Two words have just sprung to mind: Wardrobe Malfunction. It’s the week after The Prince of the Pagodas opened in Salford, and Theatrical Milliner Debbie Boyd is expressing sympathy for one of the dancers who lost their top…
‘As a dancer you work hard learning the choreography and then at the last minute they throw a costume at you and make you wear uncomfortable shoes and to cap it off you have something like the top hat worn by the King of the West.’
Many elements of a new production come together for the first time during the small handful of stage run-throughs that take place just 48 hours before the public arrive. Varying stage sizes require the dancers to establish larger or smaller patterns. Marathon lighting work takes place utilising the Company’s own touring rig. And many of the costumes are danced in for the first time, and the engineering behind them adapted to cope with the rigours of the choreography.
There are three different casts dancing the role of the Uncle-Sam inspired King of the West – one of four suitors who appears at the start of the ballet, each attempting to win the hand of Princess Belle Sakura.
‘You ideally would make one fitted to each cast member’s head, but often the budget can’t stretch to that’, says Debbie. ‘Also people sometimes get injured and replaced, so you have to allow for flexibility. So you might make one hat that two dancers can share, with a removable piece of padding, held in with toupee tape or Velcro. However on this occasion, the choreography is just too quick. There’s a lot of spinning and turning, and he goes down on the floor a lot. If you clip the brim it’s just going to bounce off, so the hats really had to be fitted properly.’
For some characters, such as the Balinese Girls, chin elastics are used to ensure that the headwear absolutely stays in place. But this is not always an option.
‘With the King of the West we couldn’t use elastic’, Debbie explains. ‘Because the character has to take his hat off at different points and raise it to the Empress. In addition, Henry, our Wig Master, had made a beautiful wig for that character with curls at the side and if we’d put elastic on the hat it would have crushed them and ruined the look.’
Another practicality to be considered was the blindfold worn by the Princess in Act II, which doesn’t obscure the dancer’s vision entirely, but does cause sight restrictions. During the stage rehearsals, Debbie had to work hard to establish the right balance with each girl performing the role over the four-week run in Salford, Birmingham, Plymouth and London.
It’s something that she has done before, creating similar items for the Company’s production of Carmina burana. The transparency of the fabric used (chiffon) isn’t so much the problem, and in fact can be doubled up to look more solid. Trouble arises, however, when it catches on the dancers’ eyelashes.
‘You can put foam across the forehead at the top of the mask,’ reveals Debbie, ‘and foam on the cheeks and over the bridge of the nose, so that lifts the blindfold away from the eyes, but if you add too much the dancer ends up with tunnel vision, and obviously a dancer’s peripheral vision is really important.’
Once a workable happy medium has been reached, the straps can be fitted with Velcro or poppers, so that the blindfold has a set tightness every time.
‘But you can make them for a million years, and establish a formula, but until you get on stage you don’t know the choreography and how much turning is involved, and how long they’ll be wearing a particular item for.’
Hat-wise, The Prince of the Pagodas isn’t the biggest production in our repertory (“Sleeping Beauty is enormous, a huge great big thing. 11 skips of hats!”) but it certainly features some of the more unusual items. In addition to top hats and blindfolds, there are also seahorse heads. These also fall under Debbie’s apparently flexible job description.
‘You have to make these items fit around the circumference of the head, and stay stable and work with the choreography. So you can understand why ‘seahorse’ would come under the jurisdiction of a hatter. Blindfolds are just because there’s no one else to do them!
‘Wings are another one. If you ask a costume maker to create the wings for Giselle, they say no, because they make corsets, they make skirts and tutus, and do decorating of bodices; all skills which are the results of a very specific and clever art. But if you say can you make wings with wire and pliers and glue, they don’t want to know. Whereas a lot of hats for theatre involve precisely these materials. It’s hard work reliant on lots of manipulation and you have to have strong hands.
‘That happens everywhere. It was certainly the case at the Royal Opera House when Birmingham Royal Ballet used to be Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. And at Covent Garden they have different workshops – men’s and women’s tailoring, shoes, wigs, jewellery and so on. But what would happen when someone wanted a floral head-dress? In that case it would fall to millinery. And the same happens here, when someone has to take responsibility for a big basket full of penguin heads!’
Debbie seems happy with such a diverse range of responsibilities, and admits that her job title is slightly misrepresentative anyway.
‘Well, strictly speaking a Milliner is a maker of ladies’ hats’, she explains, ‘If you’re a man’s hat-maker you’re called a Hatter. I make both, but it just sounds nicer to say Theatrical Milliner!’