Cover Chong and her shelves of costume fabrics (Photo: Stephanie Teng)

Behind the myriad dazzling costumes in every Hong Kong Ballet production is Joanne Chong, the company’s fairy godmother who breathes new life into old dancewear

It usually takes a flawless fouetté en tournant or a highly synchronised pas de deux for the silence in a theatre to be broken by gasps of admiration from the audience. But in several recent productions by the Hong Kong Ballet, including Jewels last May, Romeo + Juliet last June and The Nutcracker last Christmas, the elaborate costumes for a moment stole the spotlight from the dancers, with audible oohs and aahs from the audience even before the dancers started to move.

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In The Nutcracker, for instance, there seemed to be no end to the outfits, as dancers—wearing glittery snow fairy tutus, qipao-style nightgowns or dresses covered in butterflies, or sporting gigantic peony petals, cockatoos’ yellow crests or lush green and blue peacock feathers— transported the audience from the Cultural Centre to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s magical kingdom or glamorous 1920s Hong Kong. The final costume count: 240.

That is only a tiny fraction of all the costumes that Joanne Chong, the ballet company’s director of wardrobe, and her small team of five whip up every few months. The company is now preparing for its next large production after a seven-month hiatus caused by the fifth wave of the pandemic. Chong has been sewing away in her 4,000 sq ft “cave of wonders” in San Po Kong, where she keeps most of the 43-year-old company’s costumes dating back to its early years.

Before the pandemic, the Hong Kong Ballet usually put on about four big productions every year, including the annual Christmas show, and five smaller dance performances. “I’ve lost track of exactly how many costumes are kept in this space,” says Chong, who first worked with the company from 2004 to 2007, and rejoined in 2015. “But you can do the maths: there are several hundred pieces per show, and I’ve been keeping 99.9 per cent of the costumes and accessories, including those from the shows before my time.”

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Chong says she doesn’t hold on to costumes merely because they’re pretty. “Unless they’re really dirty or can be easily replaced, I keep the costumes so that they can be reused. Most of the artistic directors, including Septime [Webre], rerun their big, classic productions, such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, every few years,” she says. The need for completely new costumes “depends on how insistent the designers are on my execution of their designs”, Chong says. “For the last Nutcracker, I reused a lot of fabric from the old costumes because [costume and set designer] Gabriela Tylesova was quite flexible. That way, I could reduce the production cost and be more environmentally friendly.”

She says that for historical productions such as Romeo and Juliet, which is traditionally set in 1500s Italy, or the iconic soldiers in The Nutcracker, there is already a basic design which she can easily modify by adding modern colours or decorations to fit different adaptations or eras.

But there are of course times when Chong has to whip up costumes from scratch, including those for Webre’s new Cinderella production set for this July. “[Costume designer] Yoki Lai envisions her four-season fairies to be glittery, so she wants mesh, shimmery silk and sequins. This is completely different from the oil painting inspired fairies by our previous costume designer, who coloured the dresses with acrylic paint,” Chong says. Webre also likes bigger tutus for a more dramatic visual effect onstage, which makes it more difficult to reuse the previous artistic director’s smaller tutus.

While creating new costumes from old pieces takes several days, each new costume takes three weeks to make. To produce the large wardrobe needed for bigger shows, Chong has a small team of full-time staff, including two assistants, one cutter and one seamstress. She also hires two or three specialist tailors to help with the specifics of Chinese and western tailoring respectively, plus some extra hands to help wash the fabrics and sew and tidy up the costumes.

Chong explains that it is not only the physical tailoring that takes time but also the need for planning and experimentation. “We have to add an extra layer of mesh over sequins to prevent them from falling off or scratching the dancers since they can be quite sharp,” she says. “I also have to think about how to make the costumes as comfortable for the dancers as possible while making sure the audience isn’t able to tell it’s a trick.” For example, the suit jacket worn by male dancers comprises the sleeves and the vest in two separate pieces. “Other times, the underarm area of single-piece costumes is made with flexible materials because dancers stretch their arms a lot,” she says.

Between matinée and evening performances, Chong makes sure the tights and costumes are thoroughly washed, disinfected and dried so that the same costumes can be worn by different casts.

Chong’s work isn’t finished after the productions end; she says managing the storage of costumes is almost a full-time job in itself, as different outfits require different treatment. “I have to lay the costumes with gemstones flat in boxes: gemstones can be heavy and stretch out the fabrics if I hang them vertically,” she says. As for the cockatoo and peacock tutus from the latest Nutcracker production, they cannot be laid on top of each other. “My team and I made the feathers by trimming organza and chiffon, and adding boning to the pieces. If I pile the costumes up, the costumes will change shape and the feathers will no longer look like real ones,” she says.

The costumes take up much of the space in Chong’s San Po Kong studio, and she is left with only a tiny corner in which to work her magic. But she always casts the right sort of spell. “I’m always thinking of second uses for these costumes: if I can’t make new dresses from them, I sell them to the original designers or our former artistic directors whose companies can reuse them.

Just as Cinderella had a mystical being to help make her wishes come true, so too does the Hong Kong Ballet have a fashion fairy godmother, devoted to weaving her magic and making every member of the company the belle (or beau) of the ball.

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