Using visual language to enhance the dancer’s body– An interview with Costume Designers Yoki Lai and Cindy Ho
《六人五作》five(by)six／照片由賴妙芝提供 Photo provided by Yoki Lai
《糊塗爆竹賀新年》Firecracker／照片由賴妙芝提供 Photo provided by Yoki Lai
Using visual language to enhance the dancer’s body– An interview with costume designers Yoki Lai and Cindy Ho
Text: Bowie Wong
Translated by: Stella Tsang
What role should costumes play in a dance performance? To veteran costume designers Yoki Lai Miu-chi and Cindy Ho Pui-shan, a costume is not only an extension of the dancer's body, but also a reflection of the abstract concepts implied in the choreography. Seemingly insignificant, it is in fact an essential component to complete the dance performance.
The bond between dancers and costumes
While dancers use their bodies to tell a story, some messages are hard to express simply through movement - that’s when costumes can add something extra to shed more light. “Costume designers and dancers work together closely. Dancers will tell us their needs and will also give advice on the design so that the clothes can better convey the messages,” Lai points out, saying that costumes can help dancers to tell the story. She mentions a project she is currently taking part in, which requires performers to slap their bodies to create sounds with the help of their costumes. After trying several different materials and listening to the dancers’ feedback, she eventually selected EVA foam (ethylene-vinyl acetate, a highly elastic, rubber-like material) which has a light texture and does not affect the dancers’ movement, as the base layer fabric. Ho agrees that her work involves emotional exchange with dancers. “Dancers often feel lonely on stage, but the clothes they wear can accompany them and reassure them,” she says. She believes the key role of a costume designer is to help the character played by the dancer come to life. It is not just a question of appearance, but of making the costume bond with the dancer so they become as one.
Besides taking dancers’ needs into account, another concern for costume designers is whether the outfits are consistent with the production. A good, balanced performance relies on teamwork, and every component of the production matters. “If the sound made by a costume is not accepted by the sound designer, the fabric has to be changed,” Ho says. Lai recalls one costume she designed that had to be scrapped, as its dangling spangles created an unsuittable rattling sound when the dancer was moving. A convincing costume may seem to play a minor role on the stage, but in fact it demands a lot of thought from both the designer and the production team.
《茫然先生》Mr Blank／攝 Photo: Carmen So（照片由何珮姍提供 Photo provided by Cindy Ho）
If costume designers can understand the perspectives from both the front of the stage and backsage and strike a balance between the two, that will give them a better grasp of the needs of the production as a whole. “Performers have to deal with costumes, stage positions and lighting. Rather than focusing on design details, they are concerned about how outfits can help them to present the characters, whereas costume designers value the overall visual presentation of the production,” Lai says. She mentions that she used to study Chinese Opera, and finds that experience enables her both to empathise with the performers and to understand the needs of the production as a whole. Performing arts training not only broadens a designer’s horizons, but also allows him or her a deeper appreciation on an artistic level. Ho says her ballet training enables her to dig deeper into dance while her past experience with theatre production allows her to look at a piece from a dramaturg’s perspective, and thus have a more in-depth discussion with the choreographer. She mentions the production of Sang Jijia’s Mr Blank. “The work is set in a surveillance society. If all the characters are shown as ordinary citizens, the visuals would be rather dull and would not help to tell the story.” After Ho had absorbed the choreographer’s ideas, she suggested using different outfits to distinguish the various social ranks of the characters (for example, a suit would represent someone from the ruling class) a suggestion which was adopted. Training and immersion are essential for a costume designer to make an all-round contribution, it doesn’t happen overnight. Seeing limitations as a starting point As each type of dance has its own specific requirements for costumes, so designers must strive to seek perfection within an established framework. Lai notes that ballet has strict requirements on footwear and costumes, so designers have to pay a lot of attention to detail. For example, the colours and patterns of the pointe shoes should match the tights, so sometimes designers will use gradient colour to create that consistency. Ho uses the traditional ‘water sleeves’ in Chinese dance to explain the association between a costume and the choreography. “You have to time how long the sleeves float in the air when they are waved by the dancer.” When making a costume, Ho pays attention to the texture and weight of the fabric, and makes repeated tests to achieve the desired stage effect. Costumes may look glamorous on stage, but making them demands a lot of painstaking effort.
In addition to the characteristics of the dance, costume design must accord with the theme of the work. If the choreographer takes a different approach to interpreting a classic, the designer has to be creative and respond to his or her requirements. In 2011, Lai made costumes for Firecracker, a ballet with new choreography by Yuri Ng and Yuh Egami. The work was based on The Nutcracker, but was set in Hong Kong at Lunar New Year during the 1960s and 1970s, and paid homage to old Hong Kong films. In designing for the characters, Lai took reference from the look of the celebrities in that period in order to evoke a nostalgic atmosphere. Ho happened to design costumes for last year’s Luck-quacka, a contemporary dance version of The Nutcracker also by Yuri Ng. This time Ng asked for the costumes to be made using upcycled materials to show the poverty of the work’s protagonist, Uncle D, in his old age. Ho did not regard Ng’s request as a limitation, but creatively transformed secondhand clothes to highlight the character's situation. So each designer experienced working on a different approach to the same story by the same choreographer.
Designing costumes is not just about converting limitations into possibilities, but being willing to experiment. Even something as standardised as ballet costumes can be refreshed by the designer's ingenuity. For example, Hong Kong Ballet’s five(by)six featured a bold use of denim for the costumes. "Medieval costumes often have ripped holes. The torn and frayed denim texture was a modern take on the characteristics of medieval clothing,” Lai explains. The use of modern textiles in recreating the mood and atmosphere of medieval times was in line with the choreographer's pursuit of modern fashion, and the idea was given the green light. Compared to ballet, contemporary dance can be more daring. Ho has used three-dimensional textiles to make dance outfits. For example she used cotton to create fake abscesses which were tied to the dancers’ bodies to represent body mutation. Another time she asked the dancers to wear their clothes back to front as an attempt to interfere with their dancing, so as to explore novel forms of body language. These experiments in costume require mutual trust and collaboration between the designer and the dancer. The dancers allow the designer to use their bodies as a canvas, while the latter drills into the design and repeatedly modifies it to create a second skin for the body.
《茫然先生》Mr Blank／攝 Photo: Carmen So（照片由何珮姍提供 Photo provided by Cindy Ho）
Shadows cast by the decline of the local textile industry
Local designers strive to spin straw into gold with limited resources, as the shrinking and fading of Hong Kong's textile industry has created major problems in purchasing fabric. “Hong Kong is no longer an import port for fabrics, and overseas fabrics are rarely imported now. But in the past, fabrics from all over the world were gathered in Hong Kong, and even foreign designers would come all the way here to purchase," Ho says. She admits that this sector has lost its prosperity, and is in decline even in Sham Shui Po, a district famous for selling fabrics. With less choice of fabrics available on the market, the emergence of digital textile printing has become a solution. Lai points out that this method can be used to print specific patterns and colours on fabrics and mentions the costumes designed by Liz Vandal for Hong Kong Ballet’s ALICE (in wonderland) as an example. “Most of the fabrics were printed in Canada and then shipped to Hong Kong, before being made up into dance costumes." This trend is quite common abroad, but has just started in Hong Kong. As there are not many places that provide a digital textile printing service here, online purchasing offers a way out. Lai praises the detailed descriptions of fabrics on foreign websites, and points out that shopping for fabrics online is a common practice overseas. In view of the decline of the local garment industry, these emerging technologies can be a real help to local designers.
While the difficulty of buying fabrics may be overcome through technology, the preservation and renewal of costumes are limited by the shortage of space, and there seems to be no satisfactory solution. As stunning as the costumes may seem on stage, when the curtain falls, often they are not kept properly or may even be thrown away. The only way for the two designers to keep a record of their creations apart from the design drawings, are photos . Unfortunately, the photos are usually taken merely for storage purposes and the results are not ideal. “The photos are mostly taken backstage, the background is always messy, and the details of the costumes are not captured," Ho says bluntly. What is more, photos rarely focus on the stage presentation. As a result, she and other designers have to use their own money to hire photographers to take additional pictures. Lai agrees that the idea of preserving costumes is not usual in Hong Kong. “Costume preservation is not popular here. Mostly the outfits are kept for re-runs, rather than for their aesthetic value." Although some larger arts groups might preserve dance costumes for re-runs or upcycling, often the designers’ creations end up being discarded due to the lack of storage space.
After working in the field for more than a decade, Lai and Ho have witnessed the decline of the local textile industry and the emergence of new technology. They have drawn on their creativity as costume designers to overcome obstacles and convert limitations into possibilities. Both hope that in the future there will be costume exhibitions which will enable their efforts and those of their colleagues to be recognised and appreciated by the public even after the curtain has fallen.
Bowie Wong is an art critic and a fan of literature, dance and theatre. She has written commentaries for a number of art publications, including Ming Pao, Delta Zhi and Shanghai Art Review.