Costume gallery

A look behind the scenes at the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and its lavish costumes.

The workshop looks like an aircraft hangar. High ceilings, high windows, truck-wide door on the side - the kind of place you imagine an action hero breaking into. In daylight, it is innocuous enough, just a few women and men working in silence, hunched over their desks, not showing much expression, only the concentration of people with a deadline to meet. The dead giveaway is the Russian. She puffs on her cigarette as we approach and gestures in dismissal, or maybe disapproval, I'm not sure. She speaks in a language none of her colleagues understands, fortunately perhaps for them. But they get the drift.

Marina comes to Egypt for nine months every year, for the "Season," as I am told. It is the time in which operas are produced and ballets are staged. Marina is actually Ukrainian. Odessa, her hometown, brings to my mind hulking ships and sturgeon, not necessarily lavish fabrics. But according to Erminia Gambarelli Kamel, former prima ballerina, current artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and Marina's boss, she is the best ballet costume maker this side of the Mediterranean.

The cavernous room we're standing in is where they prepare costumes for ballet dancers and opera singers. To our left there are two men standing in front of a table. They are the cutters or maqasdars, a Turkish word that defines their sublime status in the trade; literally the men-with-scissors. The woman on the left has a different job: applying shiny sequins and small beads to fabric. There are two men hunched over sewing machines, a man operating a steam iron in the back, and a few women sitting at desks handling samples of fabric.

They work around the clock here, I am told when I visit. Zorba the Greek, a very popular ballet and part of the repertoire of this ballet company, is about to open. The show has its own costumes from earlier performances, but the costume production team is making new shirts and pants. You can only use the old costumes so many times. "If you store the costumes properly, they can last for a few seasons," Kamel says. But a few seasons is not necessarily a short period. If a show is only staged every two or three years, the same costume can do stage duty for a decade or so. Hence, about a month before the show opens, the old outfits are brought in, sometimes from giant storage units at the edge of Cairo, to be inspected, assessed, and refitted, if necessary.

On stage, it seems all glamour and glitz, but those in the industry know the work that goes on behind the scenes of any production. Kamel takes me to a room, approximately 30 feet long and 12 feet wide, where the clothes are stored between seasons. Long rails run along both sides bearing costumes from various shows. Kamel walks to the middle of the left row of costumes and fondles one long evening gown. "This is from the scene in Romeo and Juliet when they meet at a costume party," she tells me. She doesn't just let the gown slide back into place. She smoothes it back carefully. Not a has-been costume this one, it is still in active service, still doing the Seasons.

As Kamel gets busy with two attendants, discussing logistics and work schedules, I drift to my favourite part of the wardrobe, the Spartacus outfits: Roman jackets, ferocious looking but light to the touch, made of leather-like fabric, sit stiff and dark and manly, but they are still lighter than the formal jackets the Cairo Opera Theatre requires its male audience members wear. There are six or eight of the jackets in a row. I fight the urge to try on one of them, but then again, I would need a length of material added to the waistline before I could slip in comfortably. I deduce they must be for the ballet dancers, who require their stage costumes to be refined and vulnerable. It's those outfits that remain in the storage rooms near the stage. The opera costumes, which are big and grandiose, are housed at the bigger storage units at the end of town.

This industry fluctuates between sustained doses of hard work and outbursts of sheer madness. Sometimes, the sewing room is given advance notice of a show. Sometimes a new show calls for foreign expertise. When it does, a costume designer is flown in from abroad, along with a choreographer and an assistant or two. Then a familiar routine develops. The choreographer puts the dancers to work in shifts - the principal dancers separate from the back-ups - with Kamel and the local coaches pitching in.

Meanwhile, in the sewing room, the foreign designer explains to the 20-plus team of cutters, sewers, embellishers, and fitters how to put together the set costumes. "We find most of the material in the local market, but sometimes we have to compromise," says Heba Ismail, the resident costume designer. "There are a lot of good fabrics here, but frankly not always as good as what you can get from abroad."

It takes four to five weeks to prepare for a two- or three-act show. In an average year, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company stages three or four shows, two or three from their repertoire and one or two new productions. There are budget and time limitations involved when it comes to foreign productions, as Kamel explains. She is planning two new shows for next year, one with the French and another with the Russians.

Ballet and opera are precision businesses. Like brain surgery or basketball, they require a lot of talent and training. "In Italy, there are four ballet academies, so you get eight or so high-level graduates per year on average," says Kamel. "In Egypt, there is only one academy, so this means you'll only get two good dancers on average every year." Ballet dancers start training at seven or eight. Kamel, who studied at La Scala's Ballet Academy, an associate of La Scala Theatre in Milan, remembers how every year people dropped out of the class. "We were 35 in the beginning, and [eventually] only six students were left."

Of that class, only Kamel and another girl gained acceptance into the professional dance corps of La Scala Ballet Company. She joined the Cairo Ballet Company as a principal dancer in 1982. Most ballerinas call it quits in their thirties, some earlier. A few manage to hang on until their mid-forties and fewer still - such as England's legendary Margot Fonteyn - dance after the age of 50. "The older dancers either dance roles made for [them], or they modify the movements to suit them," Kamel tells me.

Opera singers are a bit luckier in that regard: they start training as teenagers, and can go on as long as their voices can carry them. Luciano Pavarotti, who died aged 71 in 2007, sang practically until the end. As for costuming, the opera singers are meant to strut around in heavy material and stiff outfits, heavily bejewelled and beaded in many cases. Dancers' clothes, not surprisingly, need to be strong yet soft, elastic and unencumbered.

The classic tutu is a good example: it's strong enough to defy gravity yet remains utterly gossamer thin. To keep the skirts perfectly round and nearly horizontal, they are sewn around perfect circles of wiring. Kamel opens a box of tutus from The Nutcracker and spreads one on top of a big wooden storage box. Even without the ballerina inside, it makes me think of a Degas painting, dreamy and delicate.

"When we put too many studs and beads on the tutus, the ballerinas complain. They always do, and then they dance anyway," the former ballerina says and chuckles. "I used to complain a lot myself." Kamel is not complaining any more, though. It's the turn of the younger to fit into impossibly small tutus and to dance. She folds the tutu, brushes it with a soft, almost theatrical stroke of her hand, and returns it to the antiqued wooden box. Perhaps the same one that once held costumes she used to wear.