"Everything was just so raw and we were working on the run. We're still working on the run! We're just doing it on a bigger scale now."
I started with Sydney Dance Company, which is where I met Stephen as a young dancer. I did the costumes for Stephen's first performance works. Then when he moved over to Bangarra, he took me with him.
At the time Bangarra were based out of the Police Boys Club at Redfern. I’d just come in and look at what they were doing and run away and make some costumes. It was very early days, very basic. Honestly, with Ninni and Praying Mantis, it was body stockings and some basic dresses. They had no budget. Maybe a couple of thousand. But I’ll tell you what’s always been good about Bangarra, you don't use your budget on shoes. They never wear any! Every other company, you spend a fortune on shoes. Half your budget's gone.
To look back over those older works, we were always racing and the budgets were so much less. Everything was just so raw and we were working on the run. We're still working on the run! We're just doing it on a bigger scale now.
I went with Stephen all over the place in little airplanes to meet people in their communities, to invite them to be a part of the Olympics. It was amazing. I remember we flew to Alice Springs and got in a car with a girl from SOCOG (Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) and drove for seven and half hours into the middle of the desert where there were 400 women all camping for the Central Desert Women’s Conference. Stephen wasn’t allowed to stay, he had to drive 100 kilometres out again and then back the next day to invite them to participate. And that was just the Central Desert, then there was Arnhem Land, the Torres Strait, people came from everywhere. It was 2,500 or 3,000 people in that section.
I’m credited as the costume designer, and I did design the more abstract costumes for the urban section, but really I helped coordinate what the communities wanted to give to us. I would meet with elders and find out what they wanted to share, what feather strings, what colours they wanted to paint their bodies, source the ochres from their homelands, all that kind of stuff.
I don't know how we pulled it off really. It was remarkable. I'll never do a bigger show in my life.
With Warumuk Stephen was integrating Australian Ballet and Bangarra dancers together, with costumes being built by the Australian Ballet wardrobe. Working with a big company like that, it’s a much more regimented process.
Usually with Bangarra when you're making costumes, everything's floor based, knee based. Total destruction! When you're designing for Bangarra, it needs to be washable, it needs to be something that people can roll around in. I always design costumes where it doesn’t really matter if they fall apart.
It's always a delight if Stephen says, "Oh, no there's no partnering in this section,” or “I'm doing a solo and they're not on the ground." It means you can have more material. You can do beautiful, long dresses if the dancers are up from their feet instead of crawling around the ground.
Waramuk was a series of stories from the night sky. There was the evening star, which was layers of shimmering fabric and beaded lace. The morning star was all pastels and floaty, silk chiffon. In one section all the boys wore skirts in a crochet knit of shredded silk. (I mean, how many skirts can you make for a man in your life. Stephen loves a skirt on a guy. He loves them. I've made hundreds of them.)
The costumes were all absolutely beautiful, but I wouldn’t have been able to do them here. You need the support of a big company with an entire wardrobe department to actually build them.
There's certainly a Bangarra look, a Bangarra aesthetic. It’s a look that has been created over the years. It’s in the way that we use fibres and fabrics. It’s sculptural and textural. I paint into the costumes. And then the dancers wear them and they paint themselves and their hair. It’s textures on fabrics that get layered and layered.
So for Terrain there were laser cut skirts that were based on the cracking of the ground. There were lots of opportunities for twigs in hair, like the Spinifex headdresses. One costume had little triangles all over it, like the cracking of the salt pan.
There is something about the abstract beauty of ideas that you can get from the land or the sky or the rocks. That’s what Terrain was. It was based on Lake Eyre, the land and water and the cracking of the earth. It was based on the salt pans and the deluge at the end of the rains and the flowers and the scarring of the land.
With most dance companies, it really is all about fashion and style. You can't go there, you don't go there with Bangarra, because that's not what it's about. I can only do what I do here. I couldn't do it in another company, what I do here. It couldn't be done.
"It’s textures on fabrics that get layered and layered."
Interview with Jennifer Irwin
Article by Maura Edmond
Jennifer Irwin has designed for drama, opera, and dance as well as the largest spectacular events ever staged in Australia. Jennifer has been designing costumes for Bangarra since the early 1990s.Explore profile