The tutus

Cloud tutu

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.

Flaming Empress Epine

‘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.’

Clouds and Stars Designs

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.’

Stars tutu

“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.

Foam Designs

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!’

Foam tutu


The Sea Creatures

Deep sea men design by Rae Smith

As Princess Belle Sakura flees her father’s kingdom, she is regularly intercepted by her stepmother, the wicked Empress Épine, who is seeking to drive her further and further away.

During a sequence underwater, the Empress appears in the form of an octopus. With her are two other sea creatures – characters which have changed significantly from Designer Rae Smith’s original conceptual drawings.

Acting as bodyguards to the Empress, the sea creatures originally appeared as wide-jawed, glow-in-the-dark Angler fish, similar to the terrifying example seen in Pixar’s Finding Nemo.

Angler Fish costumes

‘You have to remember that I’d not designed a classical ballet before,’ explains Rae, ‘so I was learning by my mistakes. And my mistake with the angler fish was that they were basically dressed in black and set against a black background, so you couldn’t see them!

‘I was hoping that the lines on the costumes, combined with the angler fish’s luminosity – that you imagine those deep sea creatures would have – would be enough to make them visible. But in fact it abstracted the body too much. And also they just looked a bit too bonkers! So it was a guess of mine that didn’t work.’

Instead, the angler fish became spiky crabs. Choreographically there were few changes required, apart from a few tweaks to their initial entrance onto the stage. Where before they stood tall with one leg out behind them, they now bend low on the floor and hold their arms out wide and crab-like.

You can see some of the differences in this video clip, which compares studio and stage rehearsals from different points in the creative process:

While the characters only appear briefly in Act II, they were no less important to get right than any of the others.

‘It’s important to clarify anything that isn’t quite working,’ says Rae, ‘so that the public don’t get stuck on these little details, and instead can simply enjoy the presentation of the whole production and the story that it’s telling.’

Sea Creature; photo: Roy Smiljanic


The Yokai

The Yokai; photo: Roy Smiljanic

Some of the most unusual characters seen in The Prince of the Pagodas are the Yokai, mischievous spirits who transport the Princess to the land of the Salamander Prince.

Designer Rae Smith confirms that many of them were direct picks from the work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, the Japanese artist famous for his woodblock prints, and a reference point shared by both Rae and Director David Bintley.

‘We have monsters in our own culture, but the Japanese monsters are just bonkers looking’, explains Rae. ‘So you can view them like a child would, and laugh at them while also allowing yourself to be frightened. They definitely live in that slightly hysterical world of both fear and laughter.’

Yokai designs by Rae Smith

Like the monsters seen in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, or Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, the Yokai are not explicitly malevolent, but there is certainly a sense of danger to them.

‘In Kuniyoshi’s pictures the monsters can represent fears, or a specific group of people in society. They all have roles to play. So they’re traditionally have a very specific purpose, and it’s nice that [in Prince of the Pagodas] they have the job of leading the Princess on her dream journey to her brother’s land.’

As well as the four Yokai who take to the stage, there is an enormous stage cloth heaving with dozens more of the creatures. Their appearances are equally eccentric, including one that looks like a wide-eyed (and possibly fire-breathing) version of the equine star at the centre of Rae’s designs for War Horse…

‘Joey snuck in there!’ she laughs. ‘He’s not really a particular manifestation of Joey, but I think you might accidentally like a horse every now and again!

Joey on the backcloth?; Original photo: Nick Smiljanic

‘I just loved drawing the monsters because they’re just mad looking. There’s a duck-billed one in there too. While I was drawing them I was just thinking that monsters are great, and if one looked a bit horsey-like then that was great too, and to just go for it!

‘I think David would have told me if I went too mad. I hope so anyway, I don’t know, I hope he’s not just sitting there suffering away!’


The Emperor

The Empress and Emperor

At the heart of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Prince of the Pagodas is a fight for power, with the Emperor’s new wife, the Empress Épine, seeking to dethrone her husband and rule over the kingdom in his place.

When we first meet him at the start of Act I, the Emperor is already stricken with grief at the loss of his only son, whom he believes died as a child. In actual fact, the Prince is still alive, but has been transported to the other side of the globe and trapped in the form of a striped salamander, all thanks to a spell cast by the Empress.

‘At the beginning,’ explains designer Rae Smith, ‘the Emperor is seen wearing a white kimono with a cloud motif, to suggest that he has his head in the clouds. He’s very distanced from the people, which allows his evil, manipulative, terrifying young wife to come in and bulldoze him out of his position. He doesn’t see it coming because his only friend is a clown who looks after him, and loves him, but isn’t necessarily the right person to be advising him on how to run the country!’

The Emperor and the Fool

By Act III, the Emperor has almost been stripped of the last of his remaining strength, and totters around the stage with a permanent 1000-yard stare. Rory Mackay, who plays the part this season, describes that expression as one of the hardest elements of the role. ‘Maintaining that focus, and keeping the feeling of being detached, oblivious to what is going on around you on the stage, is really tiring’, he says. ‘By the end of the ballet my eyes are killing me.’

It’s a role which has drawn comparisons with the role of the frail and fragile Red King in the one-act ballet Checkmate, a role which Pagodas-choreographer David Bintley performed after being cast by the piece’s creator, and founder of the Royal Ballet companies, Dame Ninette de Valois. By coincidence, it was de Valois who prompted David to produce a version of The Prince of the Pagodas, after giving him a recording of the score to listen to many years ago.

Based upon a game of chess, Checkmate sees two warring sides compete for control of the board. The vulnerable King, of course, must be protected at all costs, as once he falls, so does the kingdom. Similarly, in The Prince of the Pagodas, the Emperor is the one figure who the Empress must ultimately defeat in order to take control of the throne. As long as he has breath in his body, there is still hope, but once he falls there is nothing that any of the characters can do to stop Épine…


The Designer

While possibly most famous for her work on the hit stage show War Horse, Designer Rae Smith recently revealed that creating sets and costumes for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s current production of The Prince of the Pagodas offered an exciting contrast.

‘If you imagine the costumes in War Horse, everyone’s dressed in muted brown, or dun-coloured khaki, or grey German uniforms,’ she explained, ‘and they’ re all covered in mud and looking a bit vexed to say the least! So to be asked to design a Salamander, or a burning king, or a sea horse or waves or stars was a real joy for me.’

‘And of course War Horse has a very particular, minimalistic narrative which is in itself very involved and specific,’ she confirms, ‘whereas Pagodas was a brilliant opportunity to let my imagination loose on a much more visual narrative.’

Designs by Rae Smith

Rae’s professional connection to David Bintley began years ago when Rae sent the Birmingham Royal Ballet Director some of her sketches for a Brussels production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. ‘Her set designs impressed me as being very clever and unusual’ says David. ‘I loved that it was set in an old attic and out of the doors of the wardrobe the fairies came.’

When the time came to create this most unusual fairytale, David knew who to turn to when seeking to realise its unusual imagery.

‘I think that David thought that it was a good idea to bring in someone from the world of theatre,’ says Rae, ‘but obviously he had to measure that with the fact that they wouldn’t necessarily know very much about classical ballet. So I relied on him a lot for feedback.

‘He’s great. He’s very clear about what he thinks and wants. I think he was a little shocked with how literally I took everything – I took every reference he gave me and worked with it. He said “This is a book of prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi that might inspire you”, and I thought “You bet!”’

Designs by Rae Smith

Rae was already greatly familiar with the work of the Japanese Printmaker, having spent time in Japan as a design student, and was a personal fan of his narrative techniques.

‘There was an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy just before David gave me the book, and it was so amazing what he did and how he constricted his pictures. The visual storytelling – if you’re in to it – is mind-blowing.’

Rae jumped at the chance to utilise the source material that she had so long admired, and which offered such an abundance of imagery. The influence can be seen immediately in the production (‘The monsters were taken from there, as were the ways that flames look and water is dealt with.’) but there are far more ideas present on stage.

‘The idea of a paper-cut world was another theme that I used as a cultural reference point, which I’d seen in a lot of films as well as visual exhibitions. So the sakura blossoms in the court scenes have a sense of being cut from paper.

Designs by Rae Smith

‘I wanted to frame all this with a British perspective, so all of the borders are then influenced by our own arts and crafts movement, with a sense of that love of nature that we have here. So there are images of animals particular to this country, like badgers and butterflies, complimenting the same themes in Japanese art.’

Being a collaboration between both British and Japanese arts organisations, The Prince of the Pagodas is also a reworking of a story that can now claim both British and Japanese heritages. Combine these facts not just with her approach to the project, but with the resultant sense of detailed imagination captured in every set and costumes seen throughout the show, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect choice of designer for this production than Rae Smith.


The Theatrical Milliner

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!’


The Salford season in Company tweets




Next stop, the Midlands, as our UK premiere performances continue at Birmingham Hippodrome!


New live-action trailer!

The new live-action trailer for The Prince of the Pagodas arrived this week, featuring footage from the stage rehearsals at The Lowry, Salford.

The clip includes shots of many of the ballet’s colourful characters, and offers a first look at more of the new costumes created especially for the production.


The first look at the Tutus

Designer Rae Smith has created four new tutu designs for The Prince of the Pagodas, with most appearing in the story’s central journey through environments representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Fire is the only element not to feature the classic ballerina dress, with dancers instead dressed in vibrant red leotards. However there are two air-borne designs, representing both clouds and stars.

Here you can see some of Rae’s original designs for the ‘foam’ tutus that appear as the story moves underwater, as well as images of the completed dresses hanging in the wardrobe department. You’ll notice that some are hung with blocks between them to stop them squashing each other, while one is being kept upside-down to preserve its bounce!

Foam Designs




The Court Ladies’ kimonos


Here you can see work continuing on the enormous kimonos worn by the Court Ladies at the start of The Prince of the Pagodas.

Maker David Plunkett explains that each uses the same sized piece of fabric, which is then taken in to a greater or lesser degree. ‘There are no Obis [belts] being used for these, which was a surprise’, he adds, ‘so they have to be held in other ways, and made to look like they’re just hanging naturally on these tiny bodies.’



In addition, striped bands are being added to the edges to give the impression of the traditional multiple layers of fabric, which would require too much time to put on between scenes.

‘It still needs to look expensive and voluptuous without swamping the dancer,’ says David.


The Court Ladies are among a number of characters that appear in groups, with each group requiring four, six or eight identical costumes. The pattern on the fabric was especially printed to ensure that enough would be available.

Between fittings, the whole rail of kimonos are transported to and from Birmingham Royal Ballet in huge dress bags. ‘David carried them on his own this morning before we met up to travel up from London’ reveals fellow Maker Sharon Williams.

‘I was on the Northern Line in rush hour,’ he confirms, ‘and wasn’t very popular!’