Career path: Donna Jefferis on dressing the part


Donna Jefferis with (from left) Artists Jennifer Ulloa and Damani Campbell Williams and Soloist Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, photograph by Ross Brown

With more than 40 years of experience making magical costumes for productions at home and abroad, the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Donna Jefferis is one of the company’s most valuable assets

Created for Royal New Zealand Ballet

Early years: Schooling in Wellington
Despite her career trajectory, Donna wasn’t an arty child or teen. “I was a horserider, a pony club girl. I was good at school. And I was ‘crafty’ – I knitted and sewed with my mum. We all did that back in the day.” While studying for a psychology degree at Wellington’s Victoria University, she worked as front of house at Downstage Theatre on Cambridge Terrace. “Just by doing that, you become exposed to theatre. At the time, the costume person went away for a bit, so I stepped in and did a show for her – Hot Water – in 1983. I got the bug and did bits and bobs there while finishing my psychology degree. Then I thought, ‘I don’t really want to [be a psychologist]’ and wrangled my way into a part-time job at Downstage instead.”

1989 to 1994: United States-bound
When Donna’s husband applied for a PhD at the University of Georgia in the late 1980s, she followed. She was accepted into the master’s programme for fine arts, specialising in theatrical design. “We were there from 1989 to 1994, and in that time, I completed my MFA and had a child. In fact, I made a corset while in labour. I was doing a period show at a school in America just before we left. I went into labour and still had to sew the binding, so I took it with me!”

Stephen A’Court

1990s to 2000s: Return to Wellington
“Because I had a child, I freelanced through the 1990s. Then in a full-circle moment, I took a job at Downstage. I had my daughter Miro, and I told them, ‘You don’t pay me enough to put her in full-time daycare’ so she’d have half the day with me. It was perfect. She used to come to meetings and had a little mattress for naps in the workroom; people loved it. So, she’s been around the entire time.” While making costumes for shows at Downstage and Circa Theatre, Donna picked up three Chapman Tripp theatre awards for Costume Designer of the Year: Arcadia (1995), The Cherry Orchard (2005) and Equivocation (2014). “I was freelancing, so I did a lot of work in my lounge.”

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2010s-now: For the love of dance
“Eventually, I ended up at drama school Toi Whakaari, teaching costume construction: tailoring, printing, fabric dyeing. At the same time, I took care of the costume requirements for the NZ School of Dance, where I became interested in dance. “The difference between dance and theatre – clearly – is the degree of movement required. We do the same type of sewing that everyone does; it’s just that there are specific things that we do – for example, stretch-wear and bodices – that we might handle more than the average maker.”

RNZB: A peek into the wardrobe
In 2018, Donna became full-time head of costume at the Royal New Zealand Ballet. It’s intricate, delicate work, all done by hand. “Even a basic tutu with no trim takes 40 hours to construct.” The main challenge when it comes to costumes? Laundry. “You cannot expect a dancer to wear an unlaundered or unmanaged costume for over 20 shows.” While trim and outer layers can be pre-washed and swapped out, design features such as detachable sleeves make laundering easier. “Dry cleaning isn’t good for the environment. It is also expensive. So, we try to make things that we can look after. And they must look as good on the opening night as on the last night because people pay the same ticket price.
“When touring any show, we spray the costumes that can’t be washed with vodka at the end of the night. The alcohol sanitises the fabric and then evaporates, thus removing odours.”

Donna Jefferis with Senior Costumier Hank Cubitt and Principal Mayu Tanigaito in a publicity photograph for Cinderella, 2022, photograph by Ross Brown

TAILORING ON TOUR
With her team of three full-time staff, Donna is currently working on costume fitting and refurbishment for RNZB’s upcoming seasons of Tutus on Tour and Swan Lake. She says audiences are in for a treat. Swan Lake’s Tudor-inspired costumes are opulent and were designed by New Zealand-Australian costume designer Kristian Fredrikson in 1996. “It’s just layers on layers. One costume doesn’t have one fabric; it would have 10 fabrics, trims, layers, appliances and big, huge, voluminous sleeves. Tutus on Tour has excerpts from Swan Lake, which will be fun for people to see.” Also on show is Shaun James Kelly’s Prismatic, commissioned to mark the RNZB’s 70th birthday in 2023. “It was inspired by one of the pieces created early for RNZB in the 1950s, so we made a lot of leotards, as it’s a leotard ballet. The women are in classic leotards with little skirts, the guys are in unitards. And we made a lot – as everyone was on stage. But it’ll be adapted for 10 or 12 dancers at a time on tour.”

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The RNZB’s production of Swan Lake will tour Wellington, Auckland, Napier, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill from 1 May until 2 June. Tutus on Tour is on show in Kāpiti, Hastings, Ashburton, Gisborne, Oamaru, Wānaka, Tauranga, Whangārei, Blenheim, Taupō, Hamilton and Nelson from 23 February to 16 March. For more information and to buy tickets, visit rnzb.org.nz/whats-on

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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