The Mariinsky Theatre's Costume Departments for the Kirov Opera and BalletThe Mariinsky Theatre'sCostume Departments for the Kirov Opera and Ballet
This Summer (1997) I went on a trip to Russia to renew sometheatrical contacts I had made previously, and to make some new ones. During this visit Iwas introduced to persons in the Mariinsky Theatre's Costume and Scenic DesignDepartments. I was given a tour of the costume shop, allowed to take photos, and activelyencouraged to post them on the web for your edification and enjoyment. The Mariinskydesign folks were planning to make a web site in future, but presently don't have theresources to do all that they wish in this area, so they were open to somebody puttingsomething about them on the web, to fill in the gap while they build their own site.
The Costume and Scenic Shops for the Mariinsky Theatre, arelocated in a number of buildings near the Theatre. They were originally established by theTsar's Government at the Turn of the Century as the shops for production of stage sets andcostumes for all the Imperial theatres (The Mariinsky, The Maly Opera, AKA The MussorskyOpera, and The Alexandrinsky Theatre). Now the shops mainly service The Mariinsky's needs,as well as the needs of The Mariinsky's two resident companies, The Kirov Ballet, and TheKirov Opera when they tour, and/or do a co-production with a foreign company. They alsotake in work during slack periods from other companies, both in Russia and, increasingly,abroad.
Their work has to be seen to be believed. Since their costumeswill be used for years, if not decades of repertory production, they are built with thesturdiness and quality usual to serious opera and ballet companies the world over. What isunusual is that because the staff is so huge, and the type of garments made are sopredictable ("White" ballets after all are always in white tutus, opera costumesoften are done to designs first rendered before the revolution, or shortly after), theworkers develop specialties that render them truly world-experts in the niche's theyoccupy. For example, stitchers are not generic. There are stitchers who work in men's wearonly, women's wear only, hats only, appliqué work only, soft scenery only, or semi-softsculptural scenery only. Ditto for cutters. Every pair of shoes is also made, by hand, onthe premises of a separate building. The result is that the workers are capable of beingboth fast and accurate in their specialty, and they can produce their costumes flawlesslyfor a price that gets foreign companies to beat a track to their door.
While I was there they were making plans to start marketingtheir hand-made Pointe shoes abroad under their own label. Apparently they have beenselling their shoes domestically to other companies for years without any label, andsuddenly realized they had a product that could export, thus filling the gaps left fromdried up government subsidies. Expect to see their work in dancewear catalogs in thecoming years, or better still, see it on stage when they tour to your nearest majormetropolitan area.
This photo showsa small part of the huge room called "The Women's Department" where all of themain cutting and stitching of the women's dresses is done. There are tables and machinesfor about 40 workers all crowded into this room, along with literally hundreds of hangingcostumes in various stages of completion.
At the time this photowas taken (July 1997) they were making in the shops five complete sets of costumes for theNutcracker (note blue snowflake tutus above) to be sent to Japan in preparation forthe Kirov Ballet's tours to the five major cities of Japan. These costumes will be parkedin their respective theatres for the five years the Kirov has contracted to tour each ofthem.
All the edges on all thetulle in all the tutus is cut into pinked scallops by this huge, hand cranked rotatingpinker. I actually own two old Victorian industrial crank pinkers, and have seen others(they are wonderfully handy for certain things) but this is about four times the size I'veyet seen. The crank wheel has about an 8" diameter, and it can zip through the tulleat an amazing rate. This one likely has been doing so since Pavlova was still takinglessons.
The Mariinsky's shop isfull of handy old equipment like this. They have dress forms of a huge assortment of 19thand 20th century bodice shapes, like this one for an 1890's corseted figure. Because theshops have been in continual use for the last century, they have all the originalequipment, plus succeeding time periods of equipment to satisfy their needs.
They also have access totheir storage, which houses costumes from the original productions of a number of designs.This hat, shown here in the appliqué department is from a production of Boris Godunovfirst designed in the 1920's. This worker is laboriously matching specially dyed andpulled swatches of fabric with the 1920's hat to make a new version with identicalmarkings. Interestingly, some of the fabric she is putting on the new hat is taken from aswatch-box from the original production. This particular type of gold organza isn'tproduced any longer, but, conveniently, the Mariinsky has some old pieces. Another swatchwas made by hand painting fabric with a hot pink aniline dye, as the original fabric wasas well. This attention to detail ensures that productions designed by long-dead designersfor long dead singers and dancers still have the exact look that the designer originallyapproved.
In yet anotherdepartment, this one The Millinery Department., a group of specialty stitchers sew on moreNutcracker items and freshen up a few hats from the new (in Spring 1997) productionof The Betrothal in the Monastery (AKA The Duenna). The workers use ordinarywire rather than hat wire, and hand stitch a thread covering over the wires on items liketiaras that have the wire as the only under-structure. Several specialty industrialmachines are also used for joining together wire and buckram frames.
Here, the hat cutter ispreparing to cut out a duplicate of the shako on the right from Nutcracker, while aweird turban from The Betrothal ... sits on the left. Behind her is one of severalshelves of hat forms available to the Millinery Department.
Here is yet another shelfof hat forms, which as you can see, does not provide enough shelf space for themultiplicity of forms left on hand. Some of the forms, stretchers and other hat equipmentare even older than the theatre. I asked them if they ever found that they didn't have aform that they needed for one of their productions and I was told that they did regularly(due to larger modern hat sizes), and that if they needed one that they did notposess,they simply order one made by the carpentry shop in another building, and it is brought tothem.
Generally,however they can make do with a slightly smaller hat and then stretch it since they have19th Century wooden stretchers like this one and 1920's electric metal stretchers (seephoto above) that can pull their hats to the proper fit. Among the rare and wonderfulequipment owned by the millinery department are a tiny set of puff irons (upper left) usedto curl silk into flower petal shapes, and to curve brims edges without curving the restof the brim.
The area with themost amazing equipment, however, is in the steamy dark basement of the building, where thedyers work. Here in the hall outside the main dye room are huge barrels of powderedaniline dyes. These dyes are the most powerful and electric in their colors, but dangerousto work with. Dyers and scenic painters who work with them have little protectiveequipment, but get higher "danger pay" for the probable health risks involved.As a curious holdover from the days of Soviet shortages, this pay includes extra milkrations.
The main dye roomis about as hot and wet as a steam bath, despite a wall of open windows. The water is soprevalent that the whole floor has simply been covered with a wooden grate to preventslipping, and to keep the workers feet semi-dry. In this photo you see two 3'x6' steelvats on the left that share a movable fabric rotator. The fabric being dyed is sewn into ahuge loop before dyeing then rotated round and round through the vat mixture by beingmechanically pulled by the rotator above.
While the one vatis in use, the other vat is filled up with large pipes. Nearby, other fabric is gettingrinsed out in two converted claw foot bath tubs that have been plumbed to turn them intocontinuously flowing fountains of fresh rinse water.
Here anothermachine (about 5' high) rotates another fabric loop through a mixture in the bottom of themachine. This rotator has flanges on the rotating wheel so that it simultaneously stirsthe mixture at the bottom even as it pulls the fabric to the top and over.
The shoedepartment, too, has all sorts of specialty equipment, and specialty workers. The shoesare made in a separate building where cobblers sit at low benches and hand make every shoethe same way they have done for the last century. Every Pointe shoe used at theMariinsky,plus hundreds of other shoes for dancers across Russia is made here in this fashion. Theday I was there they were busy making boots for Boris Godunov that looked like normal 17thCentury boots, but whose soles could be curled up easily in one's hand like a soft balletslipper. These boots would go on the dancers in the opera so they could leap about thewooden floor of the Mariinsky without sounding like a herd of elephants.
The Metal WorkingShop is another case in point. While most of their work consists of stamping, welding andriveting scenic and props items, there is also a machine there that individually stampsout brass military buttons with the old Romanov eagle insignia (now the symbol of theRussian Federation). This metal worker, as you can see is producing them in the hundredsto decorate the chests of the opera choruses.