New York City Ballet (NYCB)'s The Seven Deadly Sins, features sets by Beowulf Boritt. “I hadn’t designed a dance piece before,” admits Boritt. “It was a bit overwhelming to have my first assignment right at the top of the field at NYCB, but I’ve been a fan of the company for years and seen a lot of its work, so I knew the basic rule: don’t clutter up the floor. But conceptually, I knew it needed to be abstracted somehow since it’s a story told by song and movement. That was what led to each sin being color-coded, so that, though the objects were often fairly realistic, the single color of each scene would force them out of pure reality. I thought of each sin as a snapshot. They are short movements, five to seven minutes each, so the set had to give the viewer essential information, and nothing else, or it would have gotten cluttered and overwhelming.”
Boritt was able to hire his favorite props supervisor, Buist Bickley, to provide all the props. “He had to get the items for the dancers and LuPone to rehearse with, and then we had about a week in a shop in Brooklyn where Buist toned all the items to the correct color for the individual scenes. The 10'-long craft services table in ‘Gluttony’ was a particular challenge, as it had to be covered with food and other food-related items that could all realistically be pinkish.”
There are a total of nine scenes, but since the second one, “Sloth,” plays in a black void, Boritt designed eight different sets, quite a few for a company that most often performs on a bare stage. “Our budget was relatively small for that many sets, especially given how large the stage is at NYCB,” Boritt explains. “A drop has to be 60' wide and 40' tall. Once I had the designs pulled together, Perry Silvey and Marquerite Mehler, the fantastic NYCB production managers, were worried we couldn’t afford it, but I asked if we could bid it out early and see, and then have time to adjust.” Because they had four months to build it, and because it was a chance to work with NYCB, the shops bid aggressively. “I was able to afford the whole show being built at PRG Scenic Technologies, with whom I’ve worked many times,” Boritt adds. I. Weiss created the soft goods, including the pink photo-studio seamless for “Gluttony,” and the striped drop for “Greed.”
In choosing colors for each sin, Boritt found that some locations were easier than others. “For example, early on, Lynne wanted ‘Lust’ to be set in two adjoining hotel rooms, so that was one of the earlier looks we figured out,” he says. “My goal was, as it is in many designs, to put as little scenery on stage as possible to get across the idea, so two beds and two doors seemed like enough to create the scene.”
Originally, Boritt wanted to add touches that would indicate the city each scene was set in. “For ‘Lust’ in Boston, I had a big neon sign that said ‘Colonial Motel,’ but we decided we didn’t need that in the end,” he says. “The literal locations of the cities are not actually all that important to the story, as Brecht and Weill had not come to America yet when they wrote it and were just using names that they liked with no real knowledge of the character of each city. Originally, we’d thought this scene would be red, but since ‘Lust’ is the love story section of the piece, we decided to go to a pale blue/lavender to support the lovely pas de deux that Lynne choreographed. ‘Greed’ is textually confusing and took us a while to crack, but we settled on it being a posh upper-class setting and did a giant abstract drawing room all in black and white stripes.”
Boritt conceived all the drops as printed items to make them less expensive to produce, so originally all the paint elevations were high-res digital files. However, because the drops had to be so large and couldn’t be seamed, it turned out to be less expensive to have them painted. “Scenic Art Studios has a long relationship with NYCB, so I had the good fortune to work with them on the drops,” Boritt adds.
Tech time became the next challenge. “I think, in the commercial theatre, we’d probably take at least four days of 10-12s to tech a piece of this complexity,” Boritt explains. In addition to the tech time in February, they had about 12 hours, spread over five days in two-to-three hour blocks, before opening to tech and dress the ballet. “It was exhausting and a bit nerve-wracking because it was so fast and intense,” says Boritt.
Once the director and set designer decided on the principal color for each scene, Kantrowitz and Boritt began to collaborate. “Initially, we thought that Jason would color the gray dance floor to match each of the colors of the set, but in tech, we realized everything all one color became a bit overwhelming and muddy,” says Boritt. “When Jason toned things to allow the gray, or the black velour, to serve as a neutral, it made the colors of the set and clothes pop much more vibrantly.”
The designers found that some of the colors were more challenging than others. “The pink seamless drop in ‘Gluttony,’ for example was tricky to light,” notes Boritt. “It’s a bubble gum pink, but we went through a whole pile of gel trying to find the best tone to support it. In the end, it was a mixture of two pinky-lavenders that made it pop in just the right way. Jason and I also discussed all the translucent drops, to make sure I was hanging them where he could best light them.”
For Boritt, one of the most special moments was LuPone standing in front of a black void, singing, “We’re coming back to our little house in Louisiana.” “The black void irises open to reveal an obscenely large and lavish mansion, so large that it’s filling most of the huge stage and blotting out most of the sky and moon behind it,” says Boritt. “It’s a painted drop, with a third stair unit placed in front of it, and I thought it worked well. I don’t do a lot of painted drops, as I prefer dimensional scenery, but with the translucent sky around the house and the translucent glowing windows, I felt that it looked remarkably dimensional.”
This unique theatrical dance piece will be returning to New York City Ballet in February.