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"Artistic directors everywhere now are visually blind"

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I was just reading The Arts Desk's obituary of Yolanda Sonnabend, which includes a 2006 interview with her:


I thought her comments were interesting:


"Most of those ballets of [Diaghilev's] you just couldn't improve, I wouldn't redesign any of them. Think of Petrushka, Les Noces, Jeux, L'Après-midi d'un faune. Artistic directors everywhere now are visually blind – they have almost no outside knowledge."


I take her point, bearing in mind various redesigns of ballets over the years - although in some cases perhaps they (or the designers?) could be regarded as "artistically deaf" as well, since very often the designs are at total variance with the music too?  Do ADs and potential ADs need greater exposure to art and design in general, do you think?

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I use a few examples (whether we like the results or not is another matter) to suggest things have moved on from 2006:

  • almost everything done by Wayne McGregor at the RB;
  • Liam Scarlett's narrative pieces (Sweet Violets heavily influenced by works of Sickert, Age of Anxiety by works around NYC by 20th century artists, Hansel & Gretel by popart);
  • the Titian 2012 programme and the interplay between choreographers, composers and artists.
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I use a few examples (whether we like the results or not is another matter) to suggest things have moved on from 2006

Gosh yes, anyone remember that Fire Exercise ballet, where the "backdrop" video was so sensational (all meanings) I for one missed the dancing completely the first time I saw the piece and went back, shielding my eyes so as to be able to concentrate!


Yolanda might of course have argued that it was "visually blind" to try and mix live dancing with such imagary but I was amazed and excited by what I was seeing.

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Everyone needs greater exposure to the visual arts.Although we are told quite regularly that we are now more visually literate than people were in the past you don't see much evidence of that visual awareness in daily life.Artistic directors need to be visually aware. The problem is that unless we develop our appreciation of the visual arts when we are young we are unlikely to develop the habit later in life least of all when we are suddenly faced with all the problems inherent in running a large organisation.


It seems to me that the generation of dancers and choreographers who began working when the Diaghilev company and its immediate successors were performing the Diaghilev repertory could not help but be aware of the importance of design in the creation and performance of a ballet.The dominant idea at that time was of ballet as a theatrical work in which music,choreography and design combine to create a complete theatrical artwork which cannot be altered without affecting the the way that the audience experiences it. In other words there was a recognition that the design of a ballet was as important as its music and that changing either element alters how an audience perceives the work.


Good design assists the dancer by establishing time,place and mood in a ballet with a narrative element,early nineteenth century St Petersburg in Petrushka and mood and in an abstract one like Les Sylphides.Even details such as the choice of material and the cut of a costume will affect how the audience perceives the dancer's movements by constricting the movement or amplifying and enhancing it.Surprisingly today many people seem to regard design as mere decoration that should be altered regularly to stop audiences becoming bored.Ashton's Cinderella provides a good example of this approach to ballet design.


The problem is that so few people seem to be aware of the impact that costumes have on a ballet as experienced by an audience and many appear indifferent to the impact of lighting on visibility in a large theatre.Of course if you only see abstract ballets with designs that are either of the knicker and vest variety or the standard Balanchine style design of tee shirts, tights,tunics and one piece bathing costumes you are going to have a very limited idea of how much design can make or mar a ballet.You may not even notice it.


Much as I admired Dowell as a dancer I thought that his design decisions revealed the blindness which Sonnabend was complaining about. Unfortunately one of those productions which failed on the design front were her own designs for Dowell's 1987 Swan Lake. It was a production which was swamped by her idea of alluding to Faberge jewellery in the designs.The concept ridden designs were far too realistic and time specific in act one and excessively vulgar and bling ridden in act three; the choice of romantic style costumes for the female corps made it impossible to regard the work as a classical one while the choice of a black floor in act three rendered the prince's dancing virtually invisible.Then there was the Bjornson Sleeping Beauty of 1994 with its skewed architecture which gave the impression that the palace had run aground and was sinking and the redesigns of a number of Ashton's works.


Daphnis and Chloe redesigned in 1994 by Martyn Bainbridge. The new designs replaced the modern mythic world which Ashton and Craxton had created and replaced it with a dull ballet that was more concerned with alluding to ancient Greece than the quality of the dancers' movement.The women's costumes replacing the full skirts of the original design looked a bit like chitons and rather than amplifying their movements constricted them.The overall effect of the new designs was to destroy both the mood and the look created by the original ones and to distance the action of the ballet rather than making it immediate.The exhilaration of the corps' movement in the final scene was completely lacking as their movements no longer reflected the music. Then there was the 1995 redesign of Rhapsody by Patrick Caulfield which dissatisfied people even more than the original designs had done and finally the redesign in 2000 of Les Rendezvous.This design managed to make a nonsense of Ashton's floor plan and destroyed the mood of the ballet. The costumes no longer alluded to the early nineteenth century but to different periods of the twentieth century thus breaking the connection between the music and design.The men were dressed as if they were dancing in Facade while the the women's costumes were 1950 style big skirts and long virulently pink marigold style gloves.


As far as Mac Gregor's works are concerned the design decisions are a puzzle.Is the lighting atmospheric through indifference to the bulk of the audience or so we don't notice how quickly he has descended into cliche?Are elements like the backdrop video and all the other features that distract you or render the dancer's movements difficult to see deliberate or the result of incompetence?Unlike MacGregor whose works so often seem to be overwhelmed by the designs Scarlett seems to have a firm grasp of what design can do to enhance his choreography.

Edited by FLOSS
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