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Weekly Studio: Marja Uusitalo

  • contemporary dance
  • costume design
  • Marja Uusitalo
  • opera
  • Weekly Studio

Since 1979, the versatile designer Marja Uusitalo has created costumes for stage and screen. Weekly Studio meets Uusitalo at home to talk about process-driven making and the paradoxical relationship between big budgets and constrained creative freedom.

Can you say a little about your background and how you got into costume design?

I didn’t plan my profession. I’m something of a drifter. With a friend of mine we took a holiday trip to Lahti one weekend in 1976, for some reason we decided to stay. Later in the summer in a whim we decided to apply to the Lahti Art Institute. My friend thought they might study photography or graphic design and I thought I might do costume design. I remember my friend flipped a coin to decide which course to apply for.

Anyway, we both got in and I spent three years in Lahti studying costume design for industrial use. During my first year I heard about costume design for theatre and other performing arts. Essentially, I’ve always been a freelancer. There hasn’t been a clear, progressive career path.

When did you start thinking about costume design something you could do as a job?

Even today, it doesn’t feel so much like a job as it does a pursuit. Perhaps that says more about me than it does about costume design. As a child I was often ill and I drew, sewed clothes for my stuffed toys, made things with my grandmother by hand. We lived in the countryside with a large, beautiful garden where I would sit, surrounded by flowers. I’ve always had to invent my world.

I didn’t have any pressure from my mother and father and I’m grateful for that. At Lahti, someone mentioned theatre to me which sparked an interest. During summer holidays, I worked for a summer theatre. After finishing school, I moved from one thing to another. I never applied for a job. From that came more theatre work, film, opera and then contemporary dance—which has for me become the most interesting area of performing arts.

Why is that? 

Storytelling narratives have never been my main interest. Contemporary dance is more complex in that although there isn’t a story, there is always the content. I tend to think too much, but the body has its own kind of wisdom. To make a costume for a body moving in space and time, you need to use your body as well as your brain. I like to spend as much time as possible in rehearsals, eyes half open, approaching design differently.

I wanted to ask you about which comes first in dance, the costumes or the choreography or whether they’re developed together, particularly on Whirls/Pyörteitä, a 2011 production at Aleksanterin Teatteri?

It’s a good question. Because, for example, with Pyörteitä, there’s a three-part approach to costume design. The first part is quite simple and costumes don’t take precedence over movement. The second part is a grotesque fantasy. And the third part is more like contemporary reality. For the second section, the choreographer and I planned that the costumes would come first. For the first and third parts, I said that the costumes will be quite light without weighing too much on the choreographer. So, with the middle section, we created the costumes and the choreography together. We also worked closely with the lighting and set designer during the formative stages.

Is that a relatively common way of working for you?

For me, it’s quite common, especially when working with choreographer Alpo Aaltokoski. Or, at least we can decide how we want to work. Sometimes there are different timing or budgetary restrictions and we have to make advance decisions and we accept that and work accordingly. But either way, there’s usually a lot of advance discussion.

For example, in the autumn we have a new production and we recently had a meeting. I sent Alpo a message saying that I had an idea and had figured everything out. And he said, ok fine. But we throw ideas about, talk and talk in a safe and fertile atmosphere and that’s part of the process.

What about the dancers? Do they have any input?

Once rehearsals begin, dancers are central. I think contemporary dancers working in Finland are incredible. They can do amazing things and they are open to suggestions. But it’s a balance between the choreographer and the costumes and the dancers. We have to decide when a production is at the stage where it’s ok to bring in dancers for rehearsals.

Is that a nice way for you to work, having a close relationship with the choreographer?

Absolutely. It’s my preferred way to work. Openness and confidence are invaluable in finding common objective. I like to design through the process.

Could you talk a bit more generally about process? Do you have a method that you apply to particular forms? Or do you approach each form differently?

Each form is different and requires a different approach. For example, a recent production I worked on Jää is at the Ooppera, which is more like a huge factory and needs costume plans well in advance. To be honest, I’m a bit of a difficult person for this type of production because my working methods clash slightly. Jää is opera, yes, but it’s also historical drama, so you want to be designing for individual characters. But because the costumes are done in advance of casting, you don’t know who they are or what they look like and you have to design clothes for characters without knowing anything about the people who will play them. This isn’t my favourite way to design, but with opera I have to do it this way. It’s difficult for me, as I have always been a process-driven maker, but I try my best to be part of this system.

It’s interesting what you say about opera as less open because the costumes you designed for L’incoronazione di Poppea, 2015 production of Suomalainen Kamariooppera, are so creative and conceptual that there must be avenues for creativity within that form?

That’s true. It sounds crazy, but it’s usually when you don’t have much money that you can be really creative, regardless of the form. Poppea had very little budget available for costumes which is why I had to find a way to make a decision. It’s strange, but in a way, having less money makes it easier to come up with a solution. In opera there is money, but somehow, it’s more of an industrial process. Of course, it depends on the production.

Can you talk about the process behind the designs for Poppea? From what you said earlier, it sounds as if ideas just pop into your head, fully formed?

In my first meeting with the director, Vilppu Kiljunen, he said: “There has to be sex, and sex, and more sex!” Poppea the story is about a mistress and there’s cross-dressing, but in real-life, the woman playing Poppea was pregnant and Nerone, the most important male character, was being played by a woman. It was all mixed up and I had no idea how to differentiate between the characters and the singers.

I was so exhausted trying to figure out how on earth I could do something. Then, on the way home from the meeting, it just clicked and I figured it out. After that, we made the costumes in two weeks. I had this idea to print body parts on textiles. I put a message on Facebook asking if any of my friends would participate in a naked photoshoot. We hired a small studio and did the session. Afterwards, I decided how much material each character needed for their drapery. For example, Nerone had the largest amount of fabric which has a huge phallus on the front. But the nude body parts weren’t so obvious in the end because of all the draping and folds.

I liked what you said about the drapery being an extension of the body.

They had huge trains and the material was extremely heavy. At first, I assumed that the singers would get annoyed by how heavy the costumes were and wouldn’t want to wear them. But they were surprisingly happy because they could use all that excess fabric and throw it about and make shapes. The costumes worked in the end as a tool for expression for each character.

Your comment about money is interesting, because having restrictions can often be very creative.

It’s an important question, because it’s not really about money. It’s about freedom. When you have limited funds, you often have more freedom to be creative. A bigger institution that can afford to invest in productions gives you the freedom to buy more expensive materials, but because that institution has to be accountable to its reputation and its paying audience, there can sometimes be a limit to artistic creativity. It’s about having the freedom to think broadly and creatively. It’s a kind of paradox, actually.

I want to come back to talk about the costume design programme you helped establish and run at TaiK, now Aalto University, from 2003–2011.

Yes, I didn’t do that alone, but for some years I was the only teacher. One important thing is to know about education in this field is that, for example, there have been set design courses since the 1950s, light and sound design since the 1980s, but costume design only since 2003. This tells you a lot about the problem in my view.

Do you think there’s been a historical lack of appreciation for costume design as a profession?

I think it’s partly a lack of appreciation. I also think that in Finland certain personal factors have had an impact. Typically, directors considered set designers to be their closest working partners and set designers have historically tended to be men. In the 80s, when costume design began to be more appreciated, set designers started doing costume design as well. They were thought of more like artists. Many of the female costume designers came from handicraft or fashion, industrial design and even though they were skilled, there was still a gender hierarchy. The increasing visibility of costume design as a trade is the inevitable product of the development and expansion of the performing arts industry.

So, was teaching quite important to you?

Yes, very much so. My first experience of teaching was in the early 90s and it helped me to understand that I have gained knowledge skills to share with others, that I have learnt something on the road. It was a really great experience. I love teaching and for me it works both ways. I still work with students on various productions today.

Let’s talk about your working space, because you don’t have really a dedicated studio.

Before, I had a big, dedicated studio almost next door. But because I had a teaching job for eight years and the rents escalated, I gave it up. There wasn’t any reason to pay rent for what was effectively a storage unit in the centre of Helsinki. Now, I have a smaller storage facility which has a sewing machine and table and, a lot of important material, meaningful “stuff”. But it’s quite messy and I don’t visit it very often.

Do you make costumes yourself? 

Not usually, but I am always very hands-on. Normally dressmakers do most of the work, but I can prepare things. Sometimes I cut out pattern pieces or move sleeves around, whatever. It’s a good use of budget when there’s not much money for a production. In any case, I’m always very hands-on.

What are you working on right now?

It’s a nice, small, independent musical-theatre production. It’s based on a Virpi Hämeen-Anttila book and set in 1920’s Helsinki. Right now, the story and music are being written.

Also, this summer is this Prague Quadrennial which is an important scenography event that happens every four years. I’ve never participated before, but now I’m participating with something that has nothing to do with costumes. It will be something in public space. It’s a bit scary because it’s not something that I usually do.

Something I tend to ask everyone in this series is whether or not you think of your design work as linked to a Finnish aesthetic sensibility? 

I don’t think anything I design, in terms of how it looks, has a Finnish connection. But somehow, I feel that I am a Finnish person who likes to go to the woods and takes things too seriously… so perhaps there is some kind of connection to my design in that sense.

But what about the Finnish relationship to bodies? I think that Finns are very comfortable with bodies and the objects you make for bodies seem to reflect that level of comfort and openness?

That’s true. I think this way of feeling about the body is really a Finnish thing, something to do with being honest and open. Yes, maybe it is a really Finnish thing. That’s why it’s so important to me that I don’t make performers appear flawless, but rather interesting and meaningful.

How is the field of costume design?

I think it’s important to mention just how broad the field of costume design is and the different kinds of jobs available. For example, if you’re working on a documentary film, then design is not really the right word when it comes to costumes. There’s also the issue of scale, you can go from relatively small, one-person dance productions to operas with huge casts and fantastical costumes. There’s a huge scale and variety of work in the field. And now there are even costume designers for computer-game characters. The world is changing and costume design along with it.

Do you consider yourself someone who works across that entire scale?

Well, actually, I’m old enough and have now done so much that I suppose I have worked across pretty much everything. It’s really time that has given me this possibility as I have worked on many different types of productions.

Presumably that makes it more enjoyable for you?

I always appreciate something new, different and challenging. I don’t like to repeat things I have already done. I want to be pushed into resolving new mysteries or problems through developing work organically rather than through having to make compromises between different factors.

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