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.