Designing Dark Emu

Designing Dark Emu

Costume designer Jennifer Irwin has been working with Bangarra since day one, creating works of art made to be worn.

Jennifer Irwin’s done a few shows. Since finishing art school in the late 70s, she’s worked with all the big names: STC, MTC, Belvoir, Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet. Her work’s appeared on the stages of the Royal Opera House and the Lincoln Centre. Her award-winning costumes for Dirty Dancing are still on show after 16 years. And she even designed the costumes for the Sydney Olympic Games. But for over 25 years, it’s her collaboration with Bangarra Dance Theatre - and its founder Stephen Page - that’s proven to be her most creative.

“Bangarra’s one of the lucky companies where you can do anything and everything,” Irwin explains. “It’s not restrictive, and it evolves as it goes along. With an opera, you want it to look the same every single night. At Bangarra, they’re more art pieces.”

Her latest project is one of Bangarra’s most ambitious. Dark Emu, which begins touring nationwide this June, attempts the arduous task of adapting Bruce Pascoe’s book of the same name. It’s not a piece of fiction - in fact, it uncovers a startling truth - that First Nations people were skilled and deliberate farmers who cultivated crops, built infrastructure and lived in (permanent) stone houses. “Dark Emu is an amazing factual book about what white Australians don’t know about,” says Irwin. “There’s information you should know about.”

The challenge is in rejigging a work history and science writing to suit the physical medium of dance. To do so, Page and the Bangarra creative team have settled on a piece of non-linear storytelling, where dancers often represent natural elements rather than the humans who lived among them. “Stephen’s broken this particular show down into sections that mean something out of the book,” Irwin says. “For instance, the Kangaroo Grass section, I’ve tried to find fabric that will have a suggestion of the grass. I’ve added onto those costumes a fine grassy filament that will pick up the light from a distance. But it’s very abstract, and the dancers are non-people. But when you’ve got a group of people, from a distance, hopefully, those fabrics will represent some grasses.”

For Irwin, the process of coming up with a suite of costumes for 18 dancers is not a dictatorial one. Instead, she is constantly working in lockstep with the choreographer, set and lighting designers, and of course, the dancers. “With Bangarra, you’re designing the costumes as the actual steps are being created. You can’t really think ahead. Until Stephen’s actually got the pieces and the numbers of the dancers, and what he’s actually doing with them, it’s pretty hard to go ahead unless there are a few things that are already established,” she explains. “The sets certainly determine the feeling of the space. The set designer, lighting designer and I usually get together and look at it as a whole. There’s no point me going off and designing costumes that aren’t going to sit well on the stage. It all needs to look like it comes from the same show. So it is collaborative. Luckily, we’ve all worked together for such a long time. We all like each other’s work, so we’re lucky.”

As a talented and practical seamstress, Irwin is often guided by the materials on hand. “Fabrics certainly inspire me. I do like going hunting for fabrics. I’ll see something and think that’ll look good in this section,” she says. “I’ve been buying up bits of fabric over the last couple of months knowing this is a very earthy, textural work, and that it is abstract. I’ve been hunting for anything vaguely interesting.”

While the costumes are discrete artworks in themselves, they also need to be eminently practical. With eight shows a week over a four-month run, if a costume’s not comfortable, it’s useless. “I’m more inclined to deal with numbers and how many people are in, whether they’re able to get out of this costume and get into the next quickly,” says Irwin. “It’s about what you can’t dress them in as opposed to what you can dress them in because it’s all about the movement at the end.”

A complicating element when designing for Bangarra is the liberal use of ochre bodypaint. “Compared to Australian Ballet or Sydney Dance Company, they can create a costume by overpainting themselves. Ochre adds; it’s fantastic! I design with that in mind,” she says. “But even with washing, you can’t really get ochre out. It’s always there. It becomes distressed. Eight shows a week, four months later, they take on a different world.”

Irwin also needs to be attuned to any cultural considerations, and she works hard to avoid appropriating any traditional designs. “It is pretty sensitive, and I am white. I need to be led by any cultural advice,” she says. “In the company, there are cultural advisors, but really, when it comes to costumes and contemporary dance with Bangarra, I kind of avoid it. If there’s anything that’s vaguely traditional, I’ll clarify with the right people.”

While working with Bangarra has clearly been a highlight of Irwin’s long career, she’s looking forward to the day when a young indigenous designer takes her place. “I’m very lucky I’m still here, really. I don’t imagine I’ll be doing this forever. And at some point, somebody will take over from me that is indigenous,” she says. “Bangarra is our top indigenous company; I feel lucky to have been along for this journey as long as I have.”

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