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Backstage: How costumes and lights give dance life

Candoco Dance Company’s Beheld. Photo: Hugo Glendinning Candoco Dance Company’s Beheld. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
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There is a much smaller pool of people who work in dance compared with theatre and opera, explains lighting designer Guy Hoare. “You get approached by choreographers that you’ve not necessarily come across, but you’ve worked with one of their dancers, or they’ve seen your work. So you filter through the network probably quite a lot quicker in dance.”

Hoare should know, having been lighting dance productions, as well as plays, musicals and operas, for nearly two decades. And it’s not just networking, he says; the whole design process is different in the dance world, too.

Mark Bruce Company’s production of The Odyssey at Wilton’s Music Hall, London. Photo: Nicole Guarino
Mark Bruce Company’s production of The Odyssey at Wilton’s Music Hall, London. Photo: Nicole Guarino

“It’s not always true of theatre and opera that lighting is the last one to the party, but often other design decisions have been made, which you’re inevitably responding to. Whereas in dance, you’re often brought in at a stage where the canvas is still entirely blank. And if you go: ‘How about this as a starting point?’, that may be the seed to everything else.”

This is particularly the case for small-scale dance work, where budgetary constraints might mean that lighting is the only design discipline at the table, but it holds true for work higher up the scale, too.

“You’ll often have [lighting] designers that work almost symbiotically with choreographers, like Michael Hulls and Russell Maliphant, for example, who work very closely with their choreographers to create the work alongside the lighting,” says Emma Wilson, director of technical and production at Sadler’s Wells in London.

Hoare’s long-standing collaboration with choreographer Mark Bruce is a case in point. Having worked together regularly since 1999, most recently on Bruce’s latest production, The Odyssey at Wilton’s Music Hall in London this spring, the two have developed an understanding around the value of lighting design being part of the discussion from the very start. The result is that Hoare “can have a far more open conversation” with Phil Eddolls, the set designer who worked with Bruce and Hoare on The Odyssey and the 2013 production of Dracula, than might otherwise be possible.

“I can be more prescriptive with a set designer [on a dance production] than I would necessarily dare to be with a theatre designer,” he says. “It’s nice that you’re being proactive, rather than reactive, in the creative process.”

Costume design – and making – tends to be a more involved process in the dance world, thanks to the need to take into account not just the look and fit of an item of clothing, but how it will respond to the considerable wear and tear of performance. As head of wardrobe at Northern Ballet (she first joined the company in 1992), Kim Brassley has overseen the costumes for dozens of full-length productions and mixed bills over the years, from classical works such as 2011’s Giselle to modern presentations such as 1984, which premiered last autumn.

 A costume from Northern Ballet’s production of Dracula. Photo: Lauren Godfrey
A costume from Northern Ballet’s production of Dracula. Photo: Lauren Godfrey

Fabrics such as chiffon and silk are harder to care for than synthetics, but they move better and look better in motion, Brassley explains. Ingenious workarounds have been found, such as pre-washing fabric before costumes are made so they’ve already shrunk and won’t do so again with future washing.

Choice of fabric can also avoid potentially embarrassing outcomes, says Brassley. “Trouser splitting is quite a common one, so having a few percent Lycra just gives that bit of movement.”

Other tricks of the trade include avoiding excessive beading or sequins around the waist area of a dancer who’s going to be lifted because they’ll be hard on the hands of the person doing the lifting, or building hidden gussets into the underarms of jackets to allow for more comfortable arm raising. Hair pieces are preferred over full wigs, says Brassley, because they’re less likely to overwhelm dancers’ often tiny frames.

The scale of dance productions can be challenging, too, with four or even five different casts for each ballet. “We try and make the principals their own costumes, but then when you’ve got a big corps [de ballet] scene, if you’ve got eight girls in it and eight boys, we probably make 11 or 12 costumes to allow for the different heights and sizes of the different dancers.”

Even if dancers are sharing costumes, they all need their own shoes, of course. Most of Northern Ballet’s dancers wear shoes from Freed of London, which are all handmade and take around three months to craft to each dancer’s individual specifications. “Planning ahead so the dancers don’t ever run out of pointe shoes is a massive part of my job,” says Brassley.

While Brassley is worrying about footwear, it’s for someone else to consider what those shoes will be dancing on. Wilson and her team at Sadler’s Wells “pay particular attention to floors”, she says, from flamenco floors with microphones fitted underneath them, to slippery hip hop floors that facilitate the spinning of bodies.

Olga Pericet in Pisasas at Sadler’s Wells, London. Photo: Paco Villalta
Olga Pericet in Pisasas at Sadler’s Wells, London. Photo: Paco Villalta

For the ballet and contemporary dance companies that tour to the theatre, a sprung floor is essential when it comes to avoiding stress fractures. The main space, studio theatre and all the studios have them, and at Sadler’s Wells’ second space, the Peacock Theatre in Holborn, the team lay a false sprung floor on top of the non-sprung stage.

“The sprung floor needs to be well maintained,” says Wilson. “It’s providing the right services for dancers so that we can ensure they have safe careers.”

Some companies tour their own sprung floors to ensure the equipment meets their requirements, explains Wilson. “But I find ours are almost universally liked by the companies that come in.”

Candoco Dance Company tours to dedicated dance venues, including Sadler’s Wells, but it also takes work to non-traditional spaces, from theatre foyers to parks as part of programmes such as the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. It’s amazing what can be achieved on the road, says assistant producer Saphia Bishop.

“You can lay a dance floor. They’re quite compact, simple things. You certainly won’t have any kind of sprung base. We’ve performed in car parks and things like that, and you just roll down the floor, and it’s taped down,” she says. “It has to be a level space, no steps or sudden inclines. But a lot of the outdoor festivals are brilliant at working that out.”

For many dance companies, flooring is the major concern when it comes to the performance space. With bodies in motion the focus, sets tend to be minimal, which can keep touring costs down when compared with plays or operas.

Responding to the specific needs of touring companies is a crucial element of running a successful festival or venue. “It’s a lot of planning, a lot of forward thinking, a lot of pre-empting these things before [companies] come in,” says Wilson. “We need to be adaptable, both technically and also personally, for the hugely different companies that come through our doors.”

Northern Ballet, for example, sometimes require extra dressers on shows with very large companies or lots of complicated quick changes. “We’ll just pick them up each week as we go to the different venues,” explains Brassley.

From lighting and costume to the tactics of touring, dance offers a unique set of challenges. Fortunately, the industry is uniquely adapted to meet them.

Northern Ballet’s 1984 runs at Sadler’s Wells, London, from May 24-28. ; northernballet.com. Candoco Dance Company is an inclusive company featuring disabled and non-disabled dancers. Guy Hoare is a lighting designer. 

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