In Costume Wonderland

We’ve written before about the key role stage design and costumes play in giving dance works an extra dimension. Costumes help set the tone, create a mood and build characters. From the iconic tutus that emerged from Imperial Russia to colorful modern designs (we particularly love the funky unitards in MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations) or minimalist looks, they provide dance works with a clear visual identity.

Last week we did something we have always wanted to do since starting this blog: we dropped by the Royal Opera House’s costume department to take some pictures. With Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland set to return to the stage in two weeks, costumes are back from Toronto (the ballet is a co-production with the National Ballet of Canada) and they are getting some TLC ahead of their second outing here in London.


Costume Supervisor James Kelly, who has been with the company for 16 years, walked us through the creations of Tony Award-winning designer Bob Crowley for Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet, giving us great insight into the costume department’s role in producing and caring for these garments:

Details of Alice costume

The costumes arrived from Canada around December last year. The department’s job involves a lot of maintenance: airing, dry cleaning, washing, adapting to new casts, sourcing fabrics for new pieces, getting them dyed or printed as needed. Here is the lavender-coloured costume Alice wears for most of the ballet:

Alice Costume

Details of Alice Costume

Changes in the production might impact on costumes. Upon receiving the whole set ahead of revival, the costume department must liaise with the production team and find out whether they need to produce any new garments.

Details of various Alice costumes

For this revival of Alice the corps de ballet‘s “colour placing” has changed, so the team had to order four new flower costumes “because the colours have to follow a certain order on the stage. If one of the girls danced it last year but she’s now in a different place it might mean we need to make a new one” James explains.

Guard and Flower costumes

Over the years, fabrics used in dance costuming have changed a lot. According to James “They are now more stretchy, which can be tricky especially in character costumes. Sometimes you need to find a balance with structure, there’s a lot of give.” Alice’s mother’s costume (pictured below), which feels much lighter than one would expect in a “bulkier” costume, is a good example:

Alice's Mother

We wonder how long these costumes would take to put on? James tells us the most intricate of the lot is worn by “The Duchess” (not pictured). It takes five minutes to put on and is currently stored in a whole rail of its own.

Details - Alice's Mother's Costume

Speaking of storage, James explains that after each production, costumes go back to a huge aircraft hangarlike facility in Wales, where all the costumes for ballet and opera are kept “so that what we have in the building is either for current productions or those that are coming up soon.”

Various costumes

The Royal Opera House has a production wardrobe but most pieces are made outside. Because of the sheer volume of what is needed for each production, it would be impossible to make everything in house.

Playing card costume

Typically principal dancer costumes are made in house, but corps de ballet and character pieces are made outside by a team of freelance costume makers who also work with other companies. The ROH outsources to different teams depending on costume specifications: some costume makers specialize in romantic, floaty garments, while others deal exclusively with tutus.

Back view of bodice in a playing card costume

James says “We try to make the costumes so that they are adaptable to be shared. Due to its nature of being a co-production, some of the Alice pieces have to be let out and then taken in again, or adjusted with two or three rows of bars running down the back… “

Playing card tutu

Stack of playing card tutus

We’re curious about the trickiest ballets to cater for and we ask James whether The Sleeping Beauty is the hardest: “that’s a big production, but then again you have sets of things: the garland dancers, the nymphs, the fairies, cavaliers…

Detail of Rajah's costume

…whereas in something like Mayerling, everybody is an individual character so every costume is different and then for the girls there are tiaras, necklaces, earrings, gloves, fans, every single accessory you can think of. Something like that is definitely more work for us.”

Details of the Rajah's costume

March Hare costume and details

Typically, ballet costumes last about 20 years, with the oldest set coming from La Fille Mal Gardée (some of the character costumes are about 52 years old and still in use) and Marguerite and Armand, where some of the gentlemen costumes date back to the 1963 premiere.

Mad Hatter costume

Details of Mad Hatter costume

Some of Crowley’s costumes are full of details, like the exquisite embroidery in the Mad Hatter’s waistcoat. If you’re sitting up in the gods, be sure to focus your binoculars on this one:

Detail of Mad Hatter costume

The notion of the dance costume as a “true work of art” goes back to the times of Léon Bakst, but past and present legends like Jürgen Rose, Barbara Karinska, Nicholas Georgiadis, Santo Loquasto, Peter Farmer, John MacFarlane, Jérôme Kaplan and, as seen here, Bob Crowley, demonstrate that much of the emotion in dance continues to come from costumes and their own moods and rhythms.


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland returns to the Royal Opera House from 17 March to 13 April 2012. The production is also available from Opus Arte on DVD and Blu-ray:

The Royal Opera House and Opus Arte are giving away one DVD and one Blu-ray of Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The two sets have been autographed by Royal Ballet Principals Lauren Cuthbertson (Alice), Steven McRae (the Mad Hatter), Zenaida Yanowsky (the Queen of Hearts) and Edward Watson (the White Rabbit)

To enter leave a comment or email us ( theballetbag [at] gmail.com ) by 22 March 2012:

Who is your favorite character in Wheeldon’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and why?

Don’t forget to tell us if you prefer the DVD or Blu-ray format. Entries from all over the globe are welcome.


9/04/2012 – Promo results:

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Alice DVD promo. As usual it was tough for us to pick only two answers (once again, Randomizer to the rescue!) from all the wonderful comments and emails you sent.

 

We are pleased to announce the two winning entries:

The Blu-ray goes to Cassie Powers who emailed all the way from Seattle:

Never having seen Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I live in Seattle where it has not been mounted, I can only base my response on what I’ve seen from promo featurettes online. Lauren Cuthbertson is just enchanting, but I can’t say at the moment that Alice is my favorite character. Based on the book, and purely for the WOW factor and technical reasons I’ve seen, I’d say the Cheshire Cat. Love that character in the book, and what I’ve seen in behind the scenes at how he is created and performed, I’m just amazed. It certainly creates major magic onstage… I would love an opportunity to see a full performance of this wonderful ballet… if I were not to win a copy, I’ll probably buy a copy, but winning one would be nice…

… and the DVD goes to Eeva who commented as follows:

My favorite has to be Queen of Hearts, mostly because of Zenaida Yanowsky’s aMaZiNg role work / interpretation! The character is so versatile, thus challenging for the dancer to keep it interesting (not just concentrate on the evil side, but also the funny stuff). (Plus: I love the red tutu!)

Do stay tuned for more DVD promotions in 2012!

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).

48 Comments

  • [...] very successful at The Royal Ballet/National Ballet of Canada, with Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (currently in its third revival) and more recently at Dutch National Ballet/San Francisco Ballet [...]

  • [...]  The Balletbag wrote about Alice and Wonderland costumes. [...]

  • March 30, 2012

    Beth

    Forgot to mention- my favourite character was the Caterpillar- I saw the ballet a few days ago and he was so mesmerising and fluid in his dance, I think they tried to make all the costumes quite historically Victorian (see the animals costumes and their similarities/referencing to hunting jackets and their comparison to country folk) and because the Caterpillar is an eccentric and quite exotic character they’ve dealt with this by going for an asian theme to the wardrobe.

  • March 30, 2012

    Beth

    Can anybody tell me what fabric was used for the flowers tutus? I know they must be synthetic because they’ve been dyed and the edges were cut irregularly and burned. I want to do the burning effect for my textiles project.

  • March 21, 2012

    Ellie Badham

    I’d love a copy of this! I moved to Canada from the UK 5 years ago and I really miss my occasional trips to visit the RB! They didn’t happen often but they were fantastic every time :)

  • March 20, 2012

    Pink Lady

    My favorite character has always been the White rabbit: irritating but cuddly-like… and Ed Watson is so eye-catching on stage, I love his ever-puzzled look in this role.
    (If I’m lucky I’d prefer the DVD…)

    Otherwise the hearts between the photos are very nice ♥. Gorgeous costumes – with so many details you can’t appreciate on stage! I should try to sit closer to the stage next season…

  • @cassie_51 email us who is your favorite character in the ballet Alice, more here (scroll to footer) -> http://t.co/XGvGU5hE

  • [...] PS: If you can’t make it to London to watch Wheeldon’s Alice, there is still time to get your hands on the DVD/Blu-ray from our exclusive giveaway. [...]

  • [...] and run right through the day until 7.45pm. The day will feature rehearsals from such works as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Romeo and Juliet, plus the opportunity to see ballets in the process of being created by Liam [...]

  • #AliceinTwitterland : you’ve seen the ballet, now enter the DVD promo! See details in our photoblog -> http://t.co/FQwtDSRq #freestuff

  • In Costume Wonderland, plus Alice DVD Promo! – http://t.co/btcno4cf

  • In Costume Wonderland, plus Alice DVD Promo! – http://t.co/btcno4cf

  • March 15, 2012

    Alys Swan-Jackson

    Wonderful performances all round, but my favourite has to be the Duchess. Simon Russell-Beale does a great job as a non-dancer, and of course superb acting!
    I would prefer the DVD, should I be so lucky.

  • RT @theballetbag: One week left to take part in our Alice DVD promo! See details in our costume photoblog -> http://t.co/FQwtDSRq #ballet #freestuff

  • March 15, 2012

    Giselle R

    “Hats” off to all of the amazing performers but my favourite simply has to be Alice! Exquisite dancing and she just draws you into the entire Wonderland with her charm!
    If I should be so lucky – DVD please!
    Also: the costumes are amazing! Thanks for sharing these delicious eye-candies! I simply had to add your blog to my bloglist.

  • March 15, 2012

    Ellen Kay (@PennyAgain)

    RT @theballetbag: One week left to take part in our Alice DVD promo! See details in our costume photoblog -> http://t.co/FQwtDSRq #ballet #freestuff

  • RT @theballetbag: One week left to take part in our Alice DVD promo! See details in our costume photoblog -> http://t.co/FQwtDSRq #ballet #freestuff

  • March 14, 2012

    @DesignedbyAlice

    Love your ‘Alice’ photoblog @theballetbag http://t.co/m9qxiTIo

  • Calling all costume fans! Ahead of the return of Alice, take a look at @TheBalletBag’s photoblog and comp! http://t.co/yfUs8NQQ ^C

  • March 7, 2012

    Annie

    Oh, and a great post about costumes! i recently had the opportunity to lend a hand in the costume department here and i thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The work that goes into making these one-of-a kind creations, the care to make them last for years and the last minute rush to make everything fit just right! Thanks for a great sneak peek into this sometimes forgotten part of ballet.

  • Costumalicious! The Ballet Bag dropped by The Royal Opera House’s costume dept! @theballetbag http://t.co/nfMvQy10

  • March 6, 2012

    Annie

    As much as I love the queen of heats and the mad hatter, I think my preference goes to the Cheshire cat: he’s simply brilliantly put together (and taken apart!) but most of all i really appreciate how he links the ballet with the original book and illustrations.

  • 3月うさぎ。。。なんてかわゆいフレーム。ハートマークがさりげなく散りばめられている。(^o^) http://t.co/kHkcVbcf

  • March 5, 2012

    Laura Juache

    Hi!!! Well I actually loved all the caracters but my absolute favorite us the mad hatter. Everything about him was amazing. The clothes design, the choreography and the interpretation wre simply wonderful. I really would love to see it on live but live a little far far away. If win I prefer blu-ray but dvd is as good for me :)

  • March 5, 2012

    Stella

    I love, love, and absolutely love the Queen of Hearts. She amazing in every detail: her facial expression, her choreography, her costumes! She is just fabulous!
    I would prefer the Blu-Ray. :)

  • March 3, 2012

    Elizabeth

    Very difficult to choose between any of the wonderful roles and the dancers performing them, particularly Alice and the White Rabbit. However, the Duchess must deserve a special mention for the witty and truly remarkable ballet début of Simon Russell Beale.

    If selected, a Blu-Ray please.

  • March 3, 2012

    robin (mahrobi)

    well, i have not seen the full production, only what snippets i’ve found on youtube but i think i will have to go with alice because lauren cuthbertson plays her brilliantly. i also think the cheshire cat is very clever!
    ps- great post here, i adore the detailed costume photos!
    (DVD format)

  • March 2, 2012

    Shannon

    I would have to say I just love the character of Alice. Her dancing is so expressive and beautiful. It is difficult to pick one because so many of the characters are fabulous.

    DVD

  • March 2, 2012

    RuthyMC163 (@RuthyMC163)

    RT @theballetbag: New photoblog in the bag: a visit to costume wonderland + a signed DVD promo http://t.co/XGvGU5hE #AliceinTwitterland #freestuff

  • March 2, 2012

    Julie

    I wish I could see it live, but the TV version will have to do. All of the characters are superbly realised by the Choreographer and the dancers themselves, but I have to say my favourite was Zenaida Yanowsky’s Red Queen.

    Shoudl I be lucky enough to win, DVD version please.

  • March 2, 2012

    Renee Beauvais

    Ooo this is a toughy… all the characters are wonderful but I got to go with the Queen of Hearts.
    She is funny but also positively evil, even creepy, like in a nightmare. Love the red tutu and her plastic heart!

    The dvd is my preference.

  • March 2, 2012

    Milly

    I saw Alice on TV at Christmas and really looking forward to seeing it in the flesh at the Royal Opera House soon!

    My fave was the Mad Hatter – I loved his tap-dancing – brilliant!

    DVD please.

  • March 2, 2012

    Chris (@ManInSeatD26)

    RT @theballetbag: New photoblog: in costume wonderland + a signed DVD promo http://t.co/XGvGU5hE #AliceinTwitterland #freestuff

  • The Queen of Hearts! Zenaida Yanowsky owns the character! The Rose Adagio parody is just brilliantly danced fun :)

    Oh, and I would prefer Alice in DVD-format, thank you very much. Should I be so lucky, that is.

  • March 1, 2012

    Fleegull

    Come to the US already!

  • March 1, 2012

    (@catchip) (@catchip)

    Great post & photos beautifully presented even on titchy phone screen RT @theballetbag: a visit to costume wonderland http://t.co/RFnzQMpP

  • March 1, 2012

    Nina

    Oh, and I’d prefer the blu-ray format :)

  • March 1, 2012

    Nina

    That is a tough one. Alice is such a lovely character, and the Mad-Hatter is a showstopper. However, the Caterpillar is my favourite. Not only is Eric Underwood divine in the role, but Wheeldon’s choreography really brings the character to life I love it and his section is one of my favourite parts of the ballet!

  • March 1, 2012

    Chris

    I was totally enchanted by Wheeldon’s production and was lucky enough to catch its televised airing over the Christmas period. I adored Lauren Cuthbertson’s sweet and curious Alice, and, of course, the outrageously hilarious Queen of Hearts (I simply could not stop laughing and had to YouTube the clip to many friends as a recommendation to other to go and see it), but I have to confess that my favourite character was the Cheshire Cat as I thought it was superbly executed theatrically. I don’t want to spoil it for other people, so I won’t delve into the details of what and how it was done, but I certainly think the designer and the creation of Wonderland on stage deserve their own special recognition! :)

  • March 1, 2012

    james kelly (@jesmes)

    http://t.co/OD5UHgip my interview with the girls from the ballet bag

  • March 1, 2012

    Wen

    I love all the characters and think the choreography suit each individual perfectly. However, my favourite has to be the White Rabbit. The onstage transformation from Lewis Carroll to the White Rabbit is fun and magical, and the witty choreography brings out the quickness and slightly paranoid characteristics of the Rabbit. Also, it’s such a delightful experience to see Edward Watson performing a non-tragical figure once in a while!
    I would prefer the DVD format.

  • March 1, 2012

    Eeva

    My favorite has to be Queen of Hearts, mostly because of Zenaida Yanowsky’s aMaZiNg role work / interpretation! The character is so versatile, thus challenging for the dancer to keep it interesting (not just concentrate on the evil side, but also the funny stuff). (Plus: I love the red tutu!)

    I’m so happy that this production is available on dvd/blu-ray, the casting is superb :) If I’m lucky enough to win, it would be the dvd.

  • March 1, 2012

    Karen Bolton

    My favourite character is the White Rabbit because the role remains true to the original story but adds complex layers to it. I think it is masterful how the White Rabbit constantly gives the impression of being in a rush, even when he isn’t looking at his watch, but this doesn’t detract from the elegance of the dancing. I love it when he taps his feet to the ticking of the watch and if you look very carefully you will see his nose twitching!

    I would prefer the DVD format of the ballet.

  • March 1, 2012

    Kristine

    I actually like the quirkiness of Alice! The way Lauren Cuthberson plays Alice was just fantastic. She bring in so much more elements which you would never see in the traditional Alice. The Alice featured here is not only quirky but also rather cheeky … and there is a hint of naughtiness in it too. I really liked the ending of the ballet as it seemed as though the journey never ended.

    I would prefer the DVD format of the ballet

  • RT @theballetbag: New photoblog in the bag: a visit to costume wonderland + a signed DVD promo http://t.co/XGvGU5hE #AliceinTwitterland #freestuff

  • March 1, 2012

    (@naomip86) (@naomip86)

    RT @theballetbag: New photoblog in the bag: a visit to costume wonderland + a signed DVD promo http://t.co/XGvGU5hE #AliceinTwitterland #freestuff

  • Step into costume wonderland with @TheBalletBag including the chance to win a signed Alice DVD! http://t.co/yfUs8NQQ #ROHalice ^C

  • March 1, 2012

    Dave

    Ooh this is a toughie! Alice had a much deeper character than I expected (partly, I’m sure, due to the excellent ballerina’s dancing the role) and the Queen of Hearts is hilarious, but my favourite role simply has to be the Mad Hatter! It’s such a different role to what I’m used to seeing at the Royal Ballet and it’s delivered with panache.

    Although, with the expansion of the Knave of Hearts role, maybe I’ll change my mind this coming season!