Riverdance--The Show officially made its Broadway debut on March 16 at the Gershwin Theatre. In the weeks leading up to the big night, the cast and crew were spending morning, noon, and night refining this latest incarnation of what has become the world's most-copied dance/theatre sensation. Set designer Robert Ballagh was in the midst of the harried rehearsals, and no one was more thrilled--or surprised--to be there than he.
Originally educated as an architect, Ballagh's main profession is actually painting; his work is represented in many important collections, including the National Gallery of Ireland and the Albrecht Durer House, in Nuremberg, Germany. He has also worked as a professional musician, an engineering draftsman, and a graphic artist--most notably of many Irish postal stamps and the country's current banknotes (until the Euro completely takes over). As a theatrical set designer, his singularly minimalist style has led many innovative directors to seek him out. Still, designing sets was only a fraction of his artistic pursuits until the phenomenon known as Riverdance burst upon the world.
"Most people in the States don't realize that Riverdance began as just a seven-minute slot during the Eurovision song contest," Ballagh explains. "Eurovision consists of mainly amateur acts from about 30 European countries singing original songs, and then the judges vote for a winner. It's mainly an exercise in mediocrity, but it's incredibly popular. So, while the TV stations are hooking up to all the countries, an interval act performs. Normally, the act is just a filler, but Moya Doherty, the show's producer, wanted to do something different as well as something very Irish--but Irish in a very modern and exciting way."
Working with composer Bill Whelan, Doherty came up with Riverdance, and Eurovision's huge audience of 500 million was blown away by the performance. "I wasn't involved at all at that stage, but I had worked with Bill Whelan before, so I just called him up to express my delight in the show, never thinking that I was going to get involved in it. Some time later, Moya contacted me because they were considering doing a theatre show built around the performance they'd done. Slowly but surely, the package was put together and I became involved."
Doherty's vision for the theatrical production featured several immense images behind the dancers. "The only way we could do it was through big back projection, so that's how that concept developed," Ballagh explains. "In talking with her and John McColgan, her husband, who became the director of the theatrical production, we developed the idea that the space should be very simple and clutter-free. It was going to be a dance show with quite a lot of dancers, so you couldn't have scenery all over the place."
Also, Doherty clearly stated that she didn't want computer-generated images. "She felt that in tune with this kind of traditional music and dance, the images should be hand-crafted," Ballagh says. "So I generated all the images by creating small oil paintings on canvas. I did about fifty or sixty 2' x 1' paintings, which became the source of all the imagery we use. Then modern technology took over and the images were photographed and digitized so they could be rear-projected onto a screen behind the dancers. We designed it for the first time in Dublin, but it's been a very organic project. In the beginning, most of us thought we'd get maybe six weeks of work out of this project and then we'd all go on to something else."
That was five years ago. Following its wildly successful run at Dublin's Point Theatre, Riverdance--The Show moved onto London and into the Apollo Hammersmith, where it ran for over a year (with some breaks). "The show had to be completely redesigned for that space because we couldn't use rear projection, so we used front projection and that brought with it all sorts of new problems," Ballagh explains. "There were two projector stations. One was up high, just behind the proscenium, projecting down onto a screen just behind the dancers. Then we had another projector stationed in the theatre's projection box (because it was an old cinema), which projected onto a very large, built proscenium. It was very difficult for the dancers, because there were no wings, so they had to be quite careful as they exited the stage. Still, the show had a wonderful intimacy there."
New York City's Radio City Music Hall was the next big adventure. With its huge stage and auditorium, it was the opposite scenario. "We completely redesigned it again," Ballagh says. "We set up three screens, so it was quite a panoramic view."
That production extended its run, which more than paid off the cost of the new set. Having achieved international success, the next decision was to tour. "All of these had been one-off presentations in theatrical situations, so we built an amended version," Ballagh says. "We toured both in the UK and America and then the company split into two companies. So we developed an arena version, which went into large theatres in the US. It was the three-screen version and it was carefully designed to travel. All the flats broke down to fit into trucks and the lighting trusses were folded down so they could meet the tight schedules."
However, this large-scale touring production could only fit in so many venues. "The continuing problem was that there is quite a large band which is not a pit orchestra, so we had to accommodate them on a bandstand stage right," Ballagh says. "The downside of that is that you lose anywhere from 100-500 seats in any theatre you go into, which doesn't make sense to promoters. So the producers came up with a question for the design team: could we come up with a version of Riverdance that would be just as exciting but could travel faster and play in 2,000-seat theatres with smaller stages?"
Answering the challenge, the design team created yet another version of Riverdance that was launched two years ago in Vancouver. It's called the Lagan company. (All the companies are named after rivers in Ireland.) "This was truly a complete change from a design point of view," Ballagh says. "The real task was to change it and yet retain the original's energy and excitement. The first element to go was projection, because we had to get the band out of the audience and up onto the stage. In this version the band is centerstage, on a specially built bandstand. I joked that after designing the bandstand, I'd be qualified to design submarines because it was so meticulous and done on two levels."
Finally, with Riverdance on Broadway, the creative team has put together a show that incorporates the best elements from each one of the different productions. "For Broadway, you naturally want to put your best foot forward, as it's the musical theatre pinnacle in the world," Ballagh says. "We have a show here that has both back projection and flying scenic items. That's fine on paper but, when you start to put it all together, it gets tricky. We've got sliding, traveling goods and moon boxes and suns flying in and out. The difficulty is getting them out of the way when we go to projections. Of course, we're also flying the projection screen in and out because it's in the way. The concept seems to be working."
Ballagh created new images to go with new numbers that have been added to the show. "Otherwise, the core images have remained fairly constant throughout this whole period," says the designer. "When we started out, the projection represented a huge learning curve for everyone, because we were doing it on such a grand scale. Since we've beendoing this, the technological developments on that side have been extraordinary. What we're doing now on Broadway would have been impossible two years ago because of the space available; for back projection you need a lot of room."
Hardware Xenon projectors provided by Creative Technologies Ltd. have eradicated an initial flicker problem. "Mainly, depth was the biggest issue, so they finally developed a lens that can project an image about 20' wide with the projector only about 12' away," Ballagh explains. "It's extraordinary. There has been technological development that has gone along hand in glove with our very traditional design approach. Actually, that sums up Riverdance--it's a cultural expression of tradition both in music and dance but presented in a modern and sophisticated way."
Ballagh's partner in the show's visuals, lighting designer Rupert Murray, enjoys collaborating with the designer. "Since Bobby is also a painter and an architect, among other things, he has a very broad design and artistic background," says the LD. "That makes him rather good fun to work with because he doesn't necessarily approach design the way a lot of other set designers do. He's always very much aware of what lighting can do to and for a set. Other designers will sometimes just present a set and that's that. But Bobby will always include me in his thoughts and approach to the design. We understand each other and what each other does, so our method of working is very in tune."
Murray first worked with Ballagh on the 1984 production I'll Go On, a one-man play based on three Samuel Beckett novels. "It was a huge success--and it still is, really," says the LD. "We're actually doing it again at the Barbican in London later this year. We just understood each other from the word go. It's fun to work together on a little jewel like that and then come and work on a huge and wonderful Broadway megashow like this."
I'll Go On also marked Ballagh's entree into theatre design. "Michael Colgan [director of Dublin's Gate Theatre] asked me to do it," the designer says. "My design was apparently viewed as both startling and original--probably due purely to the fact that I knew nothing about it. Sometimes that can happen. You try approaches that other people wouldn't dare because you don't know any better. It was a very minimal set, but it was dressed in neon, which became an integral part not only of the design, but of the performance. Rupert and I worked very closely on that production; he was very good about answering all my questions."
As a theatre novice, Ballagh admits he had a lot to learn. "All the terms that everyone who has grown up in the theatre know, like upstage and downstage, meant nothing to me," he says. "Indeed, the honest approach is to say, 'I don't know,' when you truly don't know, but you can't keep saying that all the time. So I pretended to understand the language and slowly picked it up."
With his architectural training, Ballagh did not have the same learning curve for set construction. "the actual craft, or trade end, of theatre is no different than building a house," he says."So I found all of that very easy."
The designer soon developed a reputation for his particularly striking design style. "I did Oscar Wilde's Salome with director Steven Berkoff in 1988. The Gate is actually resurrecting that same production later this year. That set was quite a simple--all of my sets are," Ballagh says. "If somebody is discussing theatre design with me, it means that they are already thinking of a particular approach, which tends to be minimal or abstract.
"Theatre, to me, is about artifice," he continues. "I've never designed naturalistic sets. Some people are very good at that, but I'm not interested in perfectly recreating a natural situation. I'd much prefer working with people and designing a space that actors can perform in and create the magic of theatre. Obviously, it only suits certain kinds of shows and plays."
Director Patrick Mason enlisted Ballagh to design his 1987 adaptation of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for the Gate Theatre. "He wanted to do a very different production and it was very minimal," explains the designer. "Most people's memories of this play stem from the film version with Michael Redgrave and all the pretty frocks and beautiful rooms. Ours was not like that; it was modern dress. It was quite a good production, although very controversial. Lots of people hated it because they go to shows like that to see the frocks.
"We didn't change the text at all. There were a few anachronisms, but Patrick decided better to live with those than interfere with Wilde's words," Ballagh continues. "The whole idea was to point out the validity of Wilde to his time as well as to ours. As this was in the 80s, Margaret Thatcher was always talking about a return to Victorian values. Wilde spent his time pointing out the hypocrisy of so-called Victorian values. So Lady Bracknell, instead of being a dotty, crinoline-garbed old lady, was a much younger actress. The girls were very much like Diana and Fergie and the guys were like the kind of stockbrokers you find in London. None of this was laid on with a shovel, but it certainly pointed out the validity of the text. It was still very witty and funny, but there was also an undercurrent of strong social commentary, which was still relevant to our time."
To counteract the lavishness of a traditional version of this show and point out the artifice of it, Mason had Ballagh build a huge gilt frame for the set. "Then, the space that was created had a perspective checkerboard floor, so there was a hint there that they were all pawns. At the back, echoing the frame in the front, there was a big, framed portrait of Queen Victoria staring down on everyone. I even designed furniture for that because Patrick was fussy about every detail."
In 1993, Ballagh added another design aspect to his resume when the Central Bank of Ireland held a closed competition for the design of its new banknotes and his submission won. They are still in circulation today, although they will be phased out in about two years, when the country begins using the Euro exclusively.
Other plays Ballagh has lent his talents to include: Bat the Father Rabbit the Son, The Wake, and A Night in November. Last summer he oversaw the set design for Brian Friel's Aristocrats at Lincoln Center. And he continues to work on unique projects. "One of the biggest clients I have is the Druid's Glen Golf Club, where the Irish Open is held every year," Ballagh explains. "I did a few artworks myself, and also supervised the commissioning and purchase of other artworks. Because the clubhouse is quite a nice old 18th-century house, the artworks had to be very well chosen. You couldn't put avant-garde modern art in there."
Having finished his work for the time being on Riverdance, Ballagh has returned to Ireland, where his numerous portrait commissions have been piling up. But before he departed, the designer branched out into yet another design avenue by contributing several jewelry designs for the show. They are being sold in the theatre's lobby. "It will be nice to be home for a while, but the best part of Riverdance for me was that it's given me the opportunity to work with some really wonderful people all over the world," he says. "I've met and worked with some extraordinarily talented backstage people. That's been a great experience."