Here’s a challenge for all budding designers: create a costume that can be worn on stage eight times a week, withstand rigorous movement, serious sweating and heavy make-up; and appear to be sumptuously glamorous up to 200 metres away. If that’s not tough enough, consider designing multiple different costumes like this for one production.
Welcome to the professional world of Jennifer Irwin, costume designer extraordinaire who, for the past 36 years, has woven her magic across Australian theatre, opera, dance, film, musicals and spectaculars.
The Sydney-based designer has been with Bangarra Dance Theatre for 26 years, where she is resident designer, and has created costumes for one production each year. In addition she has staged 36 works for Sydney Dance Company and various productions for The Australian Ballet, Sydney Theatre Company, Opera Australia, Melbourne Theatre Company, Queensland Ballet and international spectacles from the Sydney Olympics Games ceremonies to Dirty Dancing the Musical.
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Right now the award-winning designer is knee-deep in faux eucalyptus leaves and white ochre for a scene in Bangarra’s upcoming new work, Bennelong, sharing insights from her career.
Each art form has its own rules. “If it’s dance you’ve got to be able to move, it’s got to be washable. With opera you’ve got to be able to sing, and hear properly – you can’t have wigs that cover their ears, you don’t want too many jangling earrings that make too much noise. Apart from looking beautiful and telling a story it’s got to be appropriate; it’s got to read from the second row because after that the detail is lost; it has to work under lights,” Irwin says.
If that wasn’t pressure enough Irwin has to be mindful of keeping dancers safe – years of experience have taught her how to make costumes that enhance, not inhibit movement. “You don’t want to risk their livelihood, you don’t want them tripping and hurting themselves,” she says. “You have to take every little thing into consideration. I never use beading with Bangarra because they dance bare foot and if it falls they could cut their feet, whereas with opera it’s beading, beading, beading because they don’t move and they’re wearing shoes.”
Of course there are myriad tricks of the trade. What appears to be a sensuous low-cut dress in a classical ballet is actually flesh-coloured mesh, often with necklaces sewn in; multiple rows of gleaming buttons on a suit jacket are really magnets, designed to withstand being torn off quickly in the wings and replaced with a new costume; diamantes glitter more convincingly than mirrors, while certain cheap Chinese fabrics seem to sparkle. Irwin will often glue, then iron sheets of foil on material for a twinkling star-lit Bangarra night sky.
Her experience designing for dance in particular, led to an invitation to join the design team on both The Matrix and Mission Impossible films. “They’re very easy, dance-based costumes; it’s the acrobatic way of thinking as it’s all action. It’s much harder for someone to go the other way, a lot of designers have no idea about fabric or movement or what it can do.” A more recent foray into film, designing the costumes for director Stephen Page’s feature film Spear, earned her a 2016 AACTA award nomination for best costume design. “A tiny little film, up against Hacksaw Ridge, and it got nominated!” says Irwin.
As much as Irwin enjoys the range of work she does, Bangarra never fails to inspire her creatively. “Bangarra is so much more inventive, their characters are usually drawn from an ancient story or images of the landscape or sky; whereas contemporary dance is often abstract. There are only so many leotards you can design.”
Bennelong is the latest full-length work from artistic director Page. It was inspired by Woollarawarre Bennelong, a senior man of the Eora whose curiosity and diplomacy was fundamental to his community surviving the clash of cultures during early white settlement, albeit at personal expense.
For Bennelong, Irwin has designed a few hundred costumes, as the company now totals 19 dancers. Irwin’s costumes are more suggestive than explicit. First Fleet costumes are a deconstructed version of the cream trousers and red jackets, for example. “They’re more a suggestion, I always try not to be literal – that’s opera, not Bangarra,” she says.
Asking a designer to nominate a favourite costume is akin to a parent naming a favourite child; but in addition to Christine Anu’s stunning silver dress for the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony and Graeme Murphy’s Giselle for Universal Ballet in South Korea, Irwin quickly reels off four Bangarra productions of which she was particularly proud: Warumuk with The Australian Ballet; Frances Rings’s Terrain and Page’s Corroboree and Patyegarang among them.
“Bangarra is about movement, but also stories,” she says. “The minute you start chatting with Stephen you get visions and by the time you leave you have a whole storyboard of ideas. The hardest part is narrowing it down to one.”
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Bennelong runs at QPAC from August 24 to September 2; and Arts Centre Melbourne from September 7 to 16.
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