Help the performing arts recover

26 May, 2020

 

The Australian Ballet’s current digital season features the work of two of Australia’s most celebrated choreographers; Graeme Murphy and Stephen Page. Murphy’s Narrative of Nothing and Page’s Warumuk – in the dark night are more recent offerings from the company’s long-standing relationship with both artists. These works showcase the creative vision of designer Jennifer Irwin, whose own journey with The Australian Ballet has generated some of the company’s most innovative moments in costume design.

Drawing on designs from The Australian Ballet Collection we go behind the scenes to discover more about Irwin’s history with Murphy and Page and how she has learnt to realise their dreams.

 

Australian Ballet production stills

 

(left) Lana Jones and Adam Bull in Narrative of Nothing, The Australian Ballet, 2012.
Photograph by Lynette Wills. Image courtesy The Australian Ballet

(right) Vivienne Wong in Warumuk – in the dark night, The Australian Ballet, 2012.
Photograph by Lynette Wills.Image courtesy The Australian Ballet

 

“Each costume is designed not only especially for the respective dancer, but also as a unique art piece – tactile, hand-dyed and painted.”

Jennifer Irwin, 2008

 

In a career spanning almost forty years, Irwin has created costumes for some of Australia’s most successful productions across opera, theatre and particularly dance. Often commissioned to design for abstract works, Irwin brings a background in textile design and construction to her process and a practical approach developed over many years of juggling multiple projects for companies as diverse as The Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre.

 

Warumuk – in the dark night, 2012

 

“From my favourite crotched raw silk skirts that the boys wore to knitted dresses and sculptural back spines, painted and deconstructed sequin painted dresses. Every section was unique to each other, yet with a common story woven within.”

Jennifer Irwin, 2020

 

Costume design by Jennifer Irwin for The Evening Star, Warumuk

 

Costume design by Jennifer Irwin for “The Evening Star”, Warumuk – in the dark night, The Australian Ballet, 2012.
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 2012. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Irwin’s connection with Stephen Page goes back to 1992 and her first commission for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Praying Mantis Dreaming. Since then she has designed costumes for over 30 works for the company, including joint productions with The Australian Ballet such as Rites (1997) and Amalgamate (2006). Irwin has grown to understand Page’s aesthetic and how to interpret his vision. She works closely with the company to observe the cultural protocols in place and has developed an abstract response to First Nations themes.

Warumuk – in the dark night draws on stories of the night sky as told by the Yolngu of North East Arnhem Land. Jacob Nash’s elegantly sparse set informed Irwin’s design approach and her choice of materials that would reflect light. For the “Evening Star” costume, Irwin pieced together patterned panels of sheer black net over a flesh-coloured bodysuit. She then dotted the dress with a combination of metallic and transparent sequins that caught the light as the dancer moved.

The colour palette for the “Dusk Energy” costumes was drawn from images of the sky at dusk. The skirts were made up of five layers of hand dyed silk chiffon.

 

Costume design by Jennifer Irwin for Dusk Energy, Warumuk

 

Costume design by Jennifer Irwin for “Dusk Energy”, Warumuk – in the dark night, The Australian Ballet, 2012.
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 2012. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Narrative of Nothing, 2012

 

“With Narrative of Nothing the set has a lot of lights, so it’s really about body form and silhouette. There are 15 dancers in Graeme’s piece, and their costumes are individually painted artworks that are all about body and shape.”

Jennifer Irwin, 2012

 

Detail of art work for costume design by Jennifer Irwin

 

Detail of art work for costume design by Jennifer Irwin, Narrative of Nothing, The Australian Ballet, 2012.
Gift of The Australian Ballet, 2012. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Irwin’s association with Graeme Murphy dates back to his time as Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company in the early 1980s and she credits much of her knowledge of costume to “the 16 years I spent washing and repairing costumes” during this time. Irwin has designed costumes for over 25 of his works including his most recent production of Madame Butterfly for Opera Australia (2019). Murphy’s vision for Narrative of Nothing was “stripped back and bare”, leaving Irwin to work closely with lighting designer Damien Cooper to enhance the dancers bodies and the athleticism of Murphy’s choreography.

Irwin created a deceptively simple bodysuit for this work. Each suit was tailored to enhance the dancer’s muscles in motion. Having marked out the pattern on real sized paper she used large, square edged textas to create the design of the fabric. The fabric was then digitally printed and later screen printed with a layer of strategically placed, silver foil dots.

 

Detail of art work for costume design by Jennifer Irwin

 

Jennifer Irwin with artwork for Narrative of Nothing, The Australian Ballet, 2012.
Photograph by Lynette Wills. Courtesy of The Australian Ballet

 

Margot Anderson
Curator, Dance and Opera
Australian Performing Arts Collection

 

Australian Performing Arts Collection logo

 

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