On May 23 and 24th Cirque Du Soleil brings its Michael Jackson the Immortal World Tour to the Miami area at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida. Cirque Du Soleil shows are well known for their exquisite costumes made all the more remarkable by the intricate details, high-tech features and multiple lightning-fast costume changes. Add to that the fact that the costumes are worn by dancers and acrobats whose movements would demolish any costume not made to the highest technical standards and you are left wondering how this is done so that every date on a world tour is a fresh and beautiful costume viewing experience for the audience?
To answer these questions I was able to speak this week with the show’s Head of Wardrobe, Bettina Bolzer-Bowles, about the many logistical challenges of running wardrobe for one of the “top ten largest grossing musicals of all time?”
Bettina Bolzer-Bowles is a cheerful, pleasant and articulate woman who obviously excels at and loves her career. She began sewing at four and spent much of her childhood deconstructing clothing and other items to see exactly how they were made. She started with small projects and shows, and, she said, “the projects just kept getting bigger and bigger” until she found herself where she is today professionally.
Bolzer-Bowles attributes much of the success of the costumes on the current tour to how long Cirque Du Soleil has been producing shows and receiving feedback from the performance artists as to what they really need from the costumes and costume props.
So much knowledge and experience goes into the creation of what we see on stage and communication is constant and positive "so that everyone is working from a comfortable level."
Bettina stressed that the show’s costume designer, Zaldy Goco, who designed for Jackson himself, is “really willing to listen and work with the artists.” The show’s costumes are constantly being refined while on the road. For example, Bolzer-Bowles shares the story of the soldier costumes that were fastened with seventeen snaps on each side of the garment for a total of thirty-four snaps. It was taking an hour to get the costumes on and then another hour to get them off. This proved to be too time consuming, so the snaps were switched out for zippers which was a much better day-to-day alternative. There is constant communication between the road tour and the costume atelier in Montreal with new and replacement items coming in through mail or courier and if a major mid-tour change is required the atelier crew may fly into the tour’s location.
Blozer-Bowles emphasizes the importance of all the intricate detail that is included on each costume. While the minute attention to detail on each costume might not seem important since the audience can’t really see the detail, she points out that it gives a dimensionality to the costume that the viewer would miss it were absent. You might not see the detail but you see the effect of the detail, without it the garments look flat and visually uninteresting.
“Good design” she says, “means optical and technical.” What you see is important but what the costume needs to do for the performer to move well and be comfortable is just as important. When these two facets come together correctly then the costume is “perfect.”
Then, as Bettina talks about the day-to- day logistics of what is required to run the wardrobe for the MJ the Immortal World Tour you understand how much shear planning and physical work really goes into creating the audience experience. There are forty-nine performers with three to eight costumes each. This is more than most of the other Cirque Du Soleil shows where a performer may have two costume changes, three at the most. This show has one-hundred and seven quick changes, meaning the performer comes off the stage changes costume and heads right back onto the stage. There are one-thousand four hundred costume items moving every day and the wardrobe department needs to know where all items are at all times. All this is done with a full-time travel crew of eight – one person responsible just for maintaining the LED lights for the costumes – and with four locals hired for a full wardrobe crew of twelve responsible for both matinée and evening performances. A permanent Cirque Du Soleil show in Vegas might have a wardrobe crew of, as many as, twenty for each performance. The company travels with two trucks just for costumes and they travel with their own washers, dryers and sewing machines. Each costume has an inner layer next to the performer’s skin that is washed after each performance and an outer layer that is washed on a regular rotation. Many of the costumes are made with high-tech fibers that wick perspiration away from the body and the LEDs.
Amazingly, the entire costume set-up can be loaded and unloaded in 45 minutes to an hour. The full company travels with a road crew of one hundred and thirty people plus the forty-nine performers. If you look at the international travel schedule you can see why a quick turnaround time is vital to keep the show running smoothly to its next destination.
In closing, I asked Bettina Bolzer-Bowles what advice she might have for those students who might be interested in a career in wardrobe supervision.
The emphasis is that "you need to be skilled and have very good all-around knowledge of surrounding fields." You need to be a generalist since the skilled wardrobe person needs to also know about such things as make-up, hats, shoes etc. She points out that her own background, in sewing, cinema, carpentry and research science all combine to inform what she does every day. If someone wants to thrive in this career position they need to be curious and well-rounded in their interests and experiences, in addition to, knowing costume technology.
So as you experience this great show at the BB&T Center, think of all it takes to make your evening magical!