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Royal New Zealand Ballet costumier James Kelly's love of hard work

James Kelly at work at Wellington's St James Theatre.
(Photo:formal dresses australia)

Some jobs you could never do if you didn't truly love them, and ballet costumier has got to be near the top of that list.

James Kelly has spent more than 20 years bringing designers' visions to the stage, and now he's at work on the Royal New Zealand Ballet's production of The Wizard of Oz.

His job is to bring sketches to life, to translate an idea into a garment, and to make it work on a practical level.

"You have to love it. I'm not a designer, that is not what I've ever wanted to be. I'm a cutter and maker, and I think you have to love it to give it your best," Kelly says.

It's an incredible amount of work, not least because this production's designer, Gianluca Falaschi, is based in Italy. The creative process is a three-point one, between Kelly, Falaschi, and director Francesco Ventriglia.

"His drawings are amazing, and they're drawings you can work from, and he's a very busy man… You can just look at them and go, 'Okay, yep, done.' You don't always get that from designers," Kelly says.

Once Kelly has consulted with Ventriglia, and made up a calico version of each costume, he gets in touch with Falaschi for another thumbs up.

Getting it right is what Kelly finds most satisfying about his work. It's always an incredible challenge, but when it comes together, it's worth it.

The Wizard of Oz is his second show with the RNZB, and his first as a fulltime employee. The Englishman worked on last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream as a freelancer, having already been offered the permanent role at the end of 2014.

"I loved it, it was a great experience. The company here were very welcoming," Kelly says.

"At the end of the two months they offered the job again, and after having been here, I was like 'Yeah, I know it's the right choice.'"

Even with his long experience in the industry, this is only Kelly's second job. Fresh from the London College of Fashion, he got a job with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in 1995. It was a dream job, and he stayed put.

"I've always been very lucky, all the way through. I got into the colleges I wanted to get into, I got the best job when I left... I've been very lucky," Kelly says again, though of course luck doesn't account for his passion, talent and hard work.

These costumes have been a test, though. Each dress for Glinda the Good Witch has 1000 butterflies hand-sewn to its skirt, and with three casts, that needs to be done three times. The effect is stunning, though, and the costumes are a favourite of Kelly's.

He's anticipating he'll be a bit emotional on opening night. The months of late nights and stress make for an intense experience.

"Sometimes it's just completely overwhelming. I've cried before [on first nights]. It's just the relief… that it looks as it should look, and it's been worth the hours of work, and pain, and trying to get it to look as it should," Kelly says.

"It just consumes you, it's all you think about."

That seems to be very true for Kelly. While it doesn't sound like he has a lot of spare time, he spends it sewing. In London, he made wedding dresses for the dancers he worked with.

"I would do it all in my own time at home. It was mainly the girls at the ballet, when they got married they'd ask 'Oh, would you make my wedding dress?'"

Word spread, and soon it was friends of friends asking him as well. His gowns ended up in Vogue and Hellomagazines.

Kelly's also involved in restoration projects, uniting his work with his love of classic films. His next challenge is a silvery-grey party dress worn by Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls.

Barely recognisable and missing its sleeves, Kelly will bring the dress back to life using the hard-to-find fabrics and forgotten techniques it was originally made with.

It's a historical exercise as much as a sewing one, and he can't wait to get into it.

When your hobbies aren't a million miles from what you do for a living, you know you're onto something good.Read more at:vintage formal dresses

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