Behind the scenes with Cirque du Soleil’s wardrobe

It’s a fearsome challenge keeping Cirque du Soleil’s 1,500 items of costume in good repair for curtain up, finds Gaby Soutar
Cirque du Soleil's hoop divers. Picture: Daniel DesmaraisCirque du Soleil's hoop divers. Picture: Daniel Desmarais
Cirque du Soleil's hoop divers. Picture: Daniel Desmarais

JEWELLED bodices, lace-up boots and tight Lycra.

They’re all part of the glamour and spectacle of Cirque du Soleil’s classic Dralion show, where acrobats in plumed headdresses cavort in hoops, twirl and vault over bamboo poles, or balance on top of each other like human Jenga.

But, like any well-oiled big top, there’s a hard-working production team backstage working frantically to ensure that there isn’t a stain or rip to be seen.

The Diabolo Jugglers. Picture: Daniel DesmaraisThe Diabolo Jugglers. Picture: Daniel Desmarais
The Diabolo Jugglers. Picture: Daniel Desmarais
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This includes 38-year-old head of wardrobe Melody Wood and her team of three assistants.

She’s been part of the Cirque du Soleil family since 2011 and, though she’s based in London’s Stratford, life on the road means she only gets home for around one week of every month. When we speak, she’s in Denmark, but will be visiting The Hydro in Glasgow from the 7 to 11 May. Before then, there’s Poland and Sweden, where the show will stop for around five days each.

Between locations, one-and-a-half of their huge trucks is packed with the performance wardrobe, which is neatly folded into 58 cases.

“Each costume has its own ID number,” Wood explains. “When it arrives at its next destination, we do an inventory check, helped by technicians, the production team and a small army of local people.”

The colourful costumes are then assembled on to rails ready for the first night’s performance.

Originally created by Canadian designer, François Barbeau, back in 1999, these pieces are themed around traditional dress from China, Africa and India, as well as the elements – earth, air, fire and water. They feature unashamedly bold poster-paint colours – orange, pea green, blue and red – and the materials include horsehair, emu feathers and fake fur. There are even a few Slinkies in the mix.

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“We’ve got those on the Dralion dragon itself, dyed neon,” says Wood.

Most of the cast have been kitted out with more than one of the same outfit.

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“To make them last, performers will often rotate costumes,” Wood explains. “For example, our hoop dancer has three in rotation – one for the show, one to practise in and one to take her bows in.”

When a costume eventually succumbs to wear and tear, the wardrobe department have to completely remake it, with some key details – like those Slinky springs and the horsehair on Gaya’s tribal outfit – being shipped in from their headquarters in Montreal.

Over the years, there have been tweaks to take advantage of changing technology. So, while Oceane’s green costume was originally painted by hand, now it is screen-printed, which requires some large equipment, but is quicker and easier. The more cumbersome pieces were also made lighter when Dralion changed from being a show that was staged under the grand chapiteau to an arena format in 2010.

The design aspect is probably considered the most glamorous part of a costume department’s job. However, Wood’s work mainly consists of a great deal of maintenance, with 1,500 individual pieces, including shoes and accessories, to look after.

“On loading day, we have seven washing machines and tumble dryers on the go,” explains Wood. “We do around 30 loads. The water in Denmark is lovely, but if we’re in a place with hard water, the dye will run and it can take the colour out.”

Every day, these items are inspected for rips, tears, frays and dirt.

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“We have to check socks and underwear too, and the towels that the performers use to remove make-up,” says Wood.

The most common wardrobe malfunctions involve the loss of shoelaces, or holes in the knees of trousers, after a performer has slid along the floor in a theatrical fashion.

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“Boots often break too, “ says Wood. “The male performers like to wear them really tight and the zip will open. That happened recently, and we fixed it by putting a bit of electrical tape in the same colour round his leg.”

Still, it seems that the last minute emergencies, hard work and being away from home is all worth it on opening night.

“I’m biased, but my costumes look beautiful, especially when the band’s playing and the lights go up,” says Wood. “I like to stand in the area where performers warm up backstage, and I can see the faces of the audience from there, which is amazing.” n

Twitter: @gsoutar

Cirque du Soleil’s Dralion is at The Hydro (Exhibition Way, Glasgow) 7-11 May, tickets from £50, see