Behind the seams

Designer productions of Swan Lake and Coppelia open this week, with costumes by Jasper Conran and Peter Farmer. But beneath the glamour of the shows lurk some nasty surprises. By Louise Levene
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The Independent Culture
A is for armpits. Sweat is a big problem. Dancers perform at an optimum temperature of 70 degrees - under bright lights and in synthetic fabrics. They also move around quite a bit. The imperial Russian prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinskaya made it a rule never to take any fluid for 12 hours before a performance. It was hell on the kidneys but it kept excretion to a minimum. Today's dancers are on a permanent Evian diet and perspire very freely. When Irek Mukhamedov was here with the Bolshoi a backstage helper noticed that one of the star's tunics was a bit crumpled and decided to run a hot iron over it... Not a mistake you make twice.

B is for breasts. Ballerinas weigh around 7st wringing wet, so these are seldom a problem, though a few of the more voluptuous starvelings are a bit of a headache for the costume department. Bodices are tested by getting the dancer to do a deep back bend then checking for leaks.

C is for Coppelia. Birmingham Royal Ballet's new production premieres tomorrow with 200 new costumes.

D is for drag. Dancing en travesti is a long-standing tradition in many ballets, with some dancers specialising in this type of character role. Others were more versatile. Robert Helpmann was known to dance both the Prince and the wicked fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, thereby avoiding some of the longueurs involved in just playing the latter. As BRB's David Bintley confessed, "It's not a very fulfilling role; you have a nice bit in the prologue then you spend an hour sitting in the dressing-room in a frock."

E is for easy care. Not something the wardrobe department would know much about. Tutus are washed as little as possible, and only when the dirt is visible from the dress circle. The Black Swan's tutu doesn't even bear thinking about...

F is for foot fetishists. In an effort to cover its annual shoe bill of £67,000, the Royal Ballet came up with the wizard wheeze of giving a pair of old shoes to anyone covenanting more than £30 per year. The fact that ballet shoes are barely even recognisable as footwear by the time Darcey Bussell has finished with them doesn't stop her deranged sponsors from placing them under a small glass dome (keeps down the smell, presumably).

G is for guests. Men often have to have tunics made to measure, but visiting ballerinas are more likely to be shoehorned into the nearest available tutu: "girls have far more squishy bits".

H is for hammer. The American ballerina and protge of George Balanchine, Gelsey Kirkland, always kept a small but sturdy hammer in her bag. Not to clobber the choreographer with (though she had every reason to on occasion), but to reduce her shoes to a frayed and comfy pulp.

I is for investment. Nureyev's old pumps were given an estimate of only £39 at a recent sale of the master's effects. This was bizarrely conservative given that the Dance Books shop in Covent Garden sells the old ballet slippers of relative nobodies in the Royal Ballet for £25 a pair. Unsurprisingly, Nureyev's cheesy slippers, "considerably soiled and worn", fetched a fragrant £5,912.

J is for Jasper Conran. Like Georgio Armani and Gianni Versace, Conran is keen to design for the theatre. His Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet premieres tonight.

K is for knickers. Beneath the tights and tutu lurk a capacious pair of white school knickers, "the bigger the better". Sloggi is the preferred brand. Boys wear nice sturdy jockstraps. Capezzio are the brand of the moment, but "they don't make them like they used to".

L is for lunch-box. The tasty euphemism for the male ballet dancer's Ken doll bulge. This particular picnic would be an unappetising meal for all but the most anorexic luncher as it tends to consist of lots and lots (and lots) of cotton-wool balls.

M is for mice. See Rats.

N is for name tapes. These are particularly useful when a company wishes to retrieve its old costumes. Nureyev, a notorious magpie when it came to doublets, had stashed away various costumes neatly labelled "Royal Opera House, Nureyev", some of which were not, strictly speaking, his own. This only came to light when the Nureyev Foundation tried to auction them at Christie's and was obliged to send them back.

O is for odour. In an attempt to neutralise the smell, BRB's wardrobe mistress makes liberal use of a citrus fragrance which leaves the place smelling like an unholy alliance between a tart's window box and a Turkish wrestler's jockstrap.

P is for picky. Star ballerinas - Sylvie Guillem springs unaccountably to mind - are very particular about what they will or won't wear. In the early days with the Royal Ballet she would simply drag something out of her private tutu trunk - whether it clashed with the decor or not.

Q is for quick change. See Velcro.

R is for rats. Ever wondered what happened to the proposed revival of Kenneth MacMillan's Anastasia? The old production was devoured by the Opera House's rodents-in-residence. The basement storerooms are next to the sewers. Rentokil are frequent visitors and there are mousetraps everywhere ("they're almost sewn into the costumes").

S is for scabies. Sharing costumes isn't just smelly, it can be very itchy. A recent outbreak at the Royal Ballet even spread to the wardrobe department that was handling the costumes.

T is for toes. Gladys Aylward may have seen off foot-binding in the Far East, but foot-binding in the West End continues unabated with ballerinas getting through several yards of sticking plaster a week to support their hardworking feet.

U is for uplift. The less bosomy ballerinas need to have a cleavage created for certain roles. This is achieved with a strategic mixture of subtle shading, vicious underwiring and two "bananas" worn under the bust.

V is for Velcro. Avoided where possible: "It makes an awful ripping sound from the wings."

W is for wigs. Dancers tend to wear their own hair these days, although some rug up routinely because their own hair is kept short. Others (such as Anthony Dowell) just have Very Difficult Hair. Wigs used to be de rigueur; in 1914 the 16-year-old Ninette de Valois was congratulated on her fine wig by the wigmaker Willie Clarkson. "He lived and breathed wigs and complimented me on mine and asked me where I got it; I had to explain, to his disappointment, that it had grown on my head."

X is for expense. The average tutu costs around £600 to make, plus fabric.

Y is for yards. A tutu contains at least 10 yards of net and a yard of heavy gauge wire.

Z is for zips. An inevitable question for the wardrobe mistress as the alphabet draws relentlessly to its close. Zips? "Never use them. They always break at the most inappropriate times."

n Birmingham Royal Ballet's `Coppelia' by Sir Peter Wright is in rep at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 3 to 11 March (box-office: 0121-622 7486), then goes on tour

n Scottish Ballet's new `Swan Lake' opens at the Theatre Royal Glasgow tonight (box-office: 0141-332 9000) and runs to 18 March, then goes on tour