This season at New York City Ballet three very different dances came together in completely different ways, only one of which followed what could be called a typical design process. Morgen, choreographed by NYCB ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins and set to music by Richard Strauss, had set and costumes by Alain Vaes. Variations Sérieuses, set to music by Mendelssohn, was choreographed by former NYCB dancer Christopher Wheeldon, who was recently appointed its resident choreographer. It had set and costumes by Ian Falconer, who is best known for his work as an illustrator. Soirée, with music by Nino Rota and choreography by Richard Tanner, had costumes by NYCB assistant director of costumes Carole Divet, also a former NYCB dancer. All had lighting by resident designer Mark Stanley.
Morgen is the most classical of the three premieres: A series of nine duets danced by three couples, the choreography is both passionate and athletic and matches the emotion of the music. The romantic nature of the dancing is echoed in the design, creating a unified theme.
Martins began with a vision of large white columns dominating the stage; this transformed into a stylized idea of a palazzo terrace with an impressionistic landscape backdrop of misty blues and purples. LD Stanley says, "Originally Peter had conceived the piece with only columns and no backdrop. As soon as you put the backdrop behind the columns it totally changed the direction of the ballet visually, because it grounded it in a way that having the columns in a vacuum didn't."
The columns are painted with an abstract faux-granite look in grays and blues. Working with this, Stanley explains, "I tried to find that fine line in the lighting between reality and Impressionism. For example, the templates never hit the columns, they only were there as texture for the floor and the costumes. We brought in [Wybron] CXI [color-mixing] scrollers, and I used one of those on each column, and that allowed me to do subtle, long crossfades of color."
Color and texture were the keys to tying the design to the music and choreography. "I wanted all the colors to blend," Vaes says, "for the costumes to echo the backdrop and the columns' colors. I think it was the best choice for a romantic, melancholic ballet, not to have a hard contrast anywhere or a strong color standing out."
Stanley elaborates: "We didn't want to be doing major lighting shifts between each movement, but we did want to find as much variety as possible. I tried to tie the stage intensity to the musical intensity so that I ended up getting variety that flowed with the piece musically but there was continuity. The beginning of the last group of three, [star ballerina] Darci [Kistler]'s pas de deux, is the most dramatic of the nine--we lit that early on and said that's as far as we want to go in terms of intensity and non-reality, and we filled in the blanks."
The dappled texturing of the columns, backdrop, and lighting continues into the women's costumes, which are made of chiffon and burnout velvet. Vaes explains, "Peter wanted the women to be sort of magic. We worked very closely with Peter and I did hundreds of drawings. It's easier to make an abstract set than an abstract costume, so we went through a process of elimination of things until we found the right style."
The fabrics were dyed in NYCB's costume shop. "They did a tremendous job," Vaes says. "They experimented with different dyes and different fabrics. The pas de deux were very intricate, very athletic, a lot of lifts, so those costumes take a beating; they have to look very fragile although they're not."
"We started on this back in January or February," Stanley says (it premiered in May). "We had time, Peter had a vision of the piece early on, it followed a textbook process in a way that gave us a chance to be successful at that cohesion by the end." Vaes agrees. "Mark did an absolutely fantastic job lighting this and bringing things together. I was very pleased with the result; the whole thing worked together. I like Peter's work very much, and it's always a pleasure to work with him and with Mark and the whole team at NYCB."
As an artist, Ian Falconer has done 15 covers for The New Yorker magazine and has written and illustrated a best-selling children's book, Olivia! Since 1987, he has designed for theatre and opera but only a few ballets, all with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The first time they worked together, in 1999, Falconer had actually built a model of a set and wanted to show it to a choreographer. Eventually he was introduced to Wheeldon, who liked his design and re-choreographed a piece he was working on in order to use it.
This year their collaboration followed a similar process. Variations Sérieuses is a comical ballet about backstage life, rehearsals, and performances, with a cast of characters including a diva, a pretentious choreographer, and frazzled stagehands, and the design is literally from a behind-the-scenes point of view.
"I wanted to do the view from the wings onto the stage," Falconer says. "Forcing the perspective allowed the audience to see both the backdrop and out into the auditorium." Again, he built a model and showed it to Wheeldon. "It's a little restricting for a choreographer; it was hard for him to work the dancers into the forced perspective, to maintain that illusion. He'd ask, 'Is there enough room for people to get back behind there?' or 'I want people to be able to run around the backdrop so they can make an entrance from the other side of the stage,' but that worked pretty smoothly; that was pretty easy."
What wasn't easy was lighting it. "As you can imagine, when you're given a set like that, even if you're designing a one-off light plot it's a challenge; in repertory it's a whole different ballgame," says Stanley. "The biggest issue was keeping the number of specials and refocuses down. It was more of a technical challenge than a design one."
"I think it was a real pain in the ass for him," Falconer laughs, "because everything was going the wrong way from what they're used to. He managed to slip in a little followspot way up above the auditorium drop, which is on a slight curve, and he also would come and look at the model and say, 'If you could give me an extra foot here that would help me get something in there.'"
Stanley was supportive of the designer's vision. "When you have an illustrator doing scenery, you have to allow his style to be the predominant statement. You can't add another voice on top of that. He's predominantly known for his two-dimensional work, so you want that to be the style in which the production appears. What I was trying to do was just enhance that and provide some sort of logic to the performance space."
NYCB's scene shop fabricated faux footlights for the ballet-within-the-ballet. "It's five sections that hinge together in sort of a semi-circle, the largest holes being the downstage ones graduating to the upstage smaller holes," Stanley says. "It's very simple construction, black plywood, we painted the inside all white to get some additional bounce, and on the inside we stapled Lee 109 [light salmon] and some Lee 220 white frost. I reinforce it with lighting offstage so it looks like they're being lit from the footlights, but since it's pointed right toward the audience it's just done on 30%."
Falconer's costumes are slightly exaggerated for comic effect. The prima ballerina's tutu is a very bright pink and is a bit fluffier than would normally be seen onstage. For the ballet-within-the-ballet, all the costumes are pink, including those for the men, who wear pink tights and pink-and-black doublets with puffed and slashed sleeves.
"When we did the lighting and the first rehearsal without costumes, both Ian and the choreographer were concerned that there wasn't enough pink light," Stanley says. "I had actually much stronger pink than I would normally use [Lee 109, 110, 111], and I said, 'Just wait: When your costumes are out there they will be plenty pink.' That's what I mean by keeping in the Ian Falconer world. Once he makes a statement like that, you really have to go with it; by adding the extra pink light and pushing the costumes, it makes his drawing come to life."
The third premiere, Soirée, ran into a bit of a time crunch, but the production team at NYCB seems to take these things in stride. "That's just the nature of this particular choreographer," Stanley says philosophically. "Some want the visual framework done before they choreograph, but [Richard Tanner], until he's got the steps, in terms of specific visual things, it's hard to talk about them until the choreography's done."
As a former dancer, Carole Divet's knowledge of costumes from the inside out came into play in the design and execution of this project. "About two weeks before the premiere [Tanner] called me up and said, 'I have this idea of an upside-down tutu.' He showed me a book and what they might look like, and he said tropical fruit colors, and men that looked like a barbershop quartet." An upside-down tutu? "He wanted it a bit fluffy and sticking up," she says. "And then came all the problems of partnering: Is it really going to work? The man has to get to the girl's waist, and this is in the way. We had to make a practice one for them to try, to see if it would actually work, and get used to it. The dancers were pretty easygoing about it."
She made up just one sketch for the men's and women's costumes and that was pretty much it. "We did our little mockup tutu and we picked some colors from our Pantone books, and from there, there wasn't a whole lot of time to be really nitpicky about it. It was just get it done and go."
The unique skirt is made of a stiffer net than usual, and it protrudes only 10" from the women's hips, as opposed to 12" or 14" for a normal tutu. The bodices are silk charmeuse backed with net for a bit of give. "It's a thin bodice as opposed to a heavy bodice. The girls say it's very comfortable because it's very lightweight. The thing the choreographer and I really wanted to emphasize was the skirt: It was a different kind of skirt, so no headpiece, no nothing, just the colors."
Because of the bright colors specified, the costume shop had to dye the fabrics, and this posed several challenges. NYCB usually uses silk satin for bodices, as it "has a better memory for dancing, more lasting power than charmeuse," Divet says. But that material was not available in the colors needed and could not be dyed. "If you dye it, it cracks. You'd have to paint it, and we didn't have time. But in silk charmeuse we could get as many colors as we needed and whatever we didn't have we could dye."
The next problem was the skirt material. "It's a nylon netting; it's really like screening," Divet comments. "We had our dyer dye it the best she could to match the bodice fabric. Dyeing was a whole other difficult issue: It was hard to get the colors to be clean; it tended to turn a little gray or a little blue. The colors that had a little blue in them worked much better, but the other colors she had a bit of a harder time getting. I think she used some fluorescent dye, things like that; she called the company to find out what sort of chemical she should use."
Clean color was the key to this sparsely designed neoclassical ballet. "Technically, the costumes were a challenge," Stanley comments. "When I was in graduate school, we had a color theory teacher who used to assign us a project where someone would hand you two colors and you would have to find the third color that would make it work as a palette. That's how I approached it with these costumes. It was my job to find the third color that would make the picture work. It turned out to be variations on lavender. Once I settled on a backdrop color, I made a throughline of how I wanted that color to work and keyed the stage lighting off that."
All three spring premieres were critically well received. The New York Times praised Morgen as a "collaboration on the highest artistic level," and described Soirée's costumes as "witty," with a "wistful circus atmosphere evoked" in the lighting. The New York Post called Falconer's scenery "deliciously ingenious" and "the machine that runs the ballet." All three pieces will return for NYCB's winter season January 2 through February 24, 2002.
Photos by Paul Kolnik; sketches courtesy Alain Vaes, Ian Falconer, & Carole Divet.