A week of making: costumes

As the days of my residency have turned into weeks, I’ve gradually found my feet. I’m past the end of week three now and am pleased to have a few decisions about the focus of my time here in China under my belt. Show day is just two weeks away. Fellow performers and the venue have been booked, rehearsal time has been finalised, PA installation plans have been made etc- and these are just the logistics.

Since day one, creative ideas for the piece have been cooking away too, and decisions about its shape and theme have been coming together.  In some ways, having the deadline of the show means you have to be pragmatic. There isn’t time to meet and assess endless performers. There are only so many audio recordings you can gather for a city soundscape, only so much material for costumes. There’s only so much inspiration you can absorb before you have to start to creatively commit, to put pen to paper and make something. There are challenges and drawbacks to declaring the themes of a piece, as I’ve had to, before you’ve had chance to process, make or devise, before you’ve spent any real time with your fellow performers- before you’ve even met some of them in fact. And when you’re at the very start of making a piece, it can be hard to answer questions like “What will the floor plan be?”, and “Where would you like the PA positioned?” and “How much time will you need with this or that group?” etc- particularly when you’re working in an unfamiliar environment, with people and a language you don’t know. But there is something energising in the challenge! It makes you decisive and resourceful: ‘You have these players, and this audience, to make for, you have this context, and you have this much time- now what are you going to make?’. I’ve also had to communicate my vision to others, to plan a schedule for the making of the piece- something which has been good for my confidence. I’m generally someone who tries to do everything myself, and whilst I’m still clinging to this a little on this residency (!), having to tell others “I need this please” or “Can you arrange this for me please?” has been really good for me.

I’d planned to focus on creating the music for the piece this week, along with the costumes. Dance and movement will come next week, when I meet the dancers who will perform with me on June 3rd, and together we spend two days workshopping ideas with dance students from the local university. Making music underpins everything I’m doing here in China. It is more fundamental than the costume-making I’ve been doing this week and is the reason I’m on this residency at all. I’m consumed with it right now and will be posting about what I’m making in a day or two.

But first, costumes!

I’d begun to gather materials for the costumes last weekend- sourcing two genuine workers’ uniforms from the Third Front factory I’d visited, along with various bits and bobs from the haberdashery, ironmongery, and curtain-making districts. Latterly, I’d gone back with Kerun to buy five more assorted uniforms for the remaining performers. This week, gathering together all the research I’d done and resources I had, I got cracking!

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I’d been interested in the mirroring of the colourful costumes of the various minority ethnic villagers I’d met and the regulation uniforms of the Third Front factory workers, and wanted to express this in the costumes for the piece. The silver jewellery of the villagers, which makes such a beautiful sound when they move and dance, was an inspiration. Gathering the tops of the water bottles so ubiquitous in China, I aimed to make a modern-day equivalent- which also makes a great sound but in a totally different way!

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Building on the idea, I sewed other decorations to the uniforms- unwound electrical wiring in beautiful copper, feathers plucked from a feather duster, each to emulate the dress of the villagers in some way. I wanted all of the costumes to be linked but unique. Talking to one of the workers at the Third Front factory when I’d visited that day, I’d asked whether he could remember any interesting or funny stories from when he was younger, growing up in the factory compound. “Not really”, he said, “I just got up, walked across to the factory to work all day, then walked home to a meal and to bed”. It made me sad. It was like he was a blank, he was anonymous- and his regulation uniform was designed to accentuate this. Something I’ve felt strongly since I’ve been in China (and it certainly isn’t only unique to this country) is that so many people seem to stop feeling or being creative in life- or barely ever start. But given the right context, I believe we all have something to give and express- and that we’re so much happier when we do. I wanted the costumes for the show to evoke this- that we’re all connected but we’re all different, we all have something unique to express.

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Using the curls of metal offcut I’d gathered at the Third Front site, along with bits of curtain fringing, I made necklaces to emulate the beautiful silver jewellery of the villagers.

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Many of the villager groups have beautiful leg decorations too, so I found some plastic parcel tie and had a go at making my own version.

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The costumes will evolve more as the days progress and as time allows. I’m still scratching my head about how best to make the wire wool/scourer head pieces to emulate the Dong villagers hair buns, and am still hoping I’ll have time to make some colourful pom-poms, but that’s to come. I’m meeting the performers on Monday so they can get their hands on what I’ve done so far. Fingers crossed they like them.

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