We Made It: Anna Willetts Birmingham Royal Ballet Costume Assistant

This year, Birmingham Royal Ballet celebrates 25 years in the city, during which time the company has presented more than 130 different ballets. Over the years, Birmingham Royal Ballet has worked with some of the biggest names in theatrical design, art and fashion, including Jasper Conran, John Macfarlane, Philip Prowse and Katrina Lindsay. To mark their silver jubilee, the company has teamed up with House of Fraser’s Birmingham store to display a few highlights from their extensive catalogue of costumes. The Arts Desk asked Birmingham Royal Ballet’s costume assistant Anna Willetts about the process of creating costumes for the company.

THEARTSDESK: Birmingham Royal Ballet will be touring Swan Lake this autumn. Tell me about the costumes for this production?

ANNA WILLETTS: The costumes were designed by Phillip Prowse 33 years ago and they are quite big and heavy, so there has been lots of darning and mending involved. I do the heavier alterations. If a jacket needs relining, I’ll do that. Or if something needs remaking, I’ll do that. With Swan Lake it’s just heavy alterations, which I’ll do because I know how to make the costumes.

Do most of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s productions usually involve pulling costumes out of storage or are you given the opportunity to create new pieces?

It depends on the production. Last summer, we produced The King Dances and that was totally new from scratch with completely new designs and it was pretty exciting to work on. When I’m working on existing costumes, it’s still really exciting because there’s so much history involved and you need to incorporate and respect it in the work. But with something new, I’m given the design and I can just interpret it and it’s really creative and fun.

In the New Year, the company are putting on a production of The Tempest, which will be new. So,  the costume designer will meet with the choreographer and they’ll discuss what’s wanted; what the choreography’s going to be like; what the period’s going to be and what the feel of the piece is going to be. This will certainly involve talking about the costumes, so that we’re all on the same page. The costume designer will then come out with some designs and she’d probably talk about them with the director. After they’ve made any changes, they recruit costume-makers. Then we have first fittings, where we fit to mock-ups, and the designer might make more changes. The choreographer and the dancer will be there with the designer to see if it works. But really, when you get to rehearsal, there’ll always be something that just doesn’t work. So, you have to be quite open-minded and flexible. For example, I think that there was one costume that was just cut from The King Dances and I had to remake something really quickly in about three hours.

Is there anything that you find particularly challenging about the whole process? I suppose when you only get three hours to produce a costume that could be quite challenging.

That doesn’t happen that often, to be honest. But Christmas time was quite a challenge really because that was a new Sugar Plum Fairy and a new Prince that I made for The Nutcracker and I made both, alongside other stuff, in about a month. So, it was pretty full-on because they are very embellished costumes with loads of heavy beading and layers of leaves on top of layers of other stuff.

One of the biggest challenges can come with remaking some of the older costumes though and that’s because some are so old that the same fabrics aren’t always available. This happened when I made a new Father Time costume for Coppélia in January. The particular fabric suppliers didn’t exist anymore, so there was a bit of a panic trying to source some lamay from Germany in time.

When it comes to turning the director’s vision into reality, do you work closely with the dancers or do they pretty much get what they’re given?

We do work closely with them and we’re always making alterations for them. There may not be quite enough movement in the crotch or the arms, because ballet costumes really are different to those in theatre or opera, and there are loads of little things in the way that you cut something across the gain of the fabric or whatever that can create more room. So we definitely work closely with the dancers and try to make it work for them but we also need to be aware of not compromising the design.

How do you feel when you see dancers on the stage in gear that you’ve put together?

It’s an amazing feeling, thinking that “I made that”. I still get the buzz and think, if it wasn’t for me that wouldn’t be there, or it would be different. Even though you’re not a designer, I think, as a maker, you are designing something. You have much more opportunity for input with new productions, as long as you keep talking to the designer. But with the Sugar Plum Fairy, there are already eight of these costumes and even though they aren’t on stage at the same time, each has got to be like the first one made by John Macfarlane. So you don’t have so much design leverage there because you really have to respect the original. But there are loads of different ways to make things and there’s always plenty of opportunity to be creative.

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