Creative Costuming with Jennifer Irwin

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The Sydney season of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang ended last night, with yet another inspired performance on the Sydney Opera House stage. (After being so popular, the season was actually extended!) The show now tours the country, ready to wow audiences the nation over.

I saw the show twice and was blown away by everything from the choreography to the historical tale itself, but as usual, I couldn’t shake my fascination with the style and design aspects of this stunning production.

After having had the opportunity to chat to one of the Bangarra dancers earlier in the season, I was fortunate enough to recently steal a few moments with costume designer Jennifer Irwin, to chat about how she started out in the industry, the creative process of costume design and how she creates style with purpose.

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Firstly, how did you get involved in cosutume design? Is it something you always wanted to do?

I did an art course and then I did a technical theatre course which helped me to connect with a regional theatre company in the late 70s, but my first real job was with the Sydney Dance Company.

I actually majored in scenic art but I knew that I could always sew. I became a costume assistant at the dance company in 1980 and I stayed there for 16 years on and off and that’s where I met Stephen Page. Our generation of people in dance all kind of grew up together. And of course, Stephen and I got along very well and he went off to start his company and through our connection, I had an opportunity to go and work with Bangarra.

I’ve known Stephen for over 25 years, right from the early days when Bangarra were doing very small projects. In fact, I have worked on most of the Bangarra shows over the years from the very first one to now. The thing about working in a dance company is that it’s a little family.

The dance industry is one I’ve been in for years and I guess that’s due to the fact that I’ve just been at the right place at the right time and now, it’s what I know and love.

Can you tell us a bit about the creative process of designing for a show like Patyegarang?

We start with getting together with the creative team- Stephen, the set designer and I. You’ve really got to break down the scenes and the looks at the beginning of the process.

Being a non Indigenous person, I often bring a more abstract design approach because I don’t want to appropriate anything I shouldn’t and I want to remain respectful of protocols. You’ve also got to design for practicality and ask yourself whether someone can get in and of a costume between scenes for instance and balance that with representing the creative vision. It’s really an evolving and collaborative process.

I work with a lot of companies but I particularly love working with Bangarra because it is much more creative than working with drama or other disciplines. Stephen also understands and respects what I do, so I have quite a bit of creative freedom.

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You have worked with Bangarra for a long time, what makes Patyegarang special to you- how would you describe it to people?

It’s special in that its set and music came together so well and when you step back and look at it, you are genuinely happy with what you’ve contributed and know it all works together. It’s very mesmerising the actual show. It’s another incredible story that is largely untold and we are here, sharing something special. It wasn’t a hard one to work on at all. Some productions are, but not this one. I don’t know why. It’s just a great story that works.

What’s next for you?

My next project is doing Giselle with the Universal Ballet of Korea, but it will be an absolutely contemporary version of an old classic. I’m going from one to the next!

You can find out all the dates and venues of the Patyegarang National Tour on the Bangarra Dance Theatre website.

Images courtesy of Bangarra Dance Theatre

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