60 Years of Designing the Ballet

Tutu from the Tutu Project

From the Tutu Project, a supporting exhibition.

My dad was on the volunteer committee of the National Ballet of Canada when I was growing up.  This came with considerable perks for his ballet-loving young daughter who got to spend time back stage among the dancers and costumes, the most graceful hustle-bustle.  So I was especially excited that Toronto’s Design Exchange was hosting 60 Years of Designing the Ballet, a behind the scenes glimpse of the National Ballet of Canada’s design process from concept to stage.

The maquette or set model

The maquette is a mini stage that the designer creates in consultation with the choreographer. The model is to scale and allows the stage and set designer along with the choreographer to visualize and test ideas for the full and final version. The maquette also functions as the main instruction for production staff who build the sets, if you can believe.

German designed set brushes

Backdrops are painted on the floor of the Gretchen Ross Production Centre, painstakingly done in 4x4ft sections. Each full backdrop is 40x70 ft.

Set brushes attached to poles

Paint brushes for these backdrops cost $150 each and are imported from Germany. They are attached to long poles so painters can work from a standing position.

It’s a beautiful and thoughtfully curated exhibit including many archival pieces that transports you into the imagination of the choreographers, set and costume designers. Their principle function is to allow the dance to shine of course, but never at the cost of setting the stage to enhance storytelling, and always with glamour befitting the ballet. Designers of every piece of the staging puzzle must treat movement as an added dimension, from spring-loaded food trays that need to look as though they may topple, but never do as they are lept across the stage, to the inherent flexibility to the costumes.

early sketches of costumes

The exhibit includes this retrospective of costume drawings, works of art in themselves.

Headpiece and mask

Of course while the costume designers do take movement into their designs, that's not to say much of the work still doesn't fall to the dancers who dance in heavy costumes, elaborate headpieces, and masks that obscure their field of vision. These feats make them olympians, magicians.

Costumes and set pieces from a production of the Nutcracker including Clara's Russian Stove Bed

close up of the wardrobes

Costume of the Mouse King and his posse from The Nutcracker

The National Ballet of Canada, while celebrating only its 60th anniversary, has boasted some of the biggest names in modern day ballet. Celia Franca, who founded NBC, brought her strong connections with dancers and choreographers in Europe not to mention her formidable reputation, that grew more so during her long tenure with the company.  The NBC flourished under Franca, boasting talent like Baryshnikov who joined the company following his dramatic defection after a Toronto performance in 1974 and the imitable Eric Brohn as guest artist and finally artistic director.  This exhibition relishes these moments of history while also showcasing the ingenuity and innovation that goes into staging the ballet.  It’s glorious as it should be.

60 Years of Designing the Ballet at the Design Exchange

To September 2, 2012

234 Bay Street, Toronto, ON

10am – 5pm M-F 12pm – 5pm weekends

Admission $10.00

All photos by Deirdre Dimitroff

Posted in Culture, Design | Tagged ,

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