Interview with ‘Wildebeest’ Costume Designer Fiona Holley


21 October 2016

We sat down with costume designer Fiona Holley to hear about her creative process for Wildebeest.


How did you get into costume design and making for Sydney Dance Company?

I studied production design at NIDA which included set and costume design. When I initially started I worked on quite a lot of films, but my passion was always dance. I used to dance when I was a child, and although I never wanted to be a dancer, I always loved it from an artistic point, how dancers use their bodies to make pictures and images, I always loved it. As I built my contacts and reputation I began working with Sydney Dance Company. I first started working with the company 16 years ago, now I work as a freelancer contributing to different projects which includes theatre, film and art exhibitions, as well as Sydney Dance Company.


What is the difference between a costume designer and a costume realiser?

“Costume realiser” seems to be a term often used at Sydney Dance Company! The best way I can describe it is that as a costume designer you need to think about what you can add to the choreographers concept. You are looking at the rehearsals and are really responsible for taking the idea of the choreographer and collaborating with them by making suggestions and directing the look and creation of the costumes. As a costume realiser you tend to work with another designer. At Sydney Dance Company some of the people I’ve worked with include Dion Lee, Tony Assness and Toni Maticevski, they are all wonderful designers in the world of fashion and production. A costume realiser does everything they possibly can to make the designers vision work, you have to interpret what they imagine and put it together so that it really represents what they see when the dancers are on stage moving in the costumes. You work to “realise” their vision.

How do you find inspiration for designing the costumes for Wildebeest?

For Wildebeest it really came from how we viewed the music and then how we saw the dancers as a group and as individuals. We’ve always seen the dancers as part of a mass, so you need everyone to look similar, but we also wanted to recognise the individuality of each dancer, which allowed for slight differences in each costume, you’ll see slightly different shades and colours of fabric. We liked the simplicity of the fabric and felt the way it shifts with the body unifies everyone together, which in turn, enhances the movement. I was using the music for inspiration and the idea of animals and machinery so we chose a fabric which was quite earthy yet metallic, without it being “glitzy”, it was quite difficult to find something that suits both of those ideas, but we were really happy with the fabric we found.

Do you have any advice for budding costume designers?

I really like to keep my eyes and mind open to a variety of things to inspire me. I’m not particularly drawn to specific time periods or imagery for example, but I try to allow the world around me to inspire new ideas.

I really suggest getting out and seeing different productions and performances, get to know how fabric looks on stage under different lighting. Fabric can look so different when it is lit on stage to what it does in a shop for example. I watch a lot of dance theatre and take note of how different types of fabric look and move and how other people use them. I then make sure I take notes so a can refer back to them. I know what I like on stage and what I don’t. When I come to designing a piece I already have a better idea of what to suggest and where to start looking. I’m always on the look out in op shops and different fabric shops. Unfortunately there are a lot less fabric shops in Sydney than there used to be, I just make sure I know them really well and visit often to see what the latest trends are, I’ll often mix and match from different places too.

What are some of the challenges you face when you are making a costume for dance?

Sometimes the huge deadlines can be quite difficult. With contemporary dance the piece is often still being created when I need to start making costumes. It can be really difficult to design something for a work you haven’t seen fully, you have to work really hard to understand what the choreographer needs and how the dancers will be moving to be able to create something that really fits with the production. With all that it makes the deadline of opening nigh quite huge as there’s no room for flexibility at all.

What do you love about costume making?

I love being challenged to work something out from complete scratch. I have to figure out all the patterns to be able to cut the fabric correctly, each costume is made specifically for each individual dancer so I love being able to get every aspect just right so that everyone on stage not only looks great but feels like the costume is just another layer of their skin.

Wildebeest is part of the double bill, Untamed.
18 – 29 Oct, Only in Sydney

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