Who would suspect, looking at this industrial building in the industrial area of Altona, that it houses the magicians who make scenery and costumes for the Australian Ballet, and all the rich relics of past performances?
It houses a collection of costumes and sets valued at $40 million, and provides work space for set construction and scene painting. As we enter the office space the first thing I see are costumes for “Snugglepot and Cuddlpie”, Mr Lizard and a gumnut baby’s cap, a classic Australian story we were reading to the twins in Warsaw.
Then an extraordinarily knowledgeable guide leads us into the construction area.
The company is on tour at the moment, so the work area is empty of people. What remains are stacks of sets for innumerable ballets. The guide tells us of the complexities of set design for a touring company. Different sized stages at different venues mean that sets have to be constructed so they can expand or contract to fit. The Sydney Opera House stage is the smallest: he’s quite scathing about this national icon’s inadeqacies for ballet. A production of “Alice’s adventures in Wonderland” is imminent and we walk through stacks of its sets.
We move out of this vast warehouse room, past a neat array of brooms hanging on the wall and a basketball hoop with skid marks on the floor where the artisans relax, into the storage space for costumes. En route we peep in to see a wigmaker at work, crafting an intricate white (arsenic-free) 18th century wig, strand by individual strand, up to two weeks intensive work for one wig.
Wigmaker at work (not the one we saw): image from https://australianballet.com.au/the-artists/artisans/costume-atelier: see here for an interview about wig making
And then we are amongst rack upon rack of costumes, an archive of all the performances of the Australian Ballet since its formation in 1962. Each new performance is designed anew, so costumes are rarely re-used. Our guide lifts tutus from the racks and shakes them right side out, pointing out details created in response to the demands of the costume designer: perhaps “the underneath layer needs to show like this.” We walk up and down rows of silk, brocade, velvet, faux fur, lace, flannel, feathers, tulle and even digital prints in every imaginable colour. We hear stories of designers who require a very specific fabric that takes ages to source, and of delays on delivery when volunteer seamstresses are called in to race against the clock stitching on final lace details. If you think tutus are always delicate tulle, let me disabuse you. We saw one made out of the mesh from air-conditioning ducts sent to an automotive painter to stain it black.
Once I believed ballet costumes were mere impressions. How wrong I was. These are haute couture.
Stacked against the wall are boxes full of head-dresses: the millinery team creates tiaras, hats, jewellery and shoe buckles, using sparkling crystals and beads and often basing their creations on exhaustive period research.
The tour over, we step out of this enchanted space, where the magic of performance is created, into an ordinary Melbourne day and head back to the Arts Precinct for lunch.