Ballet has held the title of being the most poised and elegant, yet physically demanding style of dance for centuries now. Its grace and beauty are equally matched with a sense of determination and raw athleticism. This year, Toronto’s prestigious National Ballet School hosted the Assemble International, a prestigious and exciting event that brings 21 ballet schools from around the world to Toronto for a chance at experiencing one another’s curriculum. The most interesting and rewarding aspect of the event is an intermingling of international students under one roof, allowing for strong relationships and wonderfully beautiful collaborations to take place.
Recently, Novella had the chance of speaking with Robyn Clarke, head of the Canada’s National Ballet School wardrobe and costume department on just exactly what it means to be a ballet costume designer in a world hell bent on moving away from tradition.
Christopher Zaghi: The first question I’d like to ask you is about the Assemble Internationale itself. The Assemble Internationale takes place every four years, can you tell Novella’s readers a bit more about the event itself?
Robyn Clarke: Our part in the Assemble is to prepare for all of the performances with international schools and NBS, so, they all arrive over the weekend and classes start on Sunday. Each brings two to eight students and they partake in classes and workshops. They also bring their own repertoire, and that’s what we’ve been working on for the last few days. AT the end of the week we’re having a choreographic workshop with returning NBS alumni, there are some pretty cool people on that list, and that’s going to be with a blended cast. SO international and NBS students.
CZ: I saw that there are 11 countries being represented at this year’s event. Do you find that different countries and schools place the importance of their wardrobes differently?
RC: No, I think that’s the nice thing about ballet is that it’s really similar. I mean we might have schools that do more things themselves, but wardrobe plays a very important role and they take care of it.
CZ: Ballet Fashion has always popped up throughout the years. You have designers like Lacroix who are inspired by ballet. Recently bodysuits and leotards have become a very big thing in fashion. Why do you think that is?
RC: Personal opinion. I think it’s because leotards are pretty breathable girls like it that their shirts don’t ride up so it’s nice when they stay tucked in. And the nice thing about leotard is that you’re able to move in any way that you need to. I think that’s what brought it back. Also, it was kind of big in the 90’s.
CZ: Does designing costumes for ballet differ from high fashion design or haute couture design?
RC: I think so because at the end of the day functionality is the most important thing. If they can’t dance in it, they aren’t going to use it. So you’ve essentially just wasted your time. But beyond that, aesthetics are still very important, but functionality overall.
CZ: What do you find most rewarding about costume design itself?
RC: It’s just really nice to see your work on stage and to see it working with dancers. One time, one of the dances here said to me “I really appreciate the work we’ve done together.” They talked about it being a collaboration being performer and costume, so for me, that was a really special moment. Knowing that work that I do helps them and that we work together to make what you see on stage possible.
CZ: Could you through a typical day of what you would do here at NBS?
RC: Sure, everyday kind of differs. Ever since I’ve started working here, it’s always been challenging in new and interesting ways. But usually, I’m just working on certain projects at certain times of the year. Sometimes I’m making tutus, sometimes I’m shopping, sometimes I’m designing, sometimes I’m making lists, sometimes I’m doing fittings, it just depends on the time of year. But for an average day in the fall, I’ll spend doing tutus. I’ll measure the students, and then I figure what we need to build, then I’ll order all the supplies.
CZ: How much time generally goes into the construction of a costume?
RC: A really great way to answer that is with a practice tutu. It’s a half tutu, so it’s just the net and the knickers and the Basque which is the belt that attaches it to the waist. So that itself takes about 20 hours to build so you can just imagine a fully decorated costume, which can take 150 hours or more depending on the design.
CZ: Are most of the National Ballet school’s costumes made entirely by hand?
RC: It’s a blend of purchasing and designing. Often you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for in the size, colour, and quantity that you need. So often I do make a lot of our leotards and costumes.
CZ: Do you think the ballet world has moved towards contemporary costume as opposed to historical costume?
RC: No, I think there’s a nice blend. This year we’ve seen a lot of nudes and mesh, a lot of mesh. Mesh T-shirts, mesh tank tops, mesh leotards, you name it, it’s in mesh.
CZ: Personally, what do you prefer, historic or contemporary?
RC: I feel like I like both. They both have their place. The shows are a perfect example of the blend. We had a lot of the schools doing classical works and the other schools doing new repertoire. So there’s a lot being stored in our wardrobe.
CZ: Do you have any particularly favourite costumes in the wardrobe department?
RC: That’s a hard one. A few years ago we did a piece called chalkboard memories, which we’re doing again this year, the girls wear these kilts with nude leotards while the boys wear these kinds of grey uniform pants. There’s a couple that is the chalk couple, so they’re completely made of chalk. Their school uniforms are done in black with the chalk outline, which is really cool. I think that’s one of my favourites.
CZ: Do you think someone in the fashion industry could transition into the ballet world as a costume designer?
RC: Yes! A lot of them actually do.
CZ: With major fashion houses like Carolina Herrera and Rodarte making costumes for the New York City ballet, do you think schools and dance companies will over towards designer costumes?
RC: Often the difference between schools and dance companies is that they have different funding structures, so never say never, but those costumes that the New York City Ballet have are pretty expensive in relation to things that are made in house.
CZ: Do you think it’s important to keep the detail-oriented and intensive design process of ballet costume design alive rather than looking for more cost effective methods?
RC: Absolutely. I think at the end of the day, performance costumes like tutus and tunics all look the same for a reason. I mean it’s years of development to make them look like that and once we kind of lose that detail and handcraft, they’ll be no getting it back.
CZ: Do you have any advice for future costume designers that may read this article?
RC: I guess I’d say take every opportunity you can. Even if it’s not necessarily a well-paying gig, often just learning more about the body is totally worth it in the end. Making connections with choreographers and with dancers will really take you places.