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THE WIDOW STANTON: Libby McDonnell, costume designer and associate director, Circa

Posted on 04 April 2016

Libby McDonnell graduated from the Queensland University of Technology in her home town of Brisbane with an associate degree in dance. She now works internationally as a designer, performer and choreographer and specialises in costuming for contemporary physical performance. Her credits for leading Australian circus company Circa includeCIRCA, How Like an Angel, On Air, Wunderkammer, Beyond, Carnival of the Animals,Opus and The Return. She is also the resident choreographer with Blue Roo Theatre, a company specialising in making performance with adults who experience disability. 

Libby has designed the costumes for Circa’s production Closer, a special commission for the Udderbelly’s purple cow, which runs at the Southbank Centre in London from 7 April – 12 June. She chats to Liz Arratoon, who has long admired her designs, about her interesting career path.

The Widow Stanton: Did you start out as a dancer?
Libby McDonnell: I did dance. I had a little bit of a revelation recently when I was talking to another director and he asked me why I hadn’t pursued my dance career. I realised – you know what? – I just don’t think I was good enough. But it’s not something that I’m sad about, I just think that the hunger and the drive and probably the capacity didn’t align into that particular career path.

So you branched off?
Yes. I got to the point where I was making independent work and I just couldn’t reconcile or understand why I was using the particular form of dance to tell the story or to explain the emotion. As a maker and as a performer I really struggled with that disconnect, which is why I love being a part of making work at Circa because the work is so authentic and the language is really clear. For me as a performer I just never really found my way in.

You’ve got many talents but we’re focusing on your costume work here. When and how did you start designing costumes?
I started making things… the very first thing I ever made was on my mother’s Husqvarna sewing machine and it was a scrunchie, because it was the early 90s. [Laughs] However, I’ve worn a lot of costumes and expressed myself through my clothing for as long as I can remember.

Professionally, it was in 2009 when I did my first official costume design for a choreographer called Gavin Webber. He had a collaboration with a rock band called Regurgitator and it was for QPAC, Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s  150th celebration. It was a pretty big and daunting first job for me working with quite high-profile national artists, and that’s kind of how it started. I remember feeling really alivewhile I was doing it… and terrified, and then when I finished and got through it, I was like, ’Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I made it through. What –was – that?’. And just feeling the adrenaline and things like that that I hadn’t ever felt when I’d done anything else before. That was the moment when it clicked with me, physically and emotionally.

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How had Gavin picked you? Did you know him?
I did. Because I’d been pursuing this other career I didn’t realise that costume design was a thing, to be honest. It was one of those moments where I was very fortunate. I had been doing a couple of secondments with a dance company called Dancenorth and at the time Gavin was the artistic director. Kate Harman, one of my dear friends – you know those friends you have a great creative connection with, you’re always making things together – Kate was Gavin’s partner. She was living in Freiburg working in a dance company and I had connected her and Gavin with a friend of mine who I thought would be an amazing designer for this particular production. She at the last minute fell through and Kate said to me: “Lib, I think you should do it.” And I was like, ’What?!’. It was one of those moments I’ll forever, ever, ever, ever, ever be thankful to both Kate and Gavin for, for recognising in me something that I didn’t know.

So are you self-taught?
I am self-taught. I’ve always drawn, I’ve always made things, I particularly loved more tactile artistic forms, such as lino printing or screen printing. I’ve always been drawn to making and sculpting things, particularly with my hands and I’ve always been visually wired. I’d been dancing all my life but out of grade 12 I decided that I really wanted to study architecture. I got accepted into this architecture degree and studied it for six months. I was like, ‘I really like it, I love translating concepts into something but this isn’t quite right’. Then I did my dance degree and that didn’t feel quite right either.

Then when I had been working a little bit longer with Circa, I still felt fraudulent because I hadn’t got that official piece of paper that said I’d done a fashion degree or something similar, so I just wanted to know that I was really able to do it and I applied to a fashion degree course at RMIT, which is arguably Australia’s leading fashion design institution. I got accepted and went down to Melbourne, for a week! [Laughs] By this time I was middle way in a relationship with Yaron [Lifschitz, Circa’s creative director] and all those things as well, so I started this study but I was like, 'The bit that Ilove most about this job is the translation of stories and ideas into the design; that’s the bit I’ve done years of training for, through the start of an architecture degree, through my dance degree and through my subsequent work experience’. I feel I’m still learning and I think they’ll always be techniques and craft that I will constantly want to continue working on; the translation into something and the interrogation of that, plus understanding the body and the way the body moves from the inside out. 

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What are the main requirements for a Circa costume? I think I can answer this myself!
[Laughs] Well, there are so many. You need to be able to move in it, [laughs]… Circa costumes need to be durable…

Yeah, I’ve got that one!
… they need to have the right amount of grip versus slip. They need to cover the body in the right spots and expose the body in the right spots. One of the exciting challenges that I always love in particularly in ensemble-based design is trying to connect a group of people to look as though they are uniform while subtly tweaking each of their individual needs, whether that be apparatus or unique body shapes. So, all of them have the most fantastic, amazing, complex body shapes and the costumes must cater to all of those different types while supporting them as they need to.

Are there special new technological fabrics coming out specifically for circus?
I’m still investigating the realm of the different technologies of fabric, weave and that kind of thing and one of the things that I’ve found works really well for us… like, when you see a button-up shirt on somebody it will always have a minimum of at least three per cent elastane stretch to it. Often it’s an illusion, so it will look like a business shirt but it’s really not and it’s much more complex in structure. There is lots of fancy patterning and ellipse shapes that you can do in the under arms of jackets and things like that to allow for maximum reach while not lifting up the jacket. It’s always finding the right fabric that gives the illusion and the weight of the thing that you need it to look like while still allowing for the movement, and sometimes it’s a bit of a tussle between the pattern design and the fabric choice.

At what stage in the production process do you start working on the costumes?
[Laughs] It depends. I’m always in the room from probably day one. I’ll definitely spend a significant amount of time in the rehearsal room and I’ll also spend a lot of pre-production time talking about ideas and concepts with Yaron. When the physical costumes get on to the bodies and into rehearsal varies so much. It depends how much lead time we’ve had for a project, and how quickly or late the show settles. Sometimes it’s every other shifting sand that causes the costume or the lighting or the show itself to have to adjust, so it’s really varied. At the moment we’ve got a show opening next week on Thursday and I’m hoping to have the costumes for our dress rehearsal this Friday. That’s pretty late in the process! Sometimes it’s great; sometimes the final little piece of the puzzle keeps it fresh for the artists and because we’ve worked together for a long time there’s a lot of trust from them to me but it’s not the most desirable position to be in for anyone. [Laughs]

How big is your team?
I have an amazing coven of women that I work with, [laughs] based in Brisbane. I have Janie Grant, who is head of wardrobe or head of production and two pattern makers and cutters and one seamstress. They are an extraordinary group of people and again they’ve been working with Circa and me since 2010. They’ve got the right kind of energy, they get when I call up and say, 'So, Jaaanie, I much need 16 of these and I miiight not have the fabric yet and we might need them by Friday…’, and she says: “Great, cool. Well, you know the drill, I need the fabric yesterday and come and see me.” It’s really amazing, really special.

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What are the costumes for Closer like?
The costume is a very contemporary silhouette, a very classic Circa approach to covering the body and exposing the body. We’ve used black mesh panels and black Supplex. The men are in trousers with exposed chests and the women are in probably my favourite leotard design that I’ve ever made, which just follows the curve of the body and exposes the body in really unusual and different ways. There’s a lot of black power mesh. It’s a really tough mesh; one of the most durable fabrics I’ve ever used. The black against their skin tone… the aim of it essentially was to bring you closer to the artists and to their form and their humanity. I just needed to support their bodies gently and still maintain that sophisticated edge that I think Circa costumes really have generally. And to have the contrast in the purple cow setting as well, so there’s this very sophisticated look and aesthetic in an almost Spiegeltent scenario. I think that’s a really beautiful contrast.

Does the fact that you’re a performer yourself help you understand the needs of the costumes?
I think so. From a technical point of view definitely and from the psychological point of view as well, you really know when an artist puts on a costume and it does the thing that it needs to do for them, like it unlocks something else and it might be as simple as a black leotard but it just connects with them and the material they have to perform and the way they have to perform in it. That for me is the bit that I’m constantlysearching for, particularly with such contemporary and stripped-back looks it’s really important that there’s just that subtle performance connection. Yeah, I reckon having been a performer that probably you can kind of sense it. [Laughs] You can smell it!

Most of your costumes are very stylish and quite pared down, would you ever like to design for something more elaborate?
Definitely! I have a desire to design for ballet. I particularly love contemporary ballet; I love the form and I love the potential and the possibilities.

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