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Posted on Thu 25 Jan
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s largest production, Sir Peter Wright’s version of The Sleeping Beauty, is ready to enchant Midlands audiences with a sprinkling of fairytale magic and a wardrobe of recently restored sumptuous costumes, as What’s On recently found out...
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s (BRB) production of the critically acclaimed Sir Peter Wright version of The Sleeping Beauty returns to the stage this spring - and after a major fundraising appeal, its elaborate costumes will be looking better than ever.
With the ballet this year celebrating its 40th anniversary, many of the costumes have been used repeatedly across the decades so were in urgent need of repair, restoration and even remake.
BRB reached its goal of £60,000 to restore the outfits ahead of its 2024 tour, which includes performances at Birmingham Hippodrome late this month. The money was raised through the Big Give Christmas Challenge, a match-funding campaign to help charities.
The Sleeping Beauty is BRB’s largest production. Work on repairing the costumes began last spring, with staff cutting, sewing and dyeing for hundreds of different pieces - from princess tiaras to sumptuous ballgowns, and braided courtier jackets through to dramatic fairy costumes.
These alterations are needed not just because of wear and tear but also because dancers’ bodies have changed over the last 40 years.
“We always go through the process to see what we can and can’t use,” says Head of Costume Elaine Garlick. “The vast majority of the work comes out of costume fitting with the cast, and that’s to do with sizing.
“Many of the dancers now are much taller than they used to be. We have to fit and alter to make sure the costume fits the builds we have today, but we also need to refurbish the costumes. There may be rips, or we may be replacing sleeves or side panels. And this year we’re doing all of this on a much bigger scale.”
The process includes minute details like re-stitching a pearl onto a dress, as well as more large-scale updates such as new tutus. And every pearl, every inch of braid and every sequin matters.
“This show uses very traditional ballet costumes with lots of wigs, headdresses and footwear,” says Elaine. “One costume can have up to 50 different sections. Many of the costumes are very heavily decorated, and they have several layers of petticoats and underdressing to create the silhouettes.
“And everything has to be the best it can be, as the effect is to do with depth and lighting. You won’t see every pearl or diamante, but we tend to facet them because light bounces off them.
“We don’t tend to use anything that’s flat. Even our sequins are faceted so they have all these different angles to sparkle through. One little sequin can do a lot of work because of the angles and the lighting. You might not think you notice this, but you would definitely notice if it wasn’t there.”
Because of the age of the costumes, it can sometimes be difficult to find the perfect match, but the team are adept at creative thinking.
“Some fabrics are completely different from 40 years ago,” says Elaine, “but the way we make dance costumes that work in rep is that we tend to work from a lot of base fabrics which are easily available and then we use braid and sequins, we dye and we pleat. The craft techniques are still available, and even if we can’t find that specific pink taffeta, what we can find is a taffeta that we can make pink and we have a costume to match it to.”
The team aim to be as sustainable as possible.
“It’s like an eco-system. Things have been replaced in sections bit by bit over the years,” says Elaine. “There is a lifespan of a tutu, but we strip down the pearls and stones and re-use them as much as we can.”
And the work doesn’t stop for the team when the show opens - they are behind the scenes, dressing the dancers, cleaning and checking the costumes and making continuous repairs.
“It requires total teamwork. And it needs constant work during the tour, as dance costumes take a huge amount of wear. They are lifted, they are pushed, they are dragged across the floor - there are few artforms which will destroy costumes as quickly as dance.”
The team will be taking 44 rails of costumes, 11 headdress baskets and five shoe baskets on the tour of The Sleeping Beauty - ensuring the full company are lavishly dressed from head to foot for every performance. And the show’s sets and costumes are one of the reasons Sir Peter Wright’s production remains popular 40 years after it was first performed.
“The Sleeping Beauty is a calling card and an absolute classic staple of any ballet company’s rep,” says Elaine. “Visually, this production is unique to BRB. And if you’re going to work at any level in the costume team in the ballet world, you’ve got to have worked on Sleeping Beauty.”
Footwear supervisor Michael Clifford has also been busy, refurbishing hundreds of shoes - from knee-high cavalier boots to pink pointe shoes.
“We try to recycle as much as possible, and the only time I need to buy something is because we don’t have the size. The last time we did Sleeping Beauty was 2018, and that means many of the company haven’t done it before and we’ve needed new shoes. I’ve got lots of smaller sizes, but over the years they are gradually not being used because the sizes which the dancers need are larger.”
And a well-fitted shoe makes all the difference to a performer on stage - so much so that the dancer preparing for Princess Aurora’s famously difficult Rose Adagio will carefully select her footwear.
“Some of the girls will have spent ages just finding the right shoe for the one leg for the Rose Adagio because that leg needs to be rock solid,” Michael says. “Once they’ve done that piece, they might change their pointe shoes and then they won’t wear the same shoes in Act Three as Act One.”
Michael says watching the show in all its glory makes the preparations worthwhile.
“When you see it on stage - and particularly if you see it here at Birmingham Hippodrome, which has such a big stage - it looks so good. When I see it at the dress rehearsals, I know it’s worth all the work.”
And costume technician Beth Pirie says the audiences will also see the results of the refresh.
“As the costumes get older, it would be very easy just to let them deteriorate and decline and think that nobody at the back is ever going to see that, but over time it’s about maintaining that standard for as long as possible.
“The costumes in Sleeping Beauty are really special because you’ve got a 100-year span in the space of one show, so the amount of different periods and silhouettes you can cover in that time... it’s so interesting. There’s so much going on in the costumes. They are spectacular - they don’t make them like this anymore.”
BRB’s The Sleeping Beauty shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Wednesday 21 February to Saturday 2 March.
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