Calvin Richardson in Dancing in Isolation: A Lockdown Series by Tom J. Johnson

Calvin Richardson in Dancing in Isolation: A Lockdown Series by Tom J. Johnson

by ILARIA MARTELLO X SUHAIR KHAN

Suhair: Ilaria manages the production of costumes at the Royal Opera House in London, and we first met in the spirit of connecting about new ideas for interdisciplinary design, a process I am exploring with a new platform called Open/Ended Design. Meeting her was a lesson in what it means to be a backstage visionary, a creative thinker, and a craftsperson. 

Through her knowledge of dance, the history of ballet and the essence of the human form, I found that her work is not just about the costumes, but the embodied experience of the dancer on stage. 

Ilaria carries this lightly – the weight of the stories, the legacies she is constantly threading together. With a career of 18 years, managing the production of countless ballets and operas with the world’s greatest choreographers and directors, designing costumes and now undertaking a PhD, Ilaria is uniquely placed to observe this seminal moment in time for ballet.

Now at the beginning of a new ballet season and in the aftermath of a pandemic, we talk about working with some of the world’s most athletic and disciplined performers, for months confined in their homes, and we talk about the evolution of the production of ballet, in a moment of new questions and new beginnings. I hope you enjoy this conversation between us, over the course of a strange and tumultuous year.

Ilaria: Intrigued by the superpowers of a tech mind with a passion for the arts, particularly ballet and dance, I have been following for the last few years the work of Suhair Khan. She works on strategy at Google and we met when she was working with Google Arts & Culture. She is also the founder and director of Open/Ended Design, a digital platform for activist design, and the newly appointed chair of the Board of Trustees at Studio Wayne McGregor. 

Suhair works at the intersection of technology, art and storytelling and what struck me was the deep connection I felt not only with the interdisciplinarity of her work but also with her empathic way of thinking. 

The conversations with Suhair have taught me the importance of celebrating diversity not just in our workplaces but also in the way culture is represented globally, of constantly interrogating the meaning of our practice, of recognising the power behind the stories we live and tell.

Hannah Rudd, Joaquim de Santana & Kym Sojourna from ONE. Photo by Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine

Hannah Rudd, Joaquim de Santana & Kym Sojourna from ONE by Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine

SK: Ilaria, you’re the Senior Costume Production Manager at the Royal Opera House- could you share what this means in practical terms? –  as you are all at once a creative, a curator, and a storyteller. No one person can embody what you do – and you carry the story of a performance in ways that most of us can’t actually comprehend!

IM: The job of the costume production manager is a crucial role that enables the designer’s vision to come to life. Theatre designers create fictional and emotional spaces through materials and a big part of my job is to translate the two-dimensional costume drawing, sometimes just an idea or a concept, into a three-dimensional object, an object that is incessantly responsive. It’s interesting that you have used the word storyteller because although we are not the ones coming up with the stories or deciding how to tell the story, there is a story behind every costume, and we are part of that creative process. 

SK: Your role has evolved over the last few years, could you explain how, and why? 

IM: I think that throughout the years there has been a shift in perspective and the need to constantly adapt and renovate. My job goes far beyond producing costumes just for the stage because the costumes are filmed, used for marketing, social media and educational content. They also need to speak to a wider audience and responsibly address the issue of sustainability as part of the climate crisis, something that the Royal Opera House is actively responding to, together with many other theatres and organisations. On a personal level, the most impactful change has been changing my mindset and recognising the need to share ideas with people like you outside the industry, and rethink what it means to create culture. Costume is a powerful tool to expand conversations and allow interdisciplinary contamination.

SK: You are surrounded by bodies – audience, directors, choreographers, dancers, lighting staff, and a myriad of other moving bodies. Could you share a little bit of the ecosystem of the Royal Opera House? 

IM: There are hundreds of incredibly talented people working backstage, all trained in specific areas: from stage managers to dressers, costume technicians, hair and make-up artists, lighting technicians, prop staff, scenic painters, stagehands, engineers, milliners, pattern cutters, tailors, dyers, production managers, sound technicians, armourers, music staff …and the list goes on! The sense of togetherness backstage is very special, particularly building up to opening night. Our jobs in isolation become obsolete, they exist as a collaborative practice where each one of us is a datapoint that connects the rest of the network. We are connected to the performers as well as to the audience.

Calvin Richardson, Izzac Carroll & Marcelino Sambé from ONE. Photo by Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine

Calvin Richardson, Izzac Carroll & Marcelino Sambé from ONE by Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine

SK: And so, with all of that said, who do you actually design for? How do you define design? The outfit, the process, the story, the feeling?

IM: Designing and developing a costume is about constructing a specific space for a specific body, it is a human-centred approach to creativity. It is also a space woven with the ethical and social fabric that people are made of. We design for people- for the audience and for the dancers. We all have our own perception of our bodies, and we tend to project that on others, but individual perceptions don’t always overlap. Sometimes we adjust costumes to the body proportions as perceived by the dancers themselves. This doesn’t compromise the integrity of the design, but what it does is seamlessly bridge the gap between self-perception and projected ideas.

SK: We have spent over a year being made vulnerable – in all ways and in all places, but I wonder how many professionals have been rendered as helpless as those whose body is their craft – we’ve talked about vulnerability quite a bit in the past, and I’d love for you to share what this meant for the performers and creatives at Royal Opera House this year. How has the space of costume changed through the pandemic?

IM: The positive side of the pandemic has been the opportunity to rethink my own role within the industry, my purpose within the outer world and to question what has been missing in my practice.

During lockdown, we couldn’t produce any performance in the traditional format in front of an audience. In June 2020 the Royal Opera House was allowed to stage a gala for the first time with no audience. Only one member of staff from the costume department was allowed to work on it as a support to the performers. The strict protocol in place didn’t allow the physical contact we would normally have with the performers. When I watched the gala live streamed, I thought about the vulnerability of dancers on stage with no audience, of a costume person not able to have that physical contact that we need, of exposing bodies that have been quarantined for so long wearing clothes rather than costumes. Once dancers were allowed back in the studios at Covent Garden last summer, they were in bubbles and masks were compulsory. The mask almost became a costume.

Only in May 2021 we were able to stage three ballet programmes in front of a limited audience. Working with covid-safe measurements within a tight schedule was challenging but being able to see the dancers back on stage after so long was incredibly powerful. 

As covid protocols have eased, we have regained a sense of collective creativity, where there is more physical participation in costume fittings and throughout the whole process of making costumes.

SK: You have been at the forefront of creating – designing, thinking, building your way through a pandemic, at one of the most important cultural institutions. Could you share a little bit on the dancers’ work and output during quarantine?

IM: Despite, or perhaps because of, the constrictions imposed by the pandemic, the work produced in quarantine has created a new language for collaborations. In response to the impossibility for dancers and choreographers to create together in a studio, a lot of dancers collectively produced remote videos, participated as part of a wider group of international dancers and contributed to virtual photoshoots. 

Two of my favourite projects are the series Dancing in Isolation by photographer Tom J. Johnson, which was shot virtually with dancers across the world; and the series One by photographer Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine, a collection of sixty pictures of dancers from the Royal Ballet, Rambert and Company Wayne McGregor based on the concept of interconnectedness.

Francesca Hayward in Dancing in Isolation: A Lockdown Series by Tom J. Johnson

Francesca Hayward in Dancing in Isolation: A Lockdown Series by Tom J. Johnson

SK: Despite this time being hugely creatively jarring – but somehow you have been able to evolve your practice both within and outside of the Royal Opera House – could you share what your work with the masks was, and how it came about?

IM: I started the Masking project during lockdown last year as a charity initiative in support of the Theatre Artists Fund, which provides emergency support for theatre workers and freelancers across the UK. With the generous support of Unlimited Fashion and of Cloth House, I produced reversible face masks in six different designs to be sold online, donating all the profit from the sales to the Theatre Artist Fund. The masks are made with ethically sourced 100% cotton Japanese fabrics and all six designs have a name taken from the meaning of the fabric patterns: Change, Mindfulness, Perseverance, Prosperity, Resilience and Wisdom. These qualities continue to feel relevant, and it is important that those objects are invested with something people can identify with.

Claire Calvert in Dancing in Isolation: A Lockdown Series by Tom J. Johnson

Claire Calvert in Dancing in Isolation: A Lockdown Series by Tom J. Johnson

SK: What has permanently changed in ballet and performance? What about technology – what does it mean for you, your work and your industry?

IM: Empathy has become one of the most important values. It’s about collaborations, individual recognition, inclusivity and diversity of thinking. Now more than ever we are forced to empathically engage with our environment too, with its social and material fabric.

The work produced in quarantine has proved the possibility of including our own values into our practice. Everything is stripped down to the bare minimum and the creative process is developed through the necessities dictated by the circumstances exposing everyone’s vulnerabilities- no stage, no physical audience, no dressing rooms, isolation, collaborating virtually…Yet there is a sense of collective identification, belonging and ownership in the settings of these works. Dancers and choreographers are here in charge of the values they believe in and want to represent through their artform. They are in full control of the content produced and the collaborators they choose. I guess what we have seen is a temporary shift of control from the organisations to the individuals. My hope is that this will help nurture new forms of thinking and participation within and outside organisations. These alternative ways of producing ballet and dance might also be opportunities for building a more diverse workforce, particularly within the costume community, which could then be reincorporated within theatres and gain more formal work.

Ayo Babatope, David Agunda, Emma Farnell-Watson & Joshua James Smith from Visible / Invisible. Photo by Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine

Ayo Babatope, David Aguda, Emma Farnell-Watson & Joshua James Smith from Visible / Invisible by Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine

Technology is a creative tool that could help share and retain the skills of craft people, a way to keep and build communities, both locally and globally. It has also provided the opportunity to relook at our cities and homes as repurposed spaces, to interrogate how we experience the lack of theatre as an architectural construct. Now that we are back in the theatre, we have gained a different experience of ballet, because performance spaces outside the theatres are differently charged. The focus and challenge are now how we can produce shows with sustainability at the core, without compromising the designer’s vision. 

I keep reminding myself to stop, re-set, re-think, re-new and re-evaluate what we do, how we do it and why we do it.

Follow Tom J. Johnson, Merrick d’Arcy-Irvine, Suhair Khan, Ilaria Martello and @maskingspaces on Instagram!