It's a show like no other, an acrobatic masterpiece known as KOOZA. In Auckland for a short time, editor Trudi Brewer got the chance to go backstage to meet the head of the wardrobe, British costume designer Alex Surridge. Here's a slice of her life working under the Grand Chapiteau.
Photography Louise Hilsz
If you ever had the fantasy when you were young of running away to join a circus you're not alone. Meeting costume designer Alex Surridge proves you can live that dream. Armed with a bachelor of arts in costume design from the London College of Fashion, Surridge always had her sights set on a career with Cirque du Soleil. Along with her tight-knit team of five, she is responsible for 3,000 individual costume pieces from jewel-encrusted jackets to the wigs, custom-made feathers, and the makeup. The detail is remarkable. On top of that, each costume needs to be flexible, breathable and able to conform to the demands of this high-energy acrobatic show. The underlying aim for Surridge is that when each performer steps onto the stage, "They feel like they are not wearing any costumes at all." Meet the extraordinary talent, Alex Surridge an integral part of this visually spectacular show - one not to be missed.
Backstage in the wardrobe department and the Wheel of Death, Surridge’s favourite act in KOOZA.
How did you land this amazing role with Cirque du Soleil?
I did my degree in costume making at the London College of Fashion, and then I worked in musical theatre, touring the UK. Five or six years ago I did a tour with Batman Live, a big arena world show with over 40 acrobats that helped me get a foot in the door. Getting this job took a solid eight years persistence, it's a company I have always wanted to work for, and about a year ago in December, I got that opportunity.
How does that fit into your life? Are you continually traveling?
Because I toured up and down the UK so much with other roles, I am used to living out of my suitcase. I am used to never having a solid base; my home is with my parents in a storage container. I get paid to see the world, to experience so many different countries and do a job I love - for me that's amazing.
Who gets to say their office is a circus tent, right?
Exactly. I feel fortunate, while we do work in a circus tent that could be anywhere in the world. However, when we get to work each day, the country may be different, but our office always looks the same, it's a nice safe bubble that is familiar.
While you are working in your element as a costume designer, how long do you think you can live on the road?
Honestly, it's full-on. This job compared to others it is like nothing I have done before. At Cirque du Soleil I am head of the wig department, makeup, costume, shoes, everything you see on the performer, on stage in the show is my responsibility. This first year has been a learning curve, I have had to face something different every day. I am only just finding my stride, so I would love to be with KOOZA for many more years to come.
So this is it, is this a career high for you?
It's the peak of where I see myself. I guess the next step would be in Montreal, but that is a very different environment. At Cirque’s international headquarters, in Montreal there are over 300 full-time employees working as full-time costume makers or overseeing the makers, not working on a specific show. For me, being part of this show is the perfect little spot. Also, after a year in this job, it still has so many challenges - I still have so much to learn.
You travel with a team, but you also employ locals here in Auckland?
I tour with my team of people. I have a head assistant, who deals with the day to day maintenance of the costumes, and alterations, she also takes control of the wigs, and between us, we teach the artists how to apply their makeup. My other assistant takes care of the shoes and hat maintenance, along with other things, so between the three of us it all ticks along nicely. And then we have two locals that come in each day and help with laundry, daily repairs and anything else we need. And then, two other girls join us each evening and help with the dressing backstage before the show.
You travel with a 3D printer tell us what do you use it for?
There are 'gears' (decoration) on each costume, and the printer allows us to print multiple sheets of these gears each day. The gears are a foil, and also different layers of colour to give a 3D effect to each costume under the lights. They used to be made from foam and didn't last during the constant washing. While the show has been running for a long time, technology is moving forward, and we are moving with it. Using the latest technology on offer continually improves the wear and helps our costumes last longer.
The costumes are spectacular but they must need to be flexible?
Each artist has a digital body scan from head to toe, so the design team can make pieces that perfectly fit their body and don't impede their performance. However, they always need repair and maintenance, due to the high level of acrobatics on this show. Every costume, mask, is adorned with detail, but it still needs to be flexible and durable. For example, the kings crown is made on the 3D printer, it’s lightweight, and bends, he can throw it in the audience, it's pretty much indestructible, it will last for years if we look after it.
What's your favourite costume in KOOZA?
The contortion girls. They are beautiful, and while their costumes look simplistic they are a multi-coloured two-piece costume, that looks amazing under the lighting. They have little chains on them, which give the effect of metal, but the chains are made from elastic. This allows the girls to move freely, not hindering their performance at all.
And your favourite act in KOOZA?
The wheel of death. Purely because it's that moment when you know the audience is in love with the show, you hear them explode sitting here backstage, and it's at that moment you smile. I love to listen to that reaction.
Anything you don't like about your role?
Computer admin is always a bit tiresome. I would rather be sewing, but it needs to be done, like most jobs.
Did you ever have a passion for fashion?
For me, it's always been theatre and costumes. It's a small knit group of people here; I feel an essential part of KOOZA. What we do helps everything come together for the show.
Cirque du Soleil's Auckland season runs until Saturday, March 24 at Alexandra Park, in Epsom.