Rachel Thomas speaks to designer Tracy Grant Lord and Caro Harkness, former Head of Wardrobe at Scottish Ballet, about creating the world of Cinderella.
From rags to riches — the enchanting story of a downtrodden girl of the ashes transformed into a glittering princess is a folk tale that has captivated generations. And, in every adaptation of Cinderella’s story, it’s all about that dress.
When Christopher Hampson created his Cinderella for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2007, his vision for the protagonist’s transformation — and for the world and characters that surround her — was clear. “Chris’ overriding desire was for the production to be completely magical”, explains the ballet’s designer, Tracy Grant Lord.
Grant Lord and Hampson first worked together on the latter’s acclaimed 2003 production of Romeo and Juliet — also for RNZB — which went on to be nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Production (2005). Her holistic approach to designing for ballet, and their shared love of elegance and classical style, meant that another collaboration was inevitable — and Cinderella, Hampson’s next full-length Prokofiev ballet, was the perfect opportunity. “Having worked together on Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Chris and I came to Cinderella with such excitement. We had already seen each other’s responses to this composer and knew we shared a love”, says Grant Lord.
Beginning in the studio with the model box — collecting ideas from both classical images around the story and more contemporary styles — Grant Lord began to conceive the scenery for Cinderella. “To create this new ‘magical’ version of Cinderella we gathered references and collated a hybrid world that can suggest a place in time that could be then or now”, she explains. The resulting designs connect to the heart of Hampson’s concept for the ballet — illustrating Cinderella’s story, and taking us on a breathtaking journey from the sparse surroundings of her family home to an opulent, embellished fantasy garden.
Within this environment, and influenced by the choreography for Cinderella, Grant Lord’s costumes could begin to take shape. “I more often than not build the scenic world first and then start to see the characters inside the world”, she says. “I aim to create a harmony between the characters and the world they inhabit, to serve the production”.
Hampson populates the ballet with a range of characters that evolve as the story develops and the scenery around them changes, and this was an important source of inspiration for the costumes. Grant Lord explains: “His Dancing Master transforms into a Grasshopper, his Shoemakers into Silkmoths and his Dressmakers into Spiders spinning web. We worked very closely to develop these costumes, which in turn inform the performances”. Her ingenious use of design elements such as shape, style and colour articulates the metamorphosis of each character — so that, for example, the contours and colour palette of the long, heavy back coats of the Dressmakers are unmistakably recalled, but magically transfigured in the silvery, translucent cape of the Spiders.
And of course, none of the costume transformations are as astonishing as Cinderella’s. Appearing for the ball in Act II, she is virtually unrecognisable — wearing an exquisite tutu for which Grant Lord commissioned some extra-special decoration. “We have been very fortunate to have had assistance from Swarovski®. A motif of crystals was specially designed and created for the tutu Cinderella wears”, she explains. This dazzling design not only captures the fairytale element of Cinderella, but also draws on one of the ballet’s key themes — that of the rose — which is central to Hampson’s story, and woven throughout Grant Lord’s designs for the ballet.
“There are roses everywhere!” says Caro Harkness, former Head of Wardrobe at Scottish Ballet, as we walk through the costume department at Tramway in Glasgow [in 2015] — between rail upon rail of sparkling tutus and dresses, beautifully tailored jackets, and numerous headpieces and accessories. For Scottish Ballet’s performances of Cinderella, it is Harkness’ job to oversee the preparation of the costumes for the 2015 production, ensuring that every element of Grant Lord’s designs is brought to life on stage. “Our Scottish audiences want to see something that’s fresh so we need them to look absolutely splendid” she explains.
At the time of my visit to Tramway , Harkness and the costume makers are in the midst of tailoring the pieces that are to be revived — and it’s a meticulous operation. “They really are haute-couture costumes, fitted to the individual dancer for this production”, she says. Alterations are made to the costumes so as to emphasise the lines and shapes of the bodies of Scottish Ballet’s dancers, while still giving them enough space for freedom of movement. And at the same time, the makers work to breathe new life into each outfit — re-sewing limp embellishments and drooping wings, adding material to give the costumes renewed movement and bounce and supplementing sparkles here and there.
In some cases, they have re-created entire costumes from scratch. “We’re doing a remake on the Little Stepsister because her costume has done every night the ballet has. It’s been worn and altered so much that we really couldn’t use it this time round”, Harkness tells me. “We’ve changed the material from satin to taffeta, which is slightly better for our purposes. The audience deserves to see something that’s sparkly on stage, and boy they’re going to see it with the Little Stepsister's dress!”
This painstaking preparation of the costumes is just one element of the work that has gone into bringing the designs for Hampson’s Cinderella from page to stage — and transporting the ballet from one company to another, across the world. “I can confidently say that making magic takes time!” says Grant Lord. But for both designer and Head of Wardrobe, creating costumes that inform a performance and shed light on the heart of a work is extremely rewarding. “On the first day you’re given the designs for a ballet it’s like being given an exam paper”, says Harkness. “You think, ‘Goodness, I’ll never be able to do that’, but it’s just a case of working through it until you get to the end. Then it comes alive!”