In the costume atelier, I showed the businessmen all the beautiful costumes, and they were immediately impressed. So much decoration, so many details. And everything tailor-made to the dancer or singer who has to perform in it. Now they suddenly understood why it’s not cheap to stage one of those little ballets. One of the sponsors naturally wanted to know what I might be going to spend his money on and asked me if all these details and subtleties are really necessary. After all, the audience is far removed from the stage, there’s a lot of light shining on the costumes and they’re worn by dancers who are twisting in and out of all sorts of poses and movements. So how much do you actually notice of all that tailoring and decoration? Wouldn’t it be better to switch to simpler and therefore cheaper costumes? It’s a good question. To which I answered, in an attack of great profundity, “You only notice it when it’s not there”.
Because if you’d let the dancers and singers perform in cheap fabrics, in costumes that didn’t fit properly, in worn-out leotards, with no detail and finish, then it would be noticeable straight away. It would strike a false note and be irritating. It would drag down the quality of the whole performance.
“You only notice it when it’s not there”. It could be a saying from one of the Netherlands’ most important philosophers, Johan Cruijff. But it isn’t – it’s mine (just so you know). This profundity, albeit worded differently, underlay the inception of the Master Cutter course, which was officially opened last Thursday. At The Amsterdam Music Theatre, we became increasingly aware of what is lacking nowadays – namely the true, pure craftsmanship of a skilled cutter. Slowly but surely, it started to become apparent that applicants for jobs in the opera and ballet costume ateliers no longer had the right skills and knowledge. And that the training courses in the Netherlands no longer meet the demands of the practice, at least not where quality is concerned. Only when we took a good look at the fashion and retail trade as well did we really see it: the cutter’s profession is dying out.
Maybe the same complaint applies to other professions as well. As our society becomes more transient and therefore more superficial, craftsmanship is being pushed ever further into the background. “Doing something with your hands” is in any case not cool. Let alone doing something with those hands for so long and to such an extent that you become really skilled at it. Craftsmanship demands the 10,000-hour rule, which is so familiar in the worlds of sport and the performing arts. To become really good at something and to achieve real routine, you need to spend at least 10,000 hours on it. And the current vocational training system just doesn’t provide for that anymore.
It was October 2008 when this problem first came to light at The Amsterdam Music Theatre, in the ‘Creative Industry Sector Scan’ carried out by the city council as part of the project ‘Topstad’. And that got the ball rolling. In April 2009, the council appointed a project leader, and this was soon followed by the decision to create a specific course to train cutters to reach the highest level. A cooperative venture was set up between the theatre sector, the fashion branch and the clothes retail industry; a collaboration aimed at guaranteeing a top-quality training course. But first everything had to be designed, including the curriculum and business plan. And there had to be a board, funding was necessary and accommodation had to be considered, etc., etc. And it succeeded – partly thanks to the efforts of many colleagues in The Amsterdam Music Theatre. In two years’ time, a training course rose up out of nowhere and was housed in a former school building in the Amsterdam district De Baarsjes. The first students will be starting after the summer holiday.
It was sometimes touch and go whether it would all work out, as this initiative could easily have fallen between two stools and sunk into oblivion again. It’s not a real school and doesn’t receive normal education funding. But neither is it a traditional work training company. So it is quite unique in its kind, and hopefully it will soon be quite unique in its achievements as well.
“You only notice it when it’s not there” may sound very profound. At least I think so myself. But in relation to the Master Cutter course, you could also think up another saying: “You only notice it because it’s there”. Because the Master course that now exists will show everyone that this is the direction we have to take to reinstate craftsmanship in our country. To be able to honour the talent of young and motivated people and not to waste it. To give craftsmanship the recognition it deserves once more.< blog archive