At the Paris Opera, it’s not just the main auditorium’s sprawling stage where talent and hard work combine to play a leading role. Because alongside the little rats scurrying around backstage, there are also lots of examples of craftsmanship behind the scenes in the dressmaking workshop. They contribute, albeit in a more anonymous way, to the splendour of the shows and the superb reputation of this institution.
No less than thirty small pairs of hands busy themselves every day, creating costumes for the dancers to wear in their performances. Every corner of the table is filled with sequins, froufrou, tulle, tarlatan and chiffon, as well as some more surprising materials used for less likely costumes, such as an assembly of coloured paper balls and an astronaut’s space-suit.
It’s the back of the opera house where we go in search of the dressmaking workshop. Xavier Ronze, the atelier manager, welcomes us. There is a calm atmosphere, with the smell of wax and a crisp parquet floor…
The dressmaking workshop comprises five different sections where the dance costumes are made (there is another workshop at the Opéra Bastille for operatic performance costumes): soft construction, known as “flou” (women’s costumes); tailoring (men’s costumes), millinery (the creation of wigs and hats), knitwear (for stretch fabric – a rare feature given that very few organisations have a dedicated workshop for this material, despite it being essential for dance) and, lastly, decoration (for costume accessories, such as jewellery or masks).
The workshop is entrusted with making the costumes for all of the Palais Garnier’s dance performances, both the classics and the contemporary creations. At the time of our visit, couturiers were working on the reruns of “Don Quixote” and on costumes for the creation “Play”. “This diversity is incredibly rich. Dance is a world of creation, it’s live entertainment… and it’s very much alive! says Xavier Ronze, with a smile. It’s this permanent fusion that instils passion in us and makes our job unique. ” It also gives us an opportunity to collaborate with a group of renowned artists, fashion designers and theatre costume designers in particular. “The repertoire is very varied in terms of choreographs and choreographies, as well as in terms of the universe that it lets us inhabit. We’re really fortunate. We work just as well with major fashion designers like Christian Lacroix as we do with great theatre costume designers such as Luisa Spinatelli or Franca Squarciapino,” adds Xavier Ronze.
Although it’s the role of the designer to dream up the costumes, bringing them to life involves teamwork. Genuine collaboration takes place between the designer and the dressmaking workshop, whose team is frequently called upon to share its ideas. “We really do work together. The quality of what is made here is rather incredible, so it’s important that I acknowledge the great deal of creativity and inventiveness of every workshop manager. We work in close collaboration with the designer, constantly making suggestions while still being extremely reactive. That’s one of the main advantages of having everything in-house. When the costume designer outlines their idea, we can react straight away by doing fittings or bringing out something from the stockroom; solutions can be found very quickly,” explains Xavier Ronze. The dressmaking workshop is also responsible for ensuring harmony across the entire stage. A sense of unity, of a coherent “whole” – even though the dancers’ bodies are, of course, all different. This is almost a “political” role, given that it requires a perfect reflection of the artist’s vision, on show to the spectator.
The space is brimming with a craftsmanship that is both hard to come by and finely tuned, applied with passion by the team’s missionary artisans, who devote near vocational levels of attention to their work. It’s true that with regard to the highly specific knowledge required for the performances’ needs, there is no room for approximations: knowing how to make a hat is one thing, but theatrical millinery is a profession in its own right (knowing how to develop lightweight yet stable headwear with exact proportions, etc.). Similarly, the design studio needs to know how to do just about anything with just about anything, without being able to find out how, anywhere. Or how to make mastered improvisation a discipline in its own right. Over time, a considerable amount of knowledge has been accumulated within these walls. To continue to strive for excellence, particular attention is paid to passing on this unique expertise, notably through the establishment of an academy. This allows the opera house to take on a selection of young people as part of an ongoing training programme for its specialised professions. There are very few places and they are in extremely high demand.
Despite the busy days, rapid pace (between 2,500 and 3,500 costumes, alterations and creations in the workshops each year), tight deadlines, frequent changes, daily alterations, often very short development times for new projects (from a few weeks to a few days between the first idea and the finished costume), the prevailing atmosphere here is very calm. Staff turnover is low, with most employees spending a large part of their career here, as is the case with Xavier Ronze who has managed the dressmaking workshop since 2009 and worked at the opera house for the past 25 years. Indeed, leaving an artistic force to be reckoned with in a refined setting of this calibre must be very difficult. Even though we are merely visitors, we are tempted to hide here for a few more hours so that we can witness the magic tricks of creation at work beneath their very hands.