It looks like a scene from a science-fiction movie. Two hundred white plaster heads, all with names and numbers, stare blankly from shelves in a room at the Montreal headquarters of Cirque du Soleil, each moulded from a performer’s face and skull. This morgue-like inventory is just one part of the Cirque’s vast costume shop, a 1,620square-metre factory that produces a fantastic array of masks, wigs, shoes and outfits. All costumes are created from scratch, beginning with bolts of unbleached white fabric. The shop uses over 100 different kinds of cloth— running through more than 40,000 m of Lycra alone in a year. The fabrics are dyed, silk-screened or hand-painted, then cut and sewn on the premises. Costumes, which are washable, wear out quickly. Some acrobats burn through one outfit per month. “It depends on the water,” says Yves Fournier, the shop’s director. “The water is harder in Tokyo so the washing destroys them more quickly.” As he conducts a tour of the costume shop, Fournier surveys his staff with pride. A nineyear veteran of the Cirque, he has worked for Broadway and on opera productions, but has never seen an operation like this one. It may look like an assembly line, but there is constant job rotation, he says. “People don’t quit, and I think that’s one of the reasons. My people are very versatile. It makes the job more fun, and we can respond to emergencies.”
There is a kaleidoscopic variety of jobs. In the dye room, a man paints purple patterns on Lycra to be made into tights. At a computer screen, a dress designer adapts a baroque motif from a Renaissance painting. A woman at a heat-transfer machine melts a gold pattern onto red silk. A lacemaker sews a prototype for an acrobat’s G-string—using 1,000-lb.test fishing line. Like nearly everyone in the shop, she is working on outfits for the upcoming production at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. Because it is an aquatic show, the costumes have to work wet or dry— including the shoes—and the performers wear a special line of aquatic circus makeup.
At one bench, a woman sews a shirt of gold silk that has been shrunk and crushed into a corrugated mass of wrinkles. “It takes 17 m of silk to make one shirt,” she says, explaining that it will be a costume for a dead bridegroom floating in limbo. As she starts to elaborate, the Cirque’s publicist looks alarmed. Details of the new Bellagio show are top secret. She quickly whisks her visitor over to a woman who is busy gluing snaky orange tresses onto a silicone skullcap — just one more item of business in the surreal -masquerade that is Cirque du Soleil.
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