Frequent collaborators choreographer James Kudelka and designer Santo Loquasto have once again joined intellectual and visual forces to create a spectacular "millennial Swan Lake" for the National Ballet of Canada. Together with the tumultuous lighting effects of the National's resident lighting designer Robert Thomson, the century-old classic has been remounted without destroying its innate tradition or ignoring Tchaikovsky's haunting score.
"Every classic needs to be rethought with new logic and powerful archetypes to make it moving and relevant for a new generation," says Kudelka, the National's artistic director. Accordingly, he notes, Prince Siegfried's court is "a decaying bastion of martial values, repressive and authoritarian." The lake of the enchanted swans, ruled by Baron Von Rothbart, is no longer a source of evil. Their kingdom is natural, sensuous and joyful, a kinder, gentler nation. "Siegfried searches for a more flexible, egalitarian world and finds it in the country of the swans. Von Rothbart presides over this beautiful watery world and these wonderful swans, and his world will go on even after the court has been destroyed. Perhaps he's Nature, which is sometimes cruel. He rules the world of which the court is but a small part."
The production opens with a scrim--a view of the lake with a wrecked ship beached on rocks--which bleeds to eight swimming, robotic swans created by Walter Klassen FX. The surrealistic scene, foggy and murky, bleeds to Siegfried's gothic castle in the distance, its windows glowing with fiber-optic "candlelight." A 12' moonbox, equipped with one-hundred-forty-four 100W, silver-capped bulbs, is low on the horizon behind the castle and travels in a diagonal across the stage to reveal Von Rothbart. The hawkish, mystical character has huge wings and stands on a decaying crypt filled with skulls and skeletons. There are water images everywhere as Von Rothbart and the swans disappear, the castle tracks upstage in the distance, and the scrim is replaced by a "foresty" backdrop.
Two sets of stylized, prison-gate-like trees of steel and masonite, with a reflective but not mirror-like glossy finish, track in from the sides and a long, articulated, "spooky" bridge trucks in to set the hunt scene. As Siegfried and his friend Benno continue to hunt and the rest of the entourage returns to the castle, the lake turns dark and forbidding. Crossing trees trap the two in separate venues. Benno disappears as the scrim and backdrop change and a mass of reeds appear. A stark, simple background frames the swan corps and ensuing pas de deux. The marshy yellows and browns of the drop, ground-hugging mist and fog, and the water ripple effects of the lighting produce a destitute and ailing sight, a dark place which plays with every color of black, matte and glossy.
The castle exudes a medieval/oriental aura. A 60' x 30' wall with flying galleries is filled with twelve 7'-tall dummy vacuform soldiers. Stools and a throne are the only "furnishings." It conveys a formal, oppressive, and rigidly militaristic setting hung with nine large, bell-shaped lanterns, shaded in Tiffany-type, earthtone mosaics and bearing 2.5'-long tassels. The court celebrates the Prince's birthday while the wrath of Von Rothbart and the swans is unleashed. Lighting designer Thomson strobes an undulating full drop of black china silk to evoke the catastrophic storm. The dummy soldiers, lit from within, add to the intensity of visual chaos.
An electric-blue backdrop frames the aftermath of the devastation. The broken castle is visible in the distance, as is a giant pile of broken planks. A 70' x 24' length of "watery" fabric attached to the horizon and blown by fans controlled by the lighting computers, moves constantly, "lapping" around the remains of the castle as it slowly disappears behind the planks.
Loquasto's costumes are an integral component of this production. A corps of black swans joins its white counterpart, each wearing shaped tutus--the black "spiky" in sparkling shades of black, the white "swanny" in a range of mother-of-pearl. The black velvet bodices are decorated with "feathers" of 17 different fabrics, the white embroidered in sequins and pearls. Snoods, headdresses, trims, and jewels combine with Loquasto's array of colors and textures to paint magnificent tableaux. There is a perfect balance between the restraining laces and ties of the court and the free-floating, romantic costuming of the swans.
Knights sport a casual but dappled look. They are layered in multi-color combinations with brilliant blue tights and burned-out velvet atop cloque shirts with gold-and-blue trims. The court ladies' dresses have hanging sleeves lined in gold, their bodices, underskirts, and surcoats perfectly fitted in a variety of shades and all lushly trimmed. Four princesses are similarly clad, but in different colors and trims. They have sheer gold, pleated underskirts beneath their overskirts and eye-catching headdresses. The Fool is padded under a patchwork of muted, pieced fabric, and the servants wear bright, sheer gypsy culottes over pairs of thinner regularly-cut pants.
According to Loquasto, "No one is too lowly to costume to perfection--it's a world, and you've got to make that world right." The dancers respond accordingly, comporting themselves with assurance and pride. Wardrobe supervisor Marjory Fielding has nothing but praise for Loquasto. "He always gives a sense of the contemporary. His sketches keep growing and he keeps creating until the opening. He has a wonderful sense of color and fabrics. I love the way he puts colors together. Each piece is firmly in his head. James [Kudelka] finds costumes important. He comes to fittings, watches how the costumes move. He sometimes asks for changes and sometimes he changes the choreography to incorporate the costume."
Head cutter Angela Arana is also a fan. "It is more enjoyable, more challenging, to work with brilliance. Santo gives so much back; he recognizes when you've done something spectacular. Communication between cutter and designer makes all the difference. With great designers, you're working towards the same deadline, same goal. You give more than usual, you give themaximum, the most."
The National's director of production, James Thornley, is delighted. Swan Lake came in on time and within its $1.4 million (Canadian) budget. "It was wonderful having production meetings with James and Santo. You're never sure which is the choreographer and which is the designer. Both push everyone past what they think they can do. The shop met every challenge. When Santo said he wanted the pile of boards to look wet, decaying, like wood stuck in the muck of the Hudson River for centuries, that's what he got."
Thornley devised two miniature, totally independent flying systems to facilitate touring the production to 30 theatres in the next five years. Sets and costumes all fit into 20' containers on two and a half trucks and can be mounted in 16 hours.
Never one to slack off, while designing Swan Lake, Loquasto, inter alia, also worked on his umpteenth Woody Allen film; Morningstar for Steppenwolf in Chicago; and an opera version of A View from the Bridge for Chicago's Lyric Opera, a novelty for him. He is not as fond of dressing singers as dancers. "What I love about dance," he says, "is that it is such a life-affirming medium. Films are great, and I love theatre, of course, but dance, because it is so human, so cut to the bone, I find it exhilarating."