Ballet-goers have long been enchanted by the classical combination of birds and dance: think Swan Lake or The Firebird. But in Aviary, the latest production from Phillip Adams’ Balletlab, the feathered creatures on stage are a very different flock to the traditional ballet birds.
“These are sort of crazy, possessed birds,” milliner Richard Nylon explains as he finishes work on his elaborate headpieces for the production. “They don’t cruise around on a mystic lake waiting for their prince to come along. They’re more fierce than that.”
Nylon’s creations – you couldn’t call them hats – are famously fierce too. Each piece reflects the imagination and innovation that have helped established him as one of Australia’s most talented milliners.
Developed in association with The Australian Ballet and premiering at the Melbourne Festival in October, Aviary was inspired by French composer Olivier Messiaen’s musical explorations of birdsong in his Catalogue d’oiseaux (1958). It’s a sumptuous celebration of spectacle and display, incorporating the skills of a team of artists, including Toni Maticevski (costume design) Gavin Brown (curtain design) and Matthew Bird (nest design).
And shining forth dazzlingly from amongst this bowerbird’s nest of talent are Nylon’s spellbinding headpieces.
The millinery designs for Aviary reflect each act’s distinct personality. “Act 1 probably alludes the most to classical ballet,” Nylon says, referring to the symmetrical, black-and-white palette that is distantly reminiscent of Swan Lake. “Yeah, it’s sort of like Baron von Rothbart on steroids, some of it,” he says with a laugh.
The black-and-white colour scheme is interspersed with silver, an inspiration Nylon drew directly from the bowerbird’s nest. “There’s mirrors on the headpieces, because they like shiny things,” he says. “Also, it’s about vanity and preening.”
The second act is built around the persona of the flamboyant dandy. For these pieces, Nylon creates elaborate moustaches and beards using feathers. “I just think it’s fun, and it’s gotta be funny as well,” he says. “There’s parts of this ballet that are actually quite humorous.”
In the final act, Nylon interweaves his own characteristic creative accents into a design based on the traditional headpieces worn by Papua New Guinean tribesmen. Nylon’s versions are imbued with such life you almost believe they could flap away at the end of the show.