DRESSING UP FOR THE STAGE Costumes set tone with colors, masks, metaphors

Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia.

Miguel Ángel González

Designers are often told in school that the best costumes tend to be ones that nobody notices. When it comes to opera, theater and dance, people see what they see, but they’re not necessarily paying attention to everything they see. Whether they’re aware of it or not, though, audiences need costumes as a cue to understand what’s happening on stage. The clothes can’t be bigger than the show, but they should make the show bigger.

Based on some of the more visually driven productions in this year’s Spoleto Festival USA, it’s safe to say the clothes that can make or break a show could just as easily be their own show.

“I hope that audiences don’t recognize the costumes as kimonos,” said Chen Shi-Zheng, director of “Matzukaze.”

Though based on an old Japanese opera form Noh, “Matzukaze” is anything but traditional. Chen, who has a reputation for mounting unconventional shows, had his design team employ new materials for both the sets and costumes.

“I guess I’ll always remember trying to make clothes with plastics on a sewing machine,” said costume designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward. For the record, she made the fisherman’s outfit with zip ties.

For a story about two haunted ghost sisters, the key word Ward started with was “Gothic.” She created two seemingly identical (but actually different) maxi dresses for the two heroines, with multilayered sheers, to introduce their illusory doppelganger selves.

Ward said her most difficult task was to work on the metaphors and conceptual images, which are common in Japanese culture and Chen’s directing. For example, the chorus implies wind, as the word “matzukaze” means “wind in the pines” in Japanese. Accordingly, she made the chorus’ all-black costumes to blend easily with the background while maintaining their sculptural, geometric shapes.

One thing about the costumes to pay attention to: New materials, the way they work with lights.

One thing about the rest to pay attention to: The metaphors.

“Oedipus,” one of the most performed Greek tragedies, has received a makeover by Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company for the Spoleto Festival.

“The ideas at the heart of Greek drama are still keenly felt by human beings and societies to this day,” set and costume designer Michael Vale said. That may be why director-adapter Steven Berkoff chose to bring the far-off Greek myth, literally, to the present time.

Unlike his rather solid starting point for the set (inspired by Salvador Dali’s paintings), Vale’s costume designs evolved as rehearsals went on, he said. He figured that once he got the chorus right, the rest would follow. His original idea was to have the chorus in traditional dress, then some modern elements were added to ancient togas. Eventually, he dressed all the characters, including the chorus, in contemporary peasant clothes, dismissing any period, geographic location or class.

After settling down the primary dress code, Vale began studying images of Greek farm workers. He said the biggest challenge was to find the right modern images that also respect the ancient nature of the original. Luckily, the story of human desire and failing will always be the same, whether people are wearing togas or suits. “In actual fact, it is not such a great challenge,” Vale said.

One thing about the costumes to pay attention to: The use of masks.

One thing about rest to pay attention to: The chorus, shapeshifting dynamically.

The flamenco show “Noche Andaluza,” presented by Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía, is a feast of fans and huge flares — a convention, perhaps, but a good one.

Eduardo Leal, one of the two soloists, is also the production’s costume designer. As with any traditional dance, there were certain restrictions in flamenco attire that he needed to respect, specifically the bata de cola dresses. Dance moves dominate every decision made about the costumes. A dancer himself, Leal knows how crucial it is to find the most suitable fabrics and construct them in shapes that can help the dancers.

Leal said director Ruben Olmo wanted to have dancers in basic and elegant dresses, but with a touch of Andalusian essence. So he turned to Andalusian architecture for ideas. Color and balance were two central aspects. (Another good old custom: Audiences should expect to see a lot of red.)

But it’s not all noise and bustle. The sobriety of some other costumes, black, white and royal blue, transforms the stage into a tender night in Andalusia.

One thing about the costumes to pay attention to: The colors, referring to the joyful Andalusia.

One thing about the rest to pay attention to: Dancers dancing with Alegrias, a flamenco musical form.

Vinny Y. Huang is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.