Won­der in mo­tion

The rav­ish­ing cos­tume cre­ations in Cirque du Soleil’s new show, Totem, are the lat­est page in the fan­tas­ti­cal tale of for­mer Bris­bane high-school girl turned Hol­ly­wood high-flyer Kym Bar­rett.


Movie cos­tu­mier Kym Bar­rett takes on Cirque du Soleil

Some­times, in the world of en­ter­tain­ment, the cos­tume depart­ment steals the show. Think Darth Vader in his mask and cape or Spi­der-Man in his cob­webby red and blue. If there’s any cos­tume that can match the tech­ni­cal bril­liance and dra­matic spec­ta­cle of a Cirque du Soleil per­for­mance, it’s one de­signed by cel­e­brated Hol­ly­wood designer and for­mer Bris­bane school­girl Kym Bar­rett.

Bar­rett, a long­time res­i­dent of Los An­ge­les who turns 50 in Au­gust, is the Bris­bane-born cre­ative tal­ent be­hind the dis­tinc­tive black leather coat worn by Keanu Reeves in 1999 film The Ma­trix. She also de­signed cos­tumes for The Green Hor­net (2011) and Cloud At­las (2012) and has worked on high-end com­mer­cials, in­clud­ing direc­tor Ri­d­ley Scott’s Prada ads; in 2002 she won a Cos­tume De­sign­ers Guild award for her work on a na­tional Amer­i­can anti-smok­ing cam­paign. Bar­rett is Hol­ly­wood A-list.

And what beauty and in­ge­nu­ity has gone into her de­signs for the world-renowned cir­cus’s new Aus­tralian show, Totem. Cirque du Soleil breathed new life into no­tions of what a cir­cus is since

The cos­tumes for Totem have to work for ten shows a week, for years, so the dura­bil­ity of things is im­por­tant. KYM BAR­RETT

it started as a hand­ful of street per­form­ers in a small French-speak­ing town out­side Que­bec, Canada, in 1984. Now Bar­rett has ex­panded its bound­aries even fur­ther in a se­ries of rav­ish­ing de­signs. Us­ing flu­o­res­cent pig­ments, mir­ror frag­ments and crys­tals – some­times as many as 4500 crys­tals on a sin­gle cos­tume – on ma­te­ri­als as var­ied as Ly­cra, vel­vet and leather, Bar­rett vividly en­cap­su­lates writer and direc­tor Robert Lepage’s vi­sion of Totem as the evo­lu­tion of hu­man­ity from its pri­mor­dial am­phib­ian be­gin­nings to the heights of hu­man as­pi­ra­tion. Whether it’s the de­sire to fly, to travel to the moon or to push bod­ies and minds to their lim­its, Cirque du Soleil’s Totem em­bod­ies yearn­ing, and Bar­rett’s 750 cos­tumes trans­form hu­man dreaming into phys­i­cal re­al­ity.

Talk­ing to Qweek­end on her hands-free mo­bile phone while driv­ing home to Ea­gle Rock from a den­tist’s ap­point­ment in Bev­er­ley Hills, Bar­rett tells how she was fas­ci­nated by the chal­lenge of mak­ing cos­tumes for a cir­cus, but in the end found it not so dif­fer­ent from mak­ing cos­tumes for movies. “It’s a prob­lem-solv­ing ex­er­cise, just like it is on film,” she says. “The thing about movies is that you can stop and start, whereas the cos­tumes for Totem have to work for ten shows a week, for years, so the dura­bil­ity of things is im­por­tant.

“For a movie I might have six out­fits and ev­ery time some­one gets blown up we can stop and put on a new one. But th­ese [cir­cus] cos­tumes have to keep on keep­ing on, con­stantly. The tech­nol­ogy of the build is not hugely dif­fer­ent but the dura­bil­ity is,” she adds, ex­plain­ing that each cos­tume has to be re-made in its en­tirety ev­ery six months be­cause of the stresses put on it.

The work of direc­tor Lepage is noted for its evoca­tive gor­geous im­agery, and Bar­rett was keen for her cos­tumes to re­in­force the fan­tas­ti­cal story be­ing told. There’s the spec­tac­u­lar fringed Hoop Dancer cos­tume – worn by 23-year-old Tewi/Hopi Na­tive Amer­i­can Shan­dien Larance, from Ari­zona, and in­spired by tra­di­tional cer­e­mo­nial cloth­ing. And then there are the lu­mi­nous cos­mo­nauts – Ali­ak­sei Li­ubezny, 29, from Be­larus, and 31-year-old Moldo­vian Veaceslav Ce­banu. For the Tracker cos­tume, worn by 30-year-old Markus Furt­ner of Ger­many, Bar­rett chan­nelled an old-fash­ioned cir­cus ring­mas­ter (ex­cept this one ap­pears to be half-frog).

The pro­duc­tion fea­tures 46 ac­ro­bats, ac­tors, mu­si­cians, singers and dancers from 17 coun­tries, and had its world pre­miere in Mon­treal in 2010. Since then Totem has been per­formed 1600 times in 28 cities across the world. The show was awarded the 2013 New York Drama Desk Award for Unique The­atri­cal Ex­pe­ri­ence. “The thing about th­ese cos­tumes is that I have to see 360 de­grees of ev­ery per­son all the time,” Bar­rett says. “Any­thing can hap­pen, and a cos­tume might need to be al­tered re­ally quickly or an­other per­son put into it. With movie cos­tumes, most of the time you’re see­ing them pretty close up but with the cir­cus stuff you’re also designing to look good in a group a lot of the time, to look not only good from ev­ery an­gle but to look good as an en­sem­ble, and not just in­di­vid­u­ally.”

Bar­rett, who graced the cover of Qweek­end’s first is­sue a decade ago, makes sure she sees a pro­duc­tion of the show some­where in the world at least twice a year. She vis­its her par­ents, Peter and Cyn­thia, on the Sun­shine Coast, when­ever she can (some­times ac­com­pa­nied by her Texan set designer and fur­ni­ture maker hus­band, Chris­tian Kast­ner, and their two chil­dren, Ruby, 14, and Archer, 13). The LA weather re­minds her of Queens­land (“sunny and gor­geous”) and of her time as a boarder at St Mar­garet’s Angli­can Girls School in Bris­bane’s in­ner-north As­cot, which she at­tended from the ages of 12 to 17, grad­u­at­ing in 1982 (her ge­ol­o­gist fa­ther was work­ing on re­mote Christ­mas Is­land in the In­dian Ocean, and there was no high school). She’s lived in LA for al­most 20 years now, far from her early days at Syd­ney’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Dra­matic Art, where she was a con­tem­po­rary of Baz Luhrmann, work­ing as a wardrobe as­sis­tant on Strictly Ball­room and mov­ing to Hol­ly­wood for Romeo + Juliet. But it was her work on the Wa­chowski sib­lings’ fu­tur­ist master­piece The Ma­trix that proved her big break: she’s still work­ing with them, and the smart money’s on her to fi­nally pick up an Os­car for her cos­tumes on their new Ed­die Red­mayne ve­hi­cle, Jupiter As­cend­ing. It took more than 1.3 mil­lion Swarovski crys­tals to cre­ate the cos­tumes for that one.

But to see a Bar­rett cos­tume in all its mov­ing glory, head to the big top – com­ing soon to a field near you. Totem opens Fri­day. cirque­du­soleil.com/en/shows/totem

The thing about th­ese cos­tumes is that I have to see 360 de­grees of ev­ery per­son all the time. KYM BAR­RETT

Deja view … Kym Bar­rett on Qweek­end’s first cover in 2005.

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