You probably know Dangerous Liaisons. If not from the 18th-century novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, then almost certainly from the saucy 1987 film adaptation starring Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and a sinister John Malkovich (or perhaps you prefer the 1999 teen version, Cruel Intentions).
Now the classic tale of seduction, revenge and manipulation in the French aristocracy is coming to the stage in Brisbane, thanks to a new production premiering at the Queensland Ballet from acclaimed British choreographer and artistic associate Liam Scarlett.
“This is something that Liam had wanted to do for a while,” says the ballet’s set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord, a regular collaborator with Scarlett. “Luckily for me, he suggested to Li [Cunxin, Queensland Ballet Artistic Director] that they involve me in the project.”
Creating costumes for the Queensland Ballet is always a lengthy process. The nature of the work involves many steps of often intricate processes, including hand-sewing, millenary and jewellery-making.
“They’re bespoke garments, the skill level is high-end couture, so it’s not something you can just factory process,” says Noelene Hill, head of wardrobe and resident designer at Queensland Ballet.
For Dangerous Liaisons, the costume team – made up of about 20 in-house craftspeople as well as artisans recruited from across Australia – is busy producing about 310 different pieces of costume for the March 22 debut. The high number is due to the frequent costume changes throughout the show, with some cast members needing up to five different outfits. Each look contains many individual pieces including petticoats, wigs, jewellery and shoes.
The studio itself has a bunch of different rooms, a sign of the many moving parts that make up a costume department. A large central area hosts long cutting tables, with a row of sewing machines dotting the perimeter of the room, plus desk space for Hill and others. Racks of costumes at various stages of completion sit throughout the space, providing easy access for those working on them.
Side rooms hold fitting areas, a millenary station with an array of felt wool, busts and abstractly shaped hats covered in cloth for protection, and ballet shoes in various stages of the dyeing process.
Costumes for this production have been in the works since April 2018 – that’s almost 12 months from the design phase to opening night.
“[Liam] and I were lucky enough to have a few days together in April last year,” Grant Lord says. “We managed to pretty much come up with the framework for what would work for the show.”
From these initial talks, Grant Lord (who’s also managing the set design for this production) created plans for each piece before presenting her ideas to Queensland Ballet.
“I have a studio that I work in with all my references with me,” Grant Lord says. “I’m lucky I’ve worked with this company before, so I’m familiar with how they work. And I know they have fabulous skills and resources inside the workshop, so I can imagine the kind of work they can do and I can design accordingly.”
For Dangerous Liaisons, Grant Lord has used colour to create mood and place.
“The colour goes from a very bucolic, soft-summer-day in the country – so lots of lovely light greens and warm greeny-gold colours – and then it gets a bit more dangerous and a bit more murky and it has a lot of red in it – a lot of deep, dark, rich [and] quite menacing, quite scary reds,” she says.
Once designs and budgets are approved, fabrics are chosen and pattern-cutters get to work on the long tables set up through the centre of the workspace.
“Once [the cutters have] worked up the pattern, they’ll make up a toile or sample which the designer can look at and make any changes,” Hill says.
From here, the prototypes are fitted to the dancers and tested to ensure they work with the choreography.
Once the costumes are completed, a small team will then go on to manage and care for the garments throughout the performances, often mending or changing them slightly as different cast members use them. The collaborative nature of costume design extends to the stage, where the lighting by designer Kendall Smith brings everything together.
“We have an absolutely fabulous team of people who work really, really well together, and are highly talented and motivated,” Hill says. “It’s all looking totally fabulous.”
Dangerous Liaisons will play in Brisbane from March 22 to April 6.