Making magic in the costume shop

Making magic in the costume shop – costumes for Cirque du Soleil

Mary Hawkins

The address of the Cirque du Soleil costume shop is the Cite de l’Image budding in east end Montreal, atop five flights of stairs. Once you’ve caught your breath, looking around you might think you’ve been misdirected: a huge empty warehouse space stretches before you. Through the window floats the odour of brew from the Molson plant up the street But if you’re persistent like Alice you soon find a doorway in the wall, and through this a large, sunny room filled with bolts of cloth, sewing machines, dressmakers’ dummies and the like.

From modest beginnings in 1984, Cirque du Soleil has grown to corporation size. At the height of production, they employ up to 50 people in the costume shop. Once the designer has all her sketches ready, a team of fabric dyers, cutters, seamstresses and hand sewers assemble to create the magical costumes.

It’s interesting to compare the early days to the present. Then, the designer would choose coloured and patterned fabric on shopping trips around Montreal. Today, the Cirque shops the world for fabric. Some is purchased white, then dyed in large sinks, or stretched on long tables and painted to create original de favourite cloth is a cotton-lycra knit blend (the same material used for fashion leggings) because the cotton win absorb perspiration and the lycra can stretch.

A visit to the shop last year found a crew of about twenty. With Saltimbanco playing to sold-out crowds in Montreal, another show touring Japan and still another in Switzerland, the staff is mostly concentrating on repairing or replacing costumes too worn out to mend, and painting lengths of cloth to be ready when needed. It’s a year-round operation.

When buying fabric for acrobats, certain rules apply. Above all, it must be fight weight and stretchy to move easily with the performer, a kind of second skin. On top of that first layer the designer has more freedom, using woven materials such as velvet and chiffon. But even these are adapted to the acrobat’s needs. On one blue velvet vest, the cutter inserted a matching blue stretch knit gusset under the arm. When the acrobat is at ease, the gusset is hidden; when he’s in action, the gusset stretches, allowing him to move freely.

The hats must be equally fight weight; the last thing an acrobat needs is to be top heavy. Through experimentation with different materials, designer Dominique Lemieux, with milliners Catherine Lauda and Helene Tremblay, has created some extraordinary headdresses that are both fight to wear and strong enough to withstand several shows a week.

As a theme for Saltimbanco, the director and designers focussed on the notion of |Urbanity’. Lemieux interpreted this to mean the diversity found within an urban environment and a look at the cast in full costume reveals a rainbow of colours on a wide range of characters. For example, the acrobats in the |Chinese Poles’ routine wear bodysuits covered in multicoloured wavy stripes, making them look like electrical circuit wires. But she also drew upon the tide of the show for her inspiration. A |saltimbanco’ is an acrobat an Italian word that means, literally, |a jump on the bench’ – reflecting its origins in outdoor street performance. Lemieux’s costumes are harlequinesque in their many-hued variety. For a bungee act, she designed a shiny wlite spandex bodysuit with attached hood, then cut V-shaped |tears’ in the arms and legs. Behind the tears she sewed in sparkly gold material, then appliqued a darker gold

patch on top of that. When the performer moves under the fights, the gold flashes through the V-cuts, as if revealing a second, golden-skinned creature underneath the white one. The idea of layers on layers, of glimpses of brilliance seen through a disguise, brings to mind the old travelling players of mediaeval Europe, the Commedia dell’Arte.

An important part of the costume-making process is record-keeping. Because acrobat A’s costume may tear while the rest may not A’s replacement costume must blend in with the old ones. When the dyers tint the bolts of fabric, they record exactly how much of each base colour they used to achieve the desired hue. Then they staple a swatch of the dry fabric into a binder, next to the dye recipe and a colour copy of the costume sketch. Likewise with patterned material: a finished swatch large enough to give an overall sense of the design is cut off the end of the painted fabric and added to the binder. During my visit the dyers were busy reproducing the |Chinese Poles’ costumes. More am just dippers of cloth, dyers need to be skilled painters to deftly apply this multicoloured design – like striated fishes in a tightly packed school – to the fabric.

The designer’s vision and exacting craft of making these magical costumes is one of the reasons why Cirque du Soleil makes the world believe in magic.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Performing Arts and Entertainment in Canada

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group