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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Design King—Richard Hudson Creates a New Beauty

The Nutcracker show curtain, designed by Richard Hudson.

by Mario R. Mercado

While it’s the final season to enjoy Alexei Ratmansky’s wondrous staging of The Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House from December 12—21, happily, the production will live on in West Coast performances each December beginning in 2015. For audiences on both coasts, there is more happy news to celebrate as Ratmansky and the ballet’s designer Richard Hudson get set to collaborate again. This time it’s an all-new production of The Sleeping Beauty, premiering early March at the Segerstrom Center in Orange County, California and in New York City in May 2015.

Ratmansky and Hudson’s deft gift for storytelling is evident from the beginning of The Nutcracker. The first image audiences glimpse on the show curtain is a little house at night. As Tchaikovsky’s sparkling overture begins, with its hushed sense of anticipation, Ratmansky’s vision of the story based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann draws us into the house of the Stahlbaum family, leading to the first scene set in the kitchen of the 19th-century household where children watch the preparations for the Christmas eve meal. It is in the kitchen where we first encounter... the mice!

Richard Hudson's sketch for Carabosse in
The Sleeping Beauty.
“Alexei said to me he wanted a family show that would appeal to children of all ages,” says Hudson. “I went back to Hoffmann’s original German story which is a Christmas fairy tale and yet quite creepy. I think children are happy to be frightened a bit by such stories.” The drama, after all, in the second scene of the first act revolves around the battle between the Mouse King—a striking seven-headed creature in Hoffmann’s story and ABT’s staging—his army of mice and the Nutcracker leading a cadre of soldiers. Hudson adds, “Alexei was keen for the mice to be frightening. They are not cuddly little animals.” If the creatures are vivid, they remain whimsical: a celebrated painting of the pot-bellied Napoleon by the painter Jacques-Louis David served as inspiration for Hudson’s design of an elegantly frock coat-attired, corpulent Mouse King.

Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker on a commission from the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg. It followed his composition of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. For Ratmansky, the strongest impression has always derived from the music (he danced in Nutcracker productions as a child and as a professional dancer) and he believes that the score’s expressive richness comes from the sum total of Tchaikovsky’s life experience.

Richard Hudson's sketch for Princess Aurora's Rose Adagio costume in
The Sleeping Beauty.
This spring’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, widely considered Tchaikovsky’s greatest ballet score, marks the fifth collaboration between Ratmansky and Hudson (in addition to The Nutcracker and Dumbarton for ABT, Hudson designed the choreographer’s Romeo and Juliet at the National Ballet of Canada and Le Coq d’Or at the Royal Danish Ballet). Hudson says, “The opportunity to design a new production of The Sleeping Beauty is a very rare thing and makes the responsibility daunting. There is the sheer scale of it— enormous—and there are so many costumes.” Indeed. Ratmansky’s Beauty, which follows the Petipa telling of the classic story by Charles Perrault, unfolds in a prologue and three acts, the last of which includes the cavalcade of fairy tale characters, from Puss-in-Boots to Little Red Riding Hood. It also calls for more than 350 costumes.

For The Sleeping Beauty, Ratmansky asked Hudson to take as a point of departure the historic, extravagant production created by the Russian painter and designer Léon Bakst for impresario Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1921 in London. Hudson confirms, “I ‘quote’ Bakst, but the dimension of the costumes is very different as are today’s dancers from those of the 1920s. My color schemes, too, are quite different, and I take into account that contemporary lighting is far more sophisticated.”

In Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker, it is Clara, on the brink of young adulthood, and the Nutcracker Prince, who dance the ballet’s climactic pas de deux. Transformation is at the heart of the Nutcracker story as it is in The Sleeping Beauty, whose dormant princess awakens to love by an ardent prince’s spell-shattering kiss. There, enchantment and noble splendor are sure to be encapsulated and extolled by Ratmansky and Hudson and, at the same time, made essential and enduring.

Mario R. Mercado writes on dance, music, theater, and art.

Reprinted from Dec 2014 BAMbill.

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