Behind the Scenes with the "Kooza" Wardrobe Team

Jenny Rogers

There's something very surreal-and very cool-about coming across the bright-blue-and-gold big top currently located on the city's west side. It looks totally out of place, of course, but that's kind of what the circus is all about, right? Moments of surprise are par for the course.

Cirque du Soleil's "Kooza"-a totally wild take on the traditional circus-is in town through July 5, and the wardrobe team was kind enough to give Capital Style a peek into their trippy world. Heads of wardrobe Collette Livingston and Jason Brass shared what it's like on tour, what goes into the elaborate costumes and just how many hours it takes to craft a rainbow-hued wig. (The answer? Sixty).

Describe a day in the life for the Cirque du Soleil wardrobe team.

Collette: Well, there are two different shifts; there's a morning shift and a night shift. The morning shift preps for the show-makes sure all the ironing is done, all the repairs are done, everything's been passed back and ready for the show-while the night shift's primary job is to make sure the show is ready and everything goes smoothly.

How many costumes are in the show?

Collette: There are about 1,500 costume pieces in each show. That includes the hats, wigs, shoes, unitards. In the back stock, then, we have more than double that-in case something happens and for when we get new people in. There are about 200 shoes used in each performance.

Not new for each performance?

Collette: Thank God, no! A lot of people have at least three costume changes, so that's why there are so many shoes.

How long does an individual piece take to make?

Jason: It takes about three months to get a new costume from the workshop in Montreal, from its ordering date to its arrival date on tour. So, when we need something quicker, we pull from back stock. But we can't always do that.

All our costumes, shoes and wigs are custom-made for each artist; they take about 300 measurements of the body for each performer-including a digital scan of the body, like when you're at the airport. We do the body measurement and then still take the tape measurements to ensure it's so precise, so accurate. Everything is built in Montreal, so the technology allows us to still keep that quality and accuracy even for artists across the world.

Each wig is hand-tied, which gives the illusion that the hair is growing out of the head. It takes about 60 hours to make one of these.

What about masks?

Jason: We have a new digital scanner in Montreal; they put little dots all over the face and then scan it. We used to do this process by casting a head in plaster; it would take a couple hours, and the artist would have to sit in the chair and have plaster poured on them while they breathed out of a straw. Now, we're able to do it digitally and then print (the mask). It's about half the weight, too. And, if I need a duplicate, I just order it instead of putting the artist through that process gain. Technology plays a part in all that we do with the costumes.

An example of the old mask-making process

What are the special design elements that help the performers do all they need to do?

Collette: I think one of the best examples is our contortionist costume; from a distance, it looks like it has gold chains on it, but that's actually elastic. So, while they performer is bending, you get the look of chains and jewelry with the stretch. We have to repair this almost every day, because the chains do snap. And we add some grips of rubber that's dyed to match the fabric. There are a lot of hidden items that help, but we try to get as close to the designer's sketch as we can. For this, (the designer) wanted jewelry, so we said, "OK, we'll do jewelry, but we'll make it out of elastic and rubber."

Jason: Our No. 1 function here is safety. A normal chain would not be safe for the artist, so that's what we and our technicians in Montreal do: create new techniques that create the look while keeping it functional and safe.

Do you have a favorite?

Jason: I think we all do!

Collette: My favorite is the trapeze coat; it's a yellow coat that has a bustle and is super traditional circus. I think that's what I like most about it. And it's got a bit of Mad Max in it, when it's paired with the wig.

Jason: This is the Death Liberace coat, which opens the second act of the show. There are over 1,500 rhinestones on this jacket.

Collette: 1,947. And the mask is great for this one. It's sort of our Day of the Dead piece.

What inspired the aesthetic?

Collette: The idea with Kooza is to go back to (circus) tradition. But there are so many influences: the Day of the Dead, (Gustav) Klimt, Indian influences, military influences, toy soldiers … there are a lot of influences that together create the world of Kooza.

What's the most elaborate costume in the bunch?

Jason: There are a lot of little tricks in the show. There's one costume-we won't reveal the secret-that you see right at the beginning. The artist changes from black-and-white to color. It's a very complex piece to build.

Collette: The Trickster's costume is one continuous stripe. The pattern of the stripe is created individually for each performer.

The skeleton costumes are creepy; is the show OK for kids?

We get a lot of kids in attendance, and we've never had a bad reaction! The skeleton act is probably the creepiest, though. But then we have the sort of Vegas-style skeleton.

Vegas, baby.

For tickets and more information, go here.