty unaware of what they were actually doing in their garments until we got into the theatre.

How does it feel when you get to see the full production with the lights, music and the costumes coming together?
It’s incredible. This production was the greatest sense of achievement because of the amount of work and seeing it on stage under lights it all made sense as well. You start to sort of have tunnel vision as you’re only looking at what you’re working on, one thing at a time and it’s the designer’s job to constantly see the big picture. So when we go down to the theatre it all made sense. Seeing the ball scene, all of those colours actually did marry together and you could see why each colour had been chosen.

Royal New Zealand Ballet Romeo and Juliet

Lady Capulet (centre) and Tybalt (lying) in the RNZB’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

Unlike a play, you can’t follow where people are by their voices so you follow what they’re wearing and the colours they’re in. In the beginning, you follow Juliet by the yellow of her dress. How do you use the colours to help tell Juliet’s story?
Juliet has six dresses, she starts off in yellow and then over the course of the production she gets bluer and bluer, closer to Romeo’s colours as she falls in love with him. Then pure white at the end when she’s died.

Who goes on tour with the production to oversee the costumes?
We’ve got two touring wardrobe assistants with this production because of the size of it, normally we just have one. Recently I’ve stepped up to head of wardrobe so I’m staying back in Wellington this time and starting on the next production and then packing up Romeo and Juliet. I have to file all the fabric together, making a show bible for when it gets hired or when we do it again, so it’s a comprehensive file of fabric swatches, drawings and photographs of how the garments are meant to be worn.

With the costumes that are on tour for this production, how washable are they? Are they hand-washed or machine washed?
The only ones that really get partnered are Juliet’s costumes, for three out of her six costumes. Those are the only ones that really get makeup over them from Romeo. Then the boy’s collars etc. can all be spot-cleaned, they have tights that can be washed and undergarments that can be washed which absorb most of the sweat. Those can be machine washed. All the ball ladies wear a leotard underneath so they’ve got one each for hygiene purposes but all the outerwear is spot-cleaned as needed and then refreshed with vodka and Febreze. The other thing is most of the fabrics have been dyed specific colours for the costumes so if we washed them the dye would run a bit and over the course of the season the colour would fade. It means we don’t wash them regularly but they do get drycleaned.

What are your favourite pieces from this production?
Probably Lady Capulet’s costume from the ball scene. It’s just incredible with the silhouette and her holding that character in it. It’s stunning.

The Ryman Healthcare season of Romeo and Juliet is on tour in New Zealand until September 24th, 2017.

Royal New Zealand Ballet Romeo and Juliet

Royal New Zealand Ballet Romeo and Juliet

Royal New Zealand Ballet Romeo and Juliet

Images supplied.

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