Interview

Behind-the-scenes in the Costume department

Jo Shilton describes working in the Wardrobe Department of Birmingham Royal Ballet as 'in the blood' - her father worked for The Kirov, Bolshoi Ballet and Rambert, as Master Carpenter and later Stage Manager, and his partner is an ex-Rambert Ballerina and Wardrobe Mistress who taught Jo her sewing skills.

Jo, who joined the Company in 2000, has previously described Swan Lake as her favourite ballet, explaining: 'It's a great one to watch, and the end results are definitely the most satisfying as a member of the wardrobe team.'

'I've got two favourite bits,' she reveals. 'The first is when the Black Swan comes on because I love her even though she's evil, because her costume is just amazing. Everyone working backstage comes to the wings to see her do her 32 fouettés, to see if she stays on the spot and actually makes it, and that's just amazing because you just get a massive buzz.

'Then during the interval out of Act III and into Act IV I like to watch the electric team fill the stage with dry ice. All the swans are there and just before the curtain goes up they all duck under the dry ice and it looks like there's nobody on stage. The curtain goes up and then suddenly they rise out of the smoke and it looks amazing. The audience always loves it.'

Jo Shilton of the Costume Department inspects a rail of costumes. Credit: photo: Andrew Ross.

While Jo names Swan Lake as the most enjoyable to watch, it is also the second hardest to work on (the sheer number of quick changes give The Sleeping Beauty the top spot).

There are approximately 160 costumes on 30 rails, with the majority being for the female dancers. Each Principal has a white swan tutu and a black swan tutu for the dual role of Odette and Odile (the heroine and her wicked impersonator). These are especially made for each dancer, but in some cases, such as when a guest artist is performing the role, this is not financially viable.

'We have a rail of 'dead' costumes', explains Jo. 'These are existing costumes that aren't currently assigned to anyone. Sometimes the original dancer has just left, and we can't fit anyone else into the costume. These ones are still kept so we can make use of parts of them where possible, like the top skirts or the bodice, or just bits of elastic. 'In the case of guest artists, where we'd obviously not have a whole new costume especially made to fit, we'd go through the dead rails. If there's nothing there then we'll try other costumes that are still in use.'

"The high cost of the costumes means there is not the luxury of vast rails of spares for when something goes wrong"

The preparation for the performance begins even before the fitting stage, however. With Birmingham Royal Ballet currently so busy, costumes for forthcoming productions are already being checked while the Company is still touring the previous repertory.

'So while we're off on tour doing Swan Lake, there's a team of equally skilled people already checking the costumes for Giselle, or whatever's coming up next', says Jo as an example.

For larger shows, however, it can require all hands on deck.

'The last week Swan Lake opened we missed a lot of lunches', she remembers. 'The elastics kept going and we had to change them all over. They had been in storage for four years since we last did the ballet, and the condensation from the previous performance had perished the elastic. If you've not worked the show before you'd not know it would be an issue, but now we just change them all as a matter of course.'

A dancer backstage during Swan Lake. Credit: photo: Andrew Ross.

'When the ballet was first made it was over 20 years ago,' Jo says, 'and some of the costumes are the same ones, so they're more than two decades old. They're all hand made - up to a point, we use sewing machines. We have to look after them to make them last because it would cost so much to get them re-made.'

The high cost of the costumes means there is not the luxury of vast rails of spare costumes for when something goes wrong.

'On the recent tour some of the female dancers from the Company didn't come with us to Belfast due to injury, and we were joined by local students. Some of them were very small, and this makes it difficult when you're fitting them to existing costumes. If there is a problem like this, we just have to find a way of fitting them because there's not enough spares around for a show of this size.'

"You can have accidents happen, and have massive rips"

Even with all the preparation, there is still the wear-and-tear you would expect with such a large show.'You can have accidents happen,' says Jo, 'and have massive rips. When we need material, we go to a store in the wardrobe corridor. It can be odd though because we go there and try to match it, but the costume in question is so old and has seen so much action that the material has faded, and you've got the right spare material from the original roll, but you're doubting yourself because you're thinking "hang on, that looks so bright", and you can see that it's not going to go. So sometimes you have to wash it a few times to try and calm it down and dull it slightly so it'll be more of a match.'

Thankfully, such occasions are rare. It is during the performance itself that Jo says she is at her busiest, and here that she must work the hardest to ensure she gets to see those 32 fouettés!

'I have to time it right', she nods. 'Act I is my busiest because from the half hour call we're getting nuns, ladies-in-waiting and court ladies in and out of costume for the procession. Even though they're wearing these gorgeous costumes they have to wear big cloaks over the top because in the ballet the king is dead and they're all in mourning so they have to all be in black.

'Ten minutes after that we have to get them all out of costumes, make sure all the head-dresses and earrings are there, and hang the costumes up in the right places. Sometimes, depending on the casting, I have to get a pas de quatre girl out of her tutu and into a swan costume. You only have a 3-minute break between Act I and Act II, so that happens on stage. It's a full costume and head-dress change with white stage-paint applied to make her one of the white swans.

Tutus onstage during Swan Lake. Credit: photo: Andrew Ross.

'After that, it goes a little bit quieter, so what I would do would be to take the pas de quatre costumes and head-dress and earrings back to the dressing room and make sure they go back into the right boxes, and then check the different rooms and make sure that all the head-dresses that have been used for the mourning procession are in the right places and that we've got all the earrings in pairs. Then I can re-set some of the costumes for Act I that aren't being used again until the next performance. As long as there are no repairs to be made, I can then go and watch a little bit of Act II from the wings.'

With a bit of luck, the repairs to be made are minimal, in which case all Jo's earlier work re-setting costumes pays off, and things get a little less intense.

'In Act III, we get two ladies-in-waiting into costume and then take them to their side and make sure they're on okay, and then I'm free for most of the rest of Act III to watch the Black Swan. Then we get ladies-in-waiting out of costume, and once we've done that I'm free for the rest of Act IV. I watch the start of the act and then go off and reset the costumes from Act III so that's done.'

Jo stops and takes a breath. 'It's all pretty constant but if you time it right you can see your favourite bits!'