Designer Gabriela Týlešová calls the delay of the National Ballet of Canada’s production of “Swan Lake” an unexpected blessing.
Týlešová, an award-winning set and costume designer who has worked on shows around the world, says the pause due to COVID-19 provided her and the ballet’s art department more time to perfect their work on the ornate costumes and lush sets for the production , which opened June 10.
“It’s been two years and I’m still loving the costuming. It doesn’t feel dated to me. It still feels great,” Týlešová said on a video call from Australia.
“The costume department had more time to really finish their work. The costumes are really detailed and they look just the way I wanted.”
Týlesová began talking about the production in 2016 with Karen Kain, then the ballet’s artistic director, and the person who directed and staged this new version of the classic. It was clear from the outset that her vision would require a darker esthetic while still embracing the traditional romance between Prince Siegfried and the white swan Odette.
All of the elements in front of the audience — from the costumes to the set design — have thematic links to Rothbart, the villain who manipulates the characters and drives the story, Týlešová said.
One of the centrepieces of the set design is a pair of wings that span 20 meters and move across the stage to open and close the show.
“This whole world is Rothbart’s world, an environment which he is controlling,” Týlešová said. “Rothbart himself is like a giant bird. So he’s got these big wings which we use to open and close the environment onstage. We want to give the audience a sense of scale, that he’s this giant monster.”
Týlešová’s signature style imbues every aspect of the show, literally imprinted on the sets and costumes in multiple layers. The opening scenes of the ballet get added depth thanks to video projections of Týlešová’s own landscape paintings.
A similar technique was used with many of the costumes, creating three-dimensional images of her paintings that have been printed directly on the fabric.
Týlešová worked closely with Bonnie Beecher on lighting and Sean Nieuwenhuis on projection designs to achieve the effect.
“We’re trying to give everything a living quality and create movement,” she said.
Another distinct feature of this production are the swan tutus themselves. Týlesová designed synthetic feathers for 30 tutus, spending more than a year developing the first prototype. Each one features more than 120 hand-cut and pleated feathers made from digitally printed fabrics.
“Real feathers are beautiful, but they’re not as impactful onstage and they don’t last very long,” she said. “So we started working out how to create these new feathers and came up with this idea of pleated fabric, stitching it together and creating these fake feathers out of silk.”
Principal dancer Heather Ogden, one of the ballerinas who plays the parts of Odette and Odile, said the novel approach has led to beautiful and distinct costumes that help bring her characters to life.
“I think a big part of being an artist and getting to play a character is all the things that go into it and make you believe the story yourself,” she said. “These costumes are really beautiful … as soon as you put them on you walk a little bit differently. They definitely inspire you and help you feel in character.”
“Swan Lake” has been adapted countless times and elements of the story can change depending on the artist helming the production. The National Ballet has added its own twist to this staging when it comes to the traditional ball scene in the third act.
In this show, a dark and mysterious masquerade ball is the setting for the scene when Prince Siegfried makes the pivotal choice to unwittingly break his vow to Odette.
Týlešová said in this production, the confusion and mistaken identity that lead to his decision are heightened by the addition of many new masked characters at the masquerade, an artistic decision that also helps the audience understand why the monstrous Rothbart is able to blend in so easily .
“Rothbart is usually this creature that comes into the ball and sometimes you think, ‘Well, why is he sitting next to the queen?'” she said. “But if you have a masquerade scene then he disappears, because he’s just another creature in a mask, like the other people. So I think thematically it ties it all together.”
Kain decided early on that she wanted to intersperse new, nondancing characters into the masquerade scene. That choice let the costume designers incorporate a bold color palette into the design to great effect, Týlešová said.
“It’s all this shimmering world behind a mask,” she said. “It’s also quite dark. It’s going to be very seductive, sexy, beautiful stuff… It’s a metaphor about what people hide behind masks.”
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