Do you ever wonder, when watching a ballet performance, how the dancers change their costumes so quickly? Seeing the dancers emerge effortlessly in every scene in new costumes makes it hard to imagine the manic hive of activity going on backstage. Without the crew of stage hands, electricians, prop managers, stage managers, plus wig and wardrobe staff, among countless others, the show literally would not go on. And of these, it is the wardrobe staff and small army of dressers who ensure that each dancer goes onstage in their costume – in the right order, the right way round and done up!
Ballet costumes are complex and often do up at the back, so dancers always need help with them. Also, things go wrong: costumes rip, get stuck, fall off, or fall apart, and someone needs to be there to pin, tape and sew everything back together – by the next entrance! During a production of Sleeping Beauty in Canada some years ago, the head of Running Wardrobe saw the female Bluebird running off stage clutching at her costume in despair. The fabric of her tutu had ripped and she had literally fallen out of the bottom of her tutu! After some quick work with a safety pin the Bluebird was back on stage in time for her next entrance.
The Running Wardrobe Department
A show normally has the support of two to four members of the company wardrobe staff, including a wardrobe mistress or co-ordinator, a deputy and assistants, plus four to eight dressers depending on the size of the show, and additional maintenance staff who come in before the show to do some cleaning and ironing.
The running of the backstage is as meticulously choreographed as what’s going on onstage. Each dresser is allocated a dressing room to look after, and is given a ‘plot’ which tells them where they need to be, and what they need to be doing at every moment before, during and after the show. These are divided into scenes, with each change listed in order, and are normally about a page long, but some are even longer: an average plot for the New Adventures production of Edward Scissorhands, with its fiendish quick changes, is seven pages long!
In terms of timeline, here’s a breakdown of a typical show:
- 1 hour to curtain up - The first thing a dresser does is take all the laundry, tights and underwear, etc. into the appropriate dressing room.
- 30 minutes to curtain - Dressers pre-set the costumes needed for quick changes side stage and in the quick-change booths. Everything has to be checked and double checked.
- 15 minutes to curtain - The dressers normally return to their dressing rooms to help the dancers get into their first costumes.
- Curtain up - Throughout the show, the dresser will move between the dressing rooms and side stage. A lot of quick changes take place side stage if the dancers do not have time to return to their dressing rooms.
- Curtain down - After the show the dresser returns to the dressing room and helps dancers get changed, hanging up all costumes and collecting all the washing.
Dressers and Dancers
Each principal dancer has his or her own dresser, who will just be looking after them or sometimes one or two others, depending on the production. The dresser’s purpose throughout the show is to ensure that the principal has everything he/she needs as well as all the right bits of costume at the right time. Corps de ballet dancers share one or two dressers between them, but when there is a very quick change all dressers will be called to help, each with a certain item to undo, re-pin, clip or remove.
In a version of Romeo and Juliet in London a few years ago, I was the dresser for Juliet and was responsible for two very quick changes. The first was a mere 45 seconds from her ball dress into her nightie. The wardrobe mistress, the wig master and I all stood poised in the wings ready to catch her. The change was so quick she just had to stand there as we pulled, pinned and hooked. One night, I had to follow her up the balcony stairs to retrieve her forgotten earrings! The second quick change came right at the end of the ballet. Juliet, once she was supposedly dead behind the curtain of her bed, had to quickly sit up and undo the back of her dress herself. Finally, when the bed was pulled off stage, the stage crew formed a line with their torches pointing to me. She would run towards me and I had ten seconds to fit her into the last costume, which had an infuriating number of hooks and bars. But a dresser must always stay calm: you can’t let the dancer see that you are panicking or it will all be over – it’s like working with horses (wink, wink)!
Dressers constantly have to check everything: dancers are used to being grabbed at and straightened up in the wings. A friend of mine once had to dive out of the wings to go after a dancer who had a made her dramatic entrance with a hot pink bra hooked to her hem! Dressers are not just there to help dancers in and out of costumes: they must have eyes everywhere and need to be on hand when things go wrong.
We would all love to pretend that things never go wrong, but it just happens. I have seen shoes fly off, straps break, hair nets get stuck in interesting places, and I once saw a dancer get her heel caught in her trouser leg, resulting in amazing improvisation until she could unhook herself! As dancers become more experienced, they get pretty good at dealing with these disasters themselves. In a production of La Fille Mal Gardée in Canada a number of years ago, the Widow Simone caught the hem of her taffeta dress in a drawer and didn’t notice till she had walked halfway across the stage, by which time a long strip was hanging off her dress. Turning and seeing she was caught, she tore off the strip, rolled it into a ball, put it in the drawer and finished dancing – all in character.
As you can see, there is more to a performance than what is happening out front, so when you are next watching a ballet and admiring the choreography on stage, spare a thought for the frantic choreography going on behind the scenes!
With many thanks to Dolly Brown for her lovely tutu pictures. Follow her on Instagram @londonlivingdoll.