Designing Costumes for Midsummer Night’s Dream: Who You Are Behind the Line

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Fri 4/7 @ 7PM

Cleveland Ballet premieres its new A Midsummer Night’s Dream this Friday at Playhouse Square. The choreography is by Ramón Oller, someone the Cleveland dance audience will remember from CB’s production of Coppélia last May.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is first of all a play by William Shakespeare, but it inspired, among other music, Felix Mendelssohn’s well-known overture and incidental music. That music in turn furnished the score for many ballets including Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Cleveland Ballet’s upcoming production. At an open rehearsal recently, we saw that Oller and the dancers were taking full advantage of the comic possibilities of Shakespeare’s play and Mendelssohn’s music. It’s a funny show with an attractive cast that tells its story clearly through dance.

Doing costumes for A Midsummer Night’s Dream presents a feast of creative possibilities for designers. There’s the Athenian nobility in the court of Hippolyta and Theseus, the fairy court of Titania and Oberon and — at the other end of the hierarchy — the rude mechanicals, including the ambitious amateur thespian Nick Bottom who is magically transformed with the head of an ass. To get a feel for Cleveland Ballet’s new production and the work that costume designers do, we exchanged a few phone calls and emails with Victoria Mearini, costume designer for this production.

Some of our readers may already know Mearini from her career as a dancer, especially her long professional association with Cleveland San Jose Ballet. Since she retired from ballet in 2001, she’s been working hard at costume design and related skills at Kent State University, Cleveland Institute of Art and in Paris, where she worked as assistant to Renato Bianchi, costume designer at La Comédie-Française, a venerable state-sponsored institution with tradition and style leaking from every seam.

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CoolCleveland: We gather from your sketches that you’re doing this MSND in Renaissance style.

Victoria Mearini: The people wandering into the forest are from the Renaissance but the forest characters, the fairies, can be anything. And of course Hippolyta and Theseus are from mythology, so they’re going to look very different.

Once I get the era, I’ll research it by looking at paintings because there you see the costumes and the balance of the colors and the hairstyles. If I just looked at other ballet companies’ productions I’d already be several steps removed from the primary sources.

CC: Research?

VM: My teacher at Kent was Suzy Campbell. We had to design three plays and one of them was by Molière. I researched it the only way you can research costumes from that time, looking at the letters that people wrote back and forth and by looking at paintings. I’d read what people wrote about a person — whether she was gossipy or kooky — and then I’d look up the portrait.

That’s how I got the Paris job, my portfolio from Kent.

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CC: OK, so you do research, then draw. And then you start sewing, except we know there’s a lot of back and forth with the artistic staff.

VM: I’ve been doing little shows with Gladisa (Gladisa Guadalupe, artistic director of CB) for a while now and we hit it off really well. I get what she likes. Part of that is because we both danced so our aesthetic is the same. And in the summer I take ballet class with her and the company. She’ll say, “I really like this color,” so I’ll balance out the color and make it happen. I can just about read her mind.

And I sketch. I find it’s a good way to communicate. When I was in Paris I worked for a fellow who didn’t speak a word of English. He spoke either Italian or French and we were fine! All day we’d go shopping for materials together. You can agree on what’s beautiful.

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CC: So a costume designer does research, draws and reads minds. What else?

VM: Whatever people need. In Paris I learned to make hats. I did corsetry. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being an assistant. Like, if someone needs the right shoes for a part, I will hunt those shoes down and it feels really great because people will say, “I feel just right in my part because of these shoes.” I used to assume that actors rehearsed in character shoes and only wore the costume shoes for performance but actors are like ballerinas in that they’ll often rehearse in the shoes they’re going to perform in.

CC: Ramón Oller choreographs and he plays Bottom. Talk about the back and forth with him.

VM: What works best with Ramón is to make something quickly — like his donkey head — and bring it in. Then he works with it and we make adjustments.

If somebody asks if I can build something, I say, “Sure.” I think I get a lot of that from my father. He was a photographer but he would sometimes build a set for a shoot. When I was little I was very cheerful drawing and he was the one who got me to be more detached, to get something done. He liked Degas, showing who you are behind the line rather than trying to make a photographic reproduction with a pencil.

CC: You mentioned Sam Meredith.

VM: Sam is the Fairy Godfather! He’s building a huge amount of stuff in New York and dropping it off here on Monday. It’s amazing how much he gets done and he works impeccably.

CC: Somebody to share the load.

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Cleveland Ballet performs the world premiere of their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Ohio Theatre Fri 4/7 @ 7pm . Tickets are $25 – $69; go to playhousesquare.org or phone 216-241-6000.

[Written by Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas]

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