Wearing a navy-blue polyester jumper, Michael Williams’ unassuming appearance does not give away his 30-year career as wardrobe manager of The Australian Ballet. It certainly doesn’t begin to hint at this man’s knowledge of tulle and beading.
But hearing Williams’ detailed description of almost every costume in the Australian Ballet’s production of classic favourite The Nutcracker – racks upon racks of fairies and candy canes, a Rat King, a Jack in the Box and Arab dancers – it becomes clear people like Williams are necessary to keep this magical art form ticking.
“You buy a ballet production as a package. That means choreography, lighting, costume, everything,” explains Williams as we start our tour with a rack of 15 snowflake tutus – shimmering wisps of satin and tulle, expertly dyed to resemble dirty snow.
It’s immediately apparent that nothing is outsourced here unless it absolutely must be; all cutting, dyeing and beading is done on site. This is illustrated by Maureen Ryan, the costumier and Carlton Football Club devotee behind us, who is sewing away next to her custom-made Carlton lampshade.
The wardrobe team’s dedication to John McFarlane’s original set and costume design sounds as exhausting as it is astonishing.
“John had to sign-off on every costume, and he’s very particular,” says Williams as he points out a ribbon that had to be sourced from the only remaining factory that produces it, in England.
These costumes were all originally made in 2006, when the ballet first performed Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker. Now, it’s a matter of repairing and re-fitting the costumes on the new cast.
“Under Peggy van Praagh’s direction in the ’60s and ’70s, the dancers were chosen for their perfect proportions, they looked like clones in a line up.
“Now, being identical is not as important. Plus, men are getting broader, taller, with bigger feet, and women are longer in the body. It makes it harder for us.
“They’re still smaller than any mannequin though,” Williams explains as he struggles to dress a plastic model in the production’s most precious piece: the Sugar Plum Fairy tutu.
There are five Sugar Plum Fairy costumes, one for each woman who will play the role this season. They’re silver, pale pink and apricot in satin and velvet, every inch crowded with pearls, crystals and beads, and every one worth a cool $10,000.
These works of art have been living in the ballet’s storage facility in Altona, Victoria, purpose built to keep the costumes pristine during their long hiatuses.
Keeping the tutus stiff enough to sit at right angles to the dancer’s bodies has been a particular source of torment for Williams and his wardrobe team. “They actually used to spray formaldehyde to keep the tutus stiff, but the men started getting rashes on their face from lifting the women, so that had to stop,” he laughs.
The special type of mesh used for shoulder straps on tutus – invisible to the audience – also poses problems. “The mesh is the first thing to wear out. We used to get it from Spain, but they’ve stopped making it. We have to get it from England now.” Compromise is clearly not a word in this wardrobe manager’s vocabulary.
Next we come to a row of toy-soldier costumes, each made from real military flannel at the same British factory that made the soldiers’ uniforms for the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Hard to be more authentic than that.
“Look though,” Williams says, bringing a soldier’s sleeve towards me, “You can see that none of our colours are flat. Everything has texture.”
Indeed, not one of the hundred-or-so items I’ve seen contains a simple “green” or “blue” fabric; everything has been dyed and dyed again to achieve not only McFarlane’s original vision, but a kind of texture and depth that brings this magical, motley crew of toys, monsters and fairies to life.
Decades of this relentless, militant attention to detail have obviously not yet spoilt the magic of the ballet for Williams, who excitedly explains the equally complex and intricate set and lighting design.
“Have you ever noticed how right before it rains or snows, the sky actually changes colour? They’ve actually incorporated that into the production … Watch closely and you might notice the lights turn a little yellow before it starts to snow,” says Williams.
*The Australian Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker runs at the Sydney Opera House from November 28 until December 17. For tickets, see sydneyoperahouse.com/whatson