A Life Story - Ballet costumier Andrew Pfeiffer dies, 69

Royal New Zealand Ballet costumier Andrew (Pfeiff) Pfeiffer
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Royal New Zealand Ballet costumier Andrew (Pfeiff) Pfeiffer

Andrew Carl (Pfeiff) Pfeiffer, senior Royal New Zealand Ballet costumier: b Barossa Valley, South Australia, January 22, 1948; d Wellington, March 3, 2017, aged 69.

A good costume helps a dancer get into character. It makes you move the way you're supposed to.

So said Andrew Pfeiffer, better known as Pfeiff, who spent the better part of his career making "gravity defying" costumes for dancers at the Royal New Zealand Ballet company.

Costumier Andrew Pfeiffer, specialised in millinery for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Costumier Andrew Pfeiffer, specialised in millinery for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

It was a raw talent that propelled Pfeiff along in his career. He made it to the top of his game without any formal education and despite, or in spite of, a careers adviser telling him he'd never amount to anything more than a valet.

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Born in Angaston, in the Barossa Valley, South Australia, Pfeiff's fate as a costumier was sealed from an early age.

He and his two sisters were raised by their  linesman father and dressmaker mother.

As a small child Pfeiff was fascinated with textiles and spent endless hours with his mother in her sewing room, cutting up materials and making dresses for his sisters' dolls.

He refused to accept the advice of the careers adviser and begged his parents to allow him to leave school to find his own path in the world.

They agreed and, after a brief stint as a bag boy at a department store, he found a job as a window dresser. There followed a period in the  clothing factory Timer Fashions in Adelaide,  where he started as a 'dogsbody' before moving on to pattern-making and eventually designing. 

"I learnt pretty quickly to get patterns right. In the beginning I would get told 'that's wrong' and off I would go till I figured it out. I was there for 10 years. It was the best way to learn," he told the Manawatu Standard in 2014.

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Pfeiff moved on to work as a fabric cutter for fashion designer Walter Kristenson.

While there he moonlighted making costumes for the Boy Scouts Gang Show Theatre. When a bigwig from the State Opera of South Australia came to one of these shows he was so impressed by the costumes he offered Pfeiff a job whenever he was ready.

Two years later he joined the opera company, where he would spend the next decade honing his craft.

He particularly loved making costumes for ballets so his next step over the ditch felt natural move.

The story of how Pfeiff secured his job with the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) is legendary.

While still at the State Opera of South Australia he received a call from the RNZB. His former colleague, Paul Warren, had applied for a job and had listed him as a referee. Pfeiff remarked that Warren, whom he had mentored, was "OK" but that he was better. Pfeiff was offered the job on the spot.

Despite being nudged out of the running, Warren, who went on to become a hugely successful designer, and Pfeiff remained friends.

Joining the company in 1986, Pfeiff started out as a pattern cutter and moved up the ranks, ending up as senior costumer. His speciality was as a milliner 

At a time when the company had an extremely limited budget, Pfeiff was able to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, taking the cheapest materials and crafting them into the finest costumes.

Former RNZB general manager Sue Paterson said Pfeiff garnered huge respect for his work.

"He was self taught and had incredible skills that are so rare these days."

 But the real beauty about Pfeiff was his ability to work with designers, she says.

"He loved working with the greats – Tracy Grant Lord, Kristian Fredrikson – and was able to realise their designs so well."

Designing Fredrikson's elaborate and gravity-defying costumes for Cinderella in the 1980s and realising designs for Allen Lee's Romeo and Juliet were career highlights for him, she says.

Pfeiff was known for his wicked sense of humour but also his no nonsense attitude toward his work.

Andrew Lees, technical director at the RNZ Ballet, said Pfeiff was pretty staunch when it came to the care of his beloved costumes. He recalled him going "absolutely ballistic" when he saw a dancer tossing a hat aside after a performance.

"He took pride in his work and tried to instil that into others in the department as well as the dancers. He could come across as brusque but there was always a good reason for that."

Pfeiff, who toured with the company on more than 100 occasions, had a passion for the job and was often found tinkering away on some costume late into the night and during the weekend.

"He never expected remuneration or credit for this extra work he put in. That was just him. He just did his utmost to make it all perfect. We used to joke that we should have had an apartment built into the new premises at the St James for Pfeiff because he was always here."

When Pfeiff became unwell he reduced his work to four days a week. For someone who spent 98 per cent of his life at work, this was difficult for him, friend and colleague Nigel Boyes says.

"He struggled with the idea that he would not be able to work," Boyes says. "We were his family and he needed to be here so on the days he was strong enough we would pick him up and bring him into work where we had set up a La-Z-Boy. We would bring him cups of coffee and ask his advice about various costumes."

RNZ Ballet Dancer William Fitzgerald spent every day with Pfeiff in his last few months. Pfeiff began sharing a patchwork of stories with Fitzgerald to paint a picture of his life – from his beginnings as a young gay man in Australia when being homosexual was illegal, to his move to New Zealand, which became his home and the ballet company his family.

He was unable to finish work on his oral history but was adamant that he had got where he wanted to go in life, leaving a legacy of patterns for future costumers.

Sources: Manawatu Standard (Carly Thomas), Sue Paterson, William Fitzgerald, Nigel Boyes, Andrew Lees, Jennifer Shennan.

 - Stuff

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