From The Triadische Ballet To The Giudecca

Using the most disparate materials, Sonia Biacchi creates experimental costumes used for theatre and ballet performances and avant-garde photo shoots.

Text by Anna Battista

Despite being located at less than 20 minutes of waterbus from St Mark’s Square and the main venues of the Biennale, the Giudecca island largely remains an oasis of quietness and tranquillity in the Venetian lagoon. It’s here, far from the madding crowds, inside the Centro Teatrale di Ricerca (Theatre Research Centre), located in the 13th-century former convent of St Cosma and St Damiano, that Sonia Biacchi creates her avant-garde costumes. Her designs are mainly used for theatre and dance shows, but have recently attracted also the attention of fashion and style magazines. For Biacchi, who is also the CTR artistic director, this former convent is a sort of magical place: visitors can hear the music of the dance classes from the cloister garden and, upon entering the main room where performers are rehearsing, they can see Biacchi’s costumes lined up one after the other, ready to be used for different shows and shoots.

Biacchi started making costumes driven by her passion for the theatre and inspired by the creations of German painter, sculptor and designer Oskar Schlemmer. Papier-mâché, wood, glass, metal, coloured surgical gloves, tyre inner tubes and nautical materials bought from specialised shops in and around Venice helped Sonia create a very special universe in which actors, dancers and models’ bodies and movements are transformed by the weights and volumes of her costumes.

What prompted you to become a costume designer?
Sonia Biacchi: My passion for the theatre. I didn’t have the talent to become an actress, but I felt the need to express my theatrical side through costumes that could somehow become the protagonists of a show and influence with their shapes and silhouettes the way a dancer or an actor moved. When I started making the costumes I didn’t know much about colours and materials and I must admit I didn’t have a great taste when it came to art, even though my father was a painter. Yet I had a great passion for the job of costume designer and this helped me overcoming many difficulties and discovering new ways to express through details and volumes something magical.

What fascinates you about Oskar Schlemmer?

Sonia Biacchi: One day while researching for my costumes I found out about Oskar Schlemmer’s work and realised his costumes for the Triadische Ballet were the most dramatically theatrical creations I had ever seen. Schlemmer lived in a time when artists were trying to break free from traditional theatrical forms and, through his costumes, he caged and trapped the bodies of dancers. While studying Schlemmer’s work I met other people who loved him and together we restaged the Triadische Ballet on a barge. It was a sort of miracle that came to life and a few artisans – from painters to ironmongers – helped me making the costumes. I’m actually planning to restage the Triadische Ballet show once again in a few years’ time.

How do you choose the materials to make your costumes?
Sonia Biacchi: I often choose the materials to make the costumes according to their weights. They must indeed be functional to the body movements. When I started designing costumes I used a lot of rigid materials and created quite a few armour-like pieces. Now I have gradually changed the materials I’m using, bearing in mind the different ways a costume can be transformed. The same model built in different materials can indeed offer different effects. The costumes must be ample because viewers must be able to see them from far away and must be able to follow all the transformations they go through. The most perfect transformations can be achieved by using flexible materials, such as contemporary fabrics reinforced with synthetic whalebone sticks. I have recently been experimenting with nautical materials, leafing through catalogues from specialised shops. My most recent experiments consisted in creating a new and innovative textile from existing materials and then putting it on the body to see what kind of effects it produces.

Do you ever design your costumes together with a dancer or an actor?
Sonia Biacchi: The more talented the dancer, the more there is a chance of collaborating together. I usually follow the dancers during their rehearsals and we exchange ideas and opinions. I have worked with Atsushi Takenouchi and I admire the ability he has to interpret my costumes, because often the plot for a theatre performance or the movements for a ballet are developed directly from the costumes. A dancer’s body is transformed through exercise and training but also through my costumes that can help developing a perfect synchronicity with the dancer’s body. Dancers seem to be able to get the most out of my costumes, this is why I prefer them to models even in fashion photo shoot.

What’s the last show you did costumes for?
Sonia Biacchi: 'No hay caminos, hay que Caminar… Andrej Tarkovskij', starring Atsushi Takenouchi and with live music by Hiroko Komiya staged just a few weeks ago at the Candiani Cultural Centre in Mestre.

What’s the best part of your job as artistic director of the Theatre Research Centre?
Sonia Biacchi: It can be a hard job since the centre offers the opportunity to follow different courses, seminars and workshops connected with the world of performing arts and organises many activities. Yet best part of my job is seeing talents being nurtured here. It’s a magical experience and I think that once you step into the door of our centre you realise you are surrounded by a very special magic.

What kind of advice do you have for young people who would like to become costume designers?
Sonia Biacchi: You must have a great passion, but must also be able to sacrifice yourself a lot. Sometimes I end up working on a costume until 4am, without even realising it, because for me it’s a bit like immersing myself in a dream. Like a fashion designer, a costume designer creates something almost magical for other people and I think that making a costume is an emotional experience. You end up sharing those emotions with the audience once your work takes a new life on the stage.
Photos courtesy of Sonia Biacchi/CTR

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