Jennifer Irwin has created costumes for a few shows. Since finishing art school in the late ’70s, Irwin has worked regularly with big names like Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Belvoir St Theatre, Opera Australia, and The Australian Ballet. Her work has appeared on the stages of the Royal Opera House in London and the Lincoln Centre in NYC. She even designed the costumes for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. But for more than 25 years it’s been her collaboration with Bangarra Dance Theatre – and its founder Stephen Page – that’s proven to be one of her most creative outlets.

“Bangarra is one of the lucky companies where you can do anything and everything,” says Irwin. “It’s not restrictive and it evolves as it goes along. With an opera, you want it to look the same every single night. At Bangarra, they’re more art pieces.”

Irwin’s latest project is one of Bangarra’s most ambitious. Dark Emu, which begins touring nationally this June, takes on the task of adapting Bruce Pascoe’s recent book of the same name. In it Pascoe debunks the most persistent of colonial myths: that Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherer nomads who moved across the land. Using records written by European invaders and recently uncovered archaeological evidence, Pascoe describes a new vision of Aboriginal people before colonisation: skilled and deliberate farmers who cultivated crops, built infrastructure and lived in permanent stone houses.

“Dark Emu is an amazing, factual book about what white Australians don’t know,” says Irwin.

The challenge for the designer was to interpret a work of history to suit the physical medium of dance. To do so, Page and the Bangarra creative team have settled on a piece of non-linear storytelling in which dancers often represent natural elements rather than the humans who lived among them.

“Stephen’s broken this particular show down into sections that mean something out of the book,” says Irwin. “For instance, for the kangaroo-grass section I’ve tried to find fabric that will suggest the grass. I’ve added onto those costumes a fine grassy filament that will pick up the light from a distance. But it’s very abstract, and the dancers are representing non-people. But when you’re [seeing] a group of dancers from a distance, hopefully those fabrics will represent grasses.”

For Irwin, the process of coming up with a suite of costumes for 18 dancers is not a dictatorial one. Instead, she collaborates closely with the choreographer, set and lighting designers and, of course, the dancers.

“With Bangarra, you’re designing the costumes as the actual steps are being created,” she says. “You can’t really think ahead. The sets determine the feeling of the space, so the set designer, lighting designer and I usually get together and look at it as a whole. So it’s collaborative, but we’ve all worked together for such a long time. We all like each other’s work, so we’re lucky.”

As a talented and practical seamstress, Irwin is often guided by the materials on hand. “Fabrics inspire me. I’ll see something and think that’ll look good in this section,” she says. “I’ve been buying up bits of fabric over the last couple of months knowing this is a very earthy, textural work, and that it is abstract. I’ve been hunting for anything vaguely interesting.”

While the costumes are discrete artworks in themselves, they also need to be practical. With eight shows a week over a four-month run, if a costume’s not comfortable it’s useless. “I deal with how many people are in [the show], whether they’re able to get out of this costume and get into the next quickly,” says Irwin. “It’s about what you can’t dress them in as opposed to what you can dress them in, because it’s all about the movement in the end.”

A complicating element when designing for Bangarra is the liberal use of ochre body paint. “Compared to Australian Ballet or Sydney Dance Company, Bangarra can create a costume by painting themselves. I design with that in mind,” she says. “But you can’t really get ochre out [of a costume] even with washing. It’s always there. The costume becomes distressed. Eight shows a week, four months later, [the costumes] take on a different world.”

Irwin also needs to be attuned to any cultural considerations, and she works hard to avoid appropriating any traditional designs. “It is pretty sensitive,” she says. “I am white. I need to be led by cultural advice. In the company there are cultural advisors, so if there’s anything vaguely traditional [to be respectful of], I’ll clarify with the right people.”

Working with Bangarra has been a highlight of Irwin’s long career, but she does look forward to the day a young Indigenous designer takes her place. “I’m very lucky I’m still here,” she says. “I don’t imagine I’ll be doing this forever. And at some point, somebody who is Indigenous will take over from me. Bangarra is our top Indigenous company; I feel lucky to have been along for this journey as long as I have.”

Dark Emu tour dates:

Sydney Opera House, June 14 to July 14

Canberra Theatre Centre, July 26–28

State Theatre Centre of WA, August 2–5

QPAC 24, August September 1

Arts Centre Melbourne September 6–15

Tickets available here.

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