Thousands of stitches, squares of silk, rows of industrial steamers and enough pins to dress the sails of the Opera House — these are some of the vital components of The Australian Ballet’s costume department, where the magnetism and ethereal beauty of performance is constructed by the hard-working and dedicated production team who build a ballet behind-the-scenes. At the helm of this production is the Head of Wardrobe, Musette Molyneaux — a name that seems particularly well-suited for one who works in this romantic dance.
Artists of the Australian Ballet in Sleeping Beauty, photo by Jeff Busby
How long have you worked with the Australian Ballet and what led you to a career in this field?
I was first introduced to the idea of a costume- maker when I was in Year 10 in high school. I did a course through school with the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), they had a costume- making course and it was the first time I understood that it was actually a job that one could do, I thought it was wonderful. I loved sewing and I really enjoyed the theatre but I hated performing, so it was the best of both worlds for me. I studied costume-making at the Sydney Institute of Technology and then began working in the industry. I first started with The Australian Ballet in 2008 as a freelance costumier, so I joined the team for different ballets, depending on demand, and sewed the costumes. My first full time role with the ballet was in 2011 as a ladies cutter and for the past year I have been Head of Wardrobe.
I read that you received a fellowship to study traditional ballet costume construction techniques at the Royal Opera House in London. Can you tell us about the experience? It must have been a turning point for your career.
It was a Churchill Fellowship, which was an amazing opportunity I wouldn’t have had on my own. It allowed me access to the Royal Opera House in London, to learn from those working in their costume department. There I practiced traditional costume making and learned new techniques for the ballet wardrobe. There is such a rich history in costume construction and the way it is passed down. This is really prevalent at The Royal Opera House and is an understanding that I took away from my experience there. It also gave me a lot of confidence to return to my work in Australia, not only in what I could do but also with the possibility of experimentation in costume techniques.
There must be a lot of pressure in bringing designs to life — what kind of timeline are you working with from concept to finished product?
It depends on the size of the ballet we are making and the complexity of the designs. We also have to consider the company schedule and when the dancers are going to be available for fittings. Normally we would receive the designs one year before the show opens and at this point we start going through them, we put together costings and then start to source and purchase fabrics — it’s a time-consuming process before we get to actually make the samples. There are normally many ballets in production at the one time so the most pressure stems from the need to fit into each other’s schedules.
Sleeping Beauty Costumes, photo by Kate Longley
There are many questions you must ask yourself when crafting something for stage performance — can it handle sweat, how does it catch the light? How do some of the different materials and fabrics you use in the wardrobe department lend themselves to ballet?
That’s a really great question as we use completely different fabrics for ballet than you would for Opera or other productions that aren’t focused on dance. Our fabrics need to be very light and very strong, they are under a lot of pressure as the dancers get hot and sweaty so we choose fabrics where possible based on strength. Designers often like natural fibres as they catch the light on stage much better — synthetics reflect more light. Natural fibres also almost always look richer on stage and have a greater depth of colour. Designers will often layer light fabrics to create more depth without adding weight and it’s a really clever way to make a costume, especially for a period ballet for which the costume needs to look opulent and embellished, but ultimately must be kept as light as possible for the dancers. We back all of our costumes onto cotton to absorb as much moisture as possible, in order to protect the fabric on top and the trim. We try to make the inside do the hard work so that the outside can appear consistent.
How much of costume-making for the ballet draws on tradition?
There are a lot of traditional costume-making techniques that we go back to because we know they work and are easy to repair when they are in the theatre. That being said, I am a big fan of experimenting with new materials and methods.
I had to do a tutu base for a recent production of David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty and the designer wanted it flat across the front, long at the back and quite shaped. That was quite difficult to achieve and I had to do about four different versions before it worked. We tried and used a lot of new materials to achieve the shape without adding weight. In the end it worked really well but it was something that took me by surprise in its complexity, it took a complete re-think of how to cut the pattern and how to make something so traditional — a tutu base. When designers present a concept that has an unusual construction there is always an exciting process of problem solving, trialling and testing — I love that.
Is there a costume archive for The Australian Ballet? How often will you spend time there, or look to it for a reference?
We’re really into archiving in the costume department. For each ballet we have what we call a ‘Costume Bible’ that we work on as the ballet is being built. Each costume in the production is logged with fabric samples, suppliers, patterns, original designs and then we also photograph each costume on the dancer during a performance in the season, that goes into the bible as well. The idea is that if the bible is done well, we should be able to recreate the production without having the original costume. We reference them constantly in our work. The cutters will go to bibles in the archive to look at patterns, see how it sits on the body and from this might make decisions on how they are going to cut a pattern. Designers use them all the time, in fact all the departments — even publicity and programs —use the costume bibles, they are the most valuable resource for our work.
Artists of The Australian Ballet in Sleeping Beauty, photo by Jeff Busby
How much of your work involves restoration or reconfiguration of previous costumes and garments?
Throughout the year most of our work is refurbishing and refitting costumes for existing ballets. This year we have two new ballets that we will build from scratch, then we have around seven ballets that are existing. These don’t necessarily require as much work but they have their own complexities. Quite often the ballets are older and fabrics or trims might no longer be available, so we have to match as closely to the original as possible. One of the hardest things is to maintain the overall aesthetics of older ballets. When you’re working with a set of costumes and half are in better condition but are very faded, we are then torn between making new ones to match the faded colour or refurbishing all of them to a slightly different colour- way. Another challenge is dancers now tend to be taller and longer in the body than they were 40 years ago. Often we’ll have a bodice from the 70’s and the bodies are too short for the dancers, so we have to recut the costumes.
What kind of feelings do you experience on the opening night of a performance? Do these feelings change throughout the season?
On opening night I am very nervous, I want it all to run smoothly and for the dancers not to encounter any problems with the costumes. Often I’m quite tired so I enjoy the performance later on in the season if I go again. All of my work is up til opening night and then we hand it over to the team that tours with the company. It’s very fulfilling to go with the team on opening night to celebrate the achievement of the work that has been done, it’s a positive experience.
What productions are you working on now?
There’s a lot in motion, which is normal for the beginning of the year. We have David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty in for a refit and refurbish, then a mixed program called Faster, which are three one-act ballets. We’re also working on new costumes for Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They are beautiful, bright and lively costumes. We’re also refurbing the storytime children’s ballet of The Nutcracker and have some costumes in for our education team who go out to schools.
Lilac Fairy & Sleeping Beauty Costume, photo by Kate Longley
Given that you are working on so many productions at once, how do you structure your day?
We have a great team who know their jobs really well. My role at the moment is about making sure everyone has all the information they need to get their job done. I write endless lists of information that people need, staying on top of organising and logistics. Each day I have a list of what I have to achieve that day and what I would like to achieve, hopefully it lands somewhere in the middle of that.
How do you like to spend your time outside of your work?
I like to do things outdoors as I spend so much time focused on things that are close up, like fabrics or paperwork, so for me it’s nice to be able to focus on distance. I try to ride my bike or go walking. I do have sewing projects that I like to do for myself also.