Being the first ballet that Rae Smith has worked on, The Prince of the Pagodas represents the first time that the theatrical designer has ever had to tackle a tutu.
‘I said to David, you’re going to have to bear with me,’ she remembers, ‘because I’m learning on the spot. And please don’t get tired when I ask you questions that only an idiot would ask you!’
On this page you can see original conceptual drawings for some of the costumes seen in the production, as well as photographs of the end results. In some instances the differences are surprising.
‘I’m not a professional illustrator,’ explains Rae, ‘I’ve just become one by accident and drawing, for me, has always been a way of showing my thought processes. In my pictures you’re seeing me trying to think things through. These aren’t finished costume drawings, but composites of ideas, with me trying to articulate those to make them as clear as possible.
‘So say you look at the drawing of the flame ladies – they’ve got flame skirts that look like the flames in a very still block print that Kuniyoshi might do. And while I know that’s the feel that I’m trying to achieve, if you literally interpreted it, it would be too stiff and the dancers wouldn’t be able to move. But what I’m trying to get is the stylisation of the block print, alongside the movement of the flames and the “demonic-ness” of it.’
‘I find that if you’re not trying to describe what you want people to do, but show what the idea is, then you can go to a fitting and involve the skills and cleverness of the people making the costume, who are obviously technically much more brilliant than I am.’
This approach yielded stunning results, most notably the tutus, which were created in Japan.
‘The stars were great fun because we tried to sculpt a swirling nebula, and reproduce the colours you would see in a map of the stars. A lot of that was done with beautiful painting techniques.
The Japanese are really up for that sort of thing. Historically they have a great tradition of storytelling with their costumes through the Kabuki, and they really understand theatre.
‘I wanted the costumes to be a real collaboration between a British and a Japanese imagination. And sometimes it really worked, and I think the tutus are a case in point.’
“Imagination” is a word that Rae uses a lot when discussing both her own role, and the role played by the costume makers that she actively collaborates with. It’s another reason why she feels it is important that her design sketches convey her ideas, without prescribing how they should be realised technically.
‘I never want to tell people literally what a costume ought to look like,’ she explains, ‘but I want everyone to be on board with the process of making it magical, because the more people’s imaginations that you can harness, then the more life and breath the final costume has. And that’s the thing about making costumes from the realm of the imagination; you have to get that sense of magic in them.
This process also gave Rae the chance to evolve her own ideas further, and as her experience in the world of ballet developed, so did her creations.
‘Interestingly, for the foam tutus I originally did a drawing based on the cut-outs of the set. But then when it came to making them I had a different idea – I wanted to make them out of cones, so you see the edge of the fabric in circular swirls, making it look like foam.
‘At least it does when they’re standing still!’ laughs Rae. ‘That’s another thing I learned working in ballet for the first time; that while actors spend a lot of time standing still, of course dancers rarely stand still for very long!’