Dressing Up Dralion: Backstage at Cirque du Soleil

Dralion tumblers sure know how to balance on those balls.
Dralion tumblers sure know how to balance on those balls.
Photo by Daniel Desmarais

Featuring more than 5,000 meters of vibrant fabrics and various materials ranging from plastic slinkies to bugs, Cirque du Soleil is taking one of its most famous performances and kicking it up a notch.

With its debut in 1999, Cirque du Soleil's Dralion drew in and captivated more than seven million audience members.

Since it's last stop in North America, which was in 2003, elements of the show have evolved. To keep you on the edge of your seat, CdS has improved Dralion's artist's acts, costume designs and scenery. Unfortunately, Dralion won't be mystifying the Dallas-Fort Worth area until July 27. But, we can offer a sneak peek to tide you over.

Melody Wood, costume director, took some time to speak with us on what it's been like touring with Cirque's Dralion for the past 11 weeks. We asked her about the show and what goes on behind the curtain.

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Which pieces in the show took the longest to construct? Why were they so time consuming? The whole process of something like our hoops costumes starts with the fabrics. It originally starts off with just a cream color fabric and goes to the paint department where they hand paint on lots and lots of fabric. Then it's sent to the costume department where they use patterns for the different artists, and then the pieces are cut and sewn together for each different artist. So you're talking many hours. Some might take 40 hours and if it goes through many processes it could take 100 hours.

Something like our singers -- we have two singers in the show -- their breast plates on their corsets is a process of different shapes and paint treatments. Then someone else will apply the metal details and shimmering fabric, so yeah, anything from 40 to 100 hours.

There's a lot of people who touch the costumes before it gets to us and actually touches a body in the show.

What different mediums can be seen throughout the various costumes and accessories? We do have a lot of horsehair in the show. One of our characters, Gaya, has lots of shades of yellow horsehair. There's also lots of beads in the show because it captures the light quite nicely.

One of our other characters, Océane, has an amazing headpiece that contains wires, beads and felt so for the audience you see this amazing shape on the head that looks like waves. But when you look at it closely it has crystals, Styrofoam, plastic, and Slinkies. We have lots Slinkies throughout Drailon.

It's almost a shop of sort of representing so many different fabrics and materials that you wouldn't find elsewhere. There's so many different shapes, colors and the practicality of the sort of fabric and how well it stands up to each show throughout the week. See more after the jump...

After researching the costumes and wardrobe, I noticed that these pieces aren't like others because they're all handcrafted. What is something else most people would be surprised to know about these costumes? I think what's most unique is that most of them are machine washable. [Laughs] Coming from a musical theater background myself, we spent a lot of time dry cleaning rather than washing them. Most of our costumes aren't hand washed. About 85-percent of our costumes go into a washing machine.

We have six washing machines, two tumble dryers and we have 12 rolling racks that we set up with the fans. We do six to seven loads of washing and we hang it out to dry. The fans blow on it and the next day they're ready for the show. There is a lot of laundry.

When you moving from city to city they each have different water, so it affects the costumes. It is a huge call of job really of making sure the costumes are maintained to the best standard possible.

Could you describe what you have set up on standby during a regular show in case something happens like a rip or snag? How many sewing machines, seamstresses, etc? Well, we're a team of four that are employed by Cirque du Soleil and tour with the actual show. When we arrive in a city we have three local seamstresses for our loading day. We set up the dressing rooms, doing all the washing from the previous city, and then setting up our sort of watering area, if you would like.

The equipment we actually tour with is two sewing machines and a machine that's called a Merrow and that sort of finishes the edges of fabric to make it a little bit more tighter.

Most artists in the show have two of every item that they wear. So let's say that if they came off during the show and it was something we couldn't repair -- there's one or two members of the team backstage at all times during a show -- maybe with a quick hand-stitch, then we would have another outfit that we would give them for the rest of the show. We have to do that just because of the nature of the show and the safety for them to be able to do their act. You can't just put safety pins into a rip to hold it or it would hurt the artist if it popped open on stage.

A big part of what we do is being able to work quickly and in your mind being able to look at it and know if it can be fixed quickly for the artist going on stage. Maybe if the artist gets a break in the show -- some of the acts maybe start at the beginning and their next act might not be until the second act of the show -- that might give us a little bit of time to take the costume and repair it.

It's an ongoing process for us. Every time we wash the costumes before they go out, we redistribute them into the dressing room and we check over every costume to make sure that all the seams are good, and there's no holes in it. That way we can repair it before it actually goes out to the artist.

I read that there are about 1,500 pieces in Dralion with various outfit changes throughout each act. In your opinion, why are costumes so critical to a performance? I mean if someone was just on stage in their track suit bottoms and a T-shirt, it just doesn't have the same excitement as if they were in a flowing green and blue dress that's just sparkling. It just adds that whole act to it.

Somebody like Yao, I remember talking to the artist himself and he said to me, "Oh what's you're favorite costume piece in the show?" And I said I really love the pants that Yao and the other bamboo troops wear -- the way it moves just sort of adds to the whole piece itself. It's nice to see.

Obviously, I work in costume so I see the costume first, but watching it as an audience member, when you see the whole picture, you're not just looking at the different elements of the sounds or set, you're actually looking at it as a whole bubble. We're creating a world. We're creating an environment for an audience member to be taken into, and consumed by the elements and the show. I think the costume plays a big part in that. I think it sort of takes you to another reality in the set of Dralion.

What has been the biggest challenge so far? I only joined about 11 weeks ago, so for me I joined a company that had already been on the road. It's a very different environment. You know we work together, we hang out together and we're in the same hotel together-- we spend a lot of time as a group. I guess the challenge is always going to be people, and getting along with people.

The majority of itself is learning a new company. They are a company that has been established for so many years and to be a part of that is fantastic, but you also have to learn, in my role, you have to learn how things are done because they've been done that way for a long time. It's about how you fit in and how your experience can fit in.

Watching the role for many years of what happens in Montreal with the skills of designing shoes and costumes, and then from there to learn from each other and actually pull that experience together can take a little bit of time. So I guess that's the most challenging is appreciating everybody skills, being able to put that to good use and providing the best that we can for our artists, really, and our audience.

After all the blood, sweat and tears that go into making what are considered pieces of art, what makes it all worth it for you to wake up the next morning and do it again? I love hearing people's reactions. I love, I know it sounds a bit cheesy, actually, but I do love watching the people walk away and go, "Wow, that's amazing."

There's a point in the show where one of us waits backstage to help one of our musicians do a quick change before he plays the big drums and you just sort of stand there waiting with the costume. You can see out just through a little crack in the black mask that we use to hide us from view, and you see the audience and hear the applause.

During the hoops act that we do where our Chinese troopers are throwing themselves through the various types of hoops, you can just hear the crowd clapping and going, "Oh my God, that amazing." And for me that was the most exhilarating moment.

It's taken me a long time to get to work for Cirque. I've applied for many years and to just sort of stand there and finally go, "Oh my God, I'm actually working a Cirque du Soleil show and here I am," that's just... wow.

I mean, at the end of it all it's all about the audience. That's what we're doing this for. We're doing it for them and it's so nice to see all those smiling faces out there even for us backstage who don't usually get to see that.

If you had to choose one word to describe Dralion what would it be? Awe-inspiring.

I remember the first musical theater show I ever went to see. I just got there and went, "oh my God, I so want to do this for a job." And at the time, I didn't know what that would be. I was 7 or 8 and I was just like, "wow, I have to do a job like this."

There's so many elements to Dralion. You could watch it and be inspired to go, "I want to work here or I want to work for this company."

We have so many different departments and we have so many people that work with us when we come to a city-- like the local ladies that help us or the front of the house with ripping tickets-- there's so many jobs that you can do that I like to think that people can come in, be inspired and want to research it more.

I just think there are so many elements to it that are there to make you go, "Wow, OK, I'd like to look into this more." I know that it's a bit cheesy, but it's the truth.

To purchase tickets to Dralion visit ticketmaster.com. For more information on Dralion, visit the Cirque du Soleil website.


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