Friday, 30 May 2008

Ballet costumes

Last month the very beautiful and very talented Kate Venables (pictured front, rehearsing Banderillero - photo by Maarten Holl) took us on a tour of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) headquarters at St James Theatre in Wellington.

When I was a little girl I used to want to be a dancer, despite the fact that I was clearly never going to have the grace, poise and slender strength of these amazing athletes – my father reinforced this by calling me ‘the sugar plum elephant’ each time I not-so-nimbly pirouetted down the stairs.

It’s partly the costumes that attract me. They’re so beautiful and so practical, having to withstand the rigours of vigorous activity while looking simply exquisite. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to get a peek behind the scenes, and I spied upon an entire room for making costumes, where materials, threads, and silent sewing machines wait on stand-by ready to spring into action.

Kate showed us that dress from Cinderella – the white satin tutu designed by Tracy Grant Lord studded with about 60,000 small, sparkling Swarovski crystals in a delicate rose design. It is shown here worn by Katie Hurst-Saxon in a photo by Rob Kitchin.

Kate also showed us a jacket and explained that there are three settings of hooks and eyes so that it will fit whichever principal is dancing the role. Sometimes the part doesn’t necessarily go to the ‘best’ dancer, but the one who fits the costume, although this isn’t too much of an issue as many of the dancers are equally talented, and equally tiny!

The costumes for Romeo and Juliet are being worked on at the moment. The costume budget for a major show is about $70,000, so it pays to be able to reuse things. The RNZB owns the performance rights to certain shows – like Romeo and Juliet, and Swan Lake – that they put on periodically; by the third time they might actually make money on one.

Kate also showed us the shoe cupboard and explained how dancers try all sorts of methods to soften the pointes of their ballet shoes. These are made from layers upon layers of cardboard, and the dancers bend them back and forth, whack them with hammers, soak them in water – anything to mould them to their feet and attempt to make them more comfortable. Dancers have a limited number of shoes, so when they have got them the way they want them; they write their name on the pair they have individually customised.

The shoes hurt and pinch when they dance. Many dancers get foot infections – the fiery red fungus creeps between their toes and can spread up their legs. When they finish a show their shoes can be full of blood and pus, and all the while they smile and look pretty. It is such a tortuous art form!

Despite all the back-stage horrors, the façade that gets presented to the public is magnificent and beautiful. I see that the RNZB are auctioning off some of their costumes from Queen’s Wharf in the last weekend of June. Even if you’re not interested in buying anything, I recommend you get down and have a look, inviting a little make-believe and glamour into your life.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Rhubarb crumble

Last night we had a rare night in, so we curled up on the sofa with the cat and a bottle of pinot noir, watching cheesy dramas (Robin Hood and Desperate Housewives) while the wind and rain howled and hurled outside.

On the menu was Lancashire hotpot and rhubarb crumble. I love rhubarb crumble, and it is my husband’s favourite dish. Okay, so I know that to some people rhubarb is ‘war food’ but I admire its honest simplicity and its ubiquitous durability. My husband laughs that he had never eaten ‘posh people’s food’ – avocados; olives; cherry tomatoes; guavas – until he met me. But he had always eaten rhubarb.

My granddad used to grow it in the garden. We would ‘help’ him to dig over the vegetable patch when we were children. I was easily distracted by the worms and the archaeological finds I made. I was convinced I had discovered treasure once when I slammed a spade into one of my brother’s toy soldiers, buried during some long-forgotten military campaign.

And crumble – well, it’s just edible perfection, really isn’t it? It has to be made with butter and the texture as you roll it between your fingers is satisfying to the soul before you even eat it. I’ve never been fond of pastry – it’s too fiddlesome and sticks to things when it shouldn’t. My hands are never the right temperature to mould it and then roll it out, and it just never looks right. But crumble – well, any fool can make that!

Rhubarb with strawberries or ginger or coconut or orange peel – but rhubarb every time. And then the addition of cream (preferably double) or icecream (Kapiti gingernut is a current favourite). I’m not a crème brulee or a tiramisu girl. I’m not interested in pavlova or pannecotta – but I’ll take the rhubarb crumble for an effortlessly sincere taste of home.

I used a recipe from the
BBC Food website, and the above image is from the kitchen gardens website.