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Scenic and costume design have been a major element in dance ever since the lavish court spectacles of the Renaissance. The construction of lavish sets was an integral part of every theatrical event and stages were decorated with magnificent ornamentation depicting exotic lands, majestic palaces and rich floral settings.

During the mid-1800s, Romanticism brought about greater naturalism in set designs and many stages represented simple villages and moonlit lakeside scenes, as recreated in today's productions of Giselle and La Sylphide . But by the 1890s, the Russians were turning again to lavish spectacles, of which The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Don Quixote and Paquita are examples.

The traditions of both scenic splendor and realism have been maintained in the 20th century. Some designers today do detailed historical research in order to create settings for such narrative works as Romeo and Juliet, Onegin, The Taming of the Shrew, Mayerling and Washington Square, all of which are based on historical and/or literary sources.

Twentieth century choreographic invention, particularly in abstract ballet, has led many choreographers to limit costumes and sets to a bare minimum. In these ballets, the simple leotards and tights worn by the dancers allow the audience to focus on the dancers' body movements and the choreographic patterns. This is particularly evident in The Four Temperaments and Voluntaries . Modern choreographers have also turned to sculpture, tapestry, textile art and lighting to decorate their stages.

Designers of ballet sets and costumes usually sit in on rehearsals in order to understand the choreographer's movement qualities and concepts. The designer's concepts must suit the mood, style and character of the choreography.

Designing for the ballet stage is not the same as designing for high fashion, opera, theatre or for an art gallery exhibit. When creating either sets or costumes for dance, designers have to keep a number of things in mind from the minute they put pencil to paper.

Dancers need freedom of movement to perform choreography. Ballet designers are not completely restricted in fact, some costumes are very elaborate and fantastic in conception as long as the dancers can execute the steps required by the choreographer. In some ballets dancers are dressed in period costumes, heavy court apparel with large, elaborate headdresses and hats, all of which restrict movement. But these roles more often than not are performed by Character Artists who mime rather than dance.

In opera and theatre, production designers can create elaborate sets that cover every inch of the stage. But in almost all ballets, you will notice that the central performing space of the stage is empty so the dancers can perform without danger of bumping into something and injuring themselves.

The sets and props are located at the edges of the performing space and staircases, doors, tables, etc., are off to the sides and at the back of the stage. A ballet designer must always create stage settings with the choreography and staging of movement in mind.

All the costumes worn on stage by National Ballet dancers are handmade in the company's wardrobe department at The Walter Carsen Centre and the sets and props are constructed and painted in its Scarborough workshops.  Costume designers usually draw each costume as they hope it will appear on stage. They often pin pieces of the fabric chosen for the costumes to the drawings. Fabrics are carefully selected in terms of colour, quality and durability. Dance costumes go through a lot of wear and tear as male dancers are constantly gripping the females' costumes and the exertion of dancing leads dancers to perspire heavily.

To design the set and props, the designer draws and mounts a miniature model of each scene of the ballet. The model is drawn to scale so that the carpenters can recreate it precisely for the stage. All of the minute details such as doors, windows, chairs, flower pots, fans, and other props are included in the model, creating an exact replica of what the stage will look like to the audience.

In this way, the producers of the ballet know exactly how much material and supplies to buy in order to construct the sets and make the designer's ideas a stage-size reality.

A short history of design for ballet

Renaissance Italy was the birthplace of theatrical dance, which then spread to France, where elaborate court entertainments were presented. The most famous of these, Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, took place in 1581 and was choreographed by Balthasar de Beaujoyeux.

The ballet was designed by the painter Jacques Patin, whose design set a standard for its period with its elaborate and very imaginative costumes. The theatre was a "ballet-in-the-round," the audience sitting in a semi-circle around the spectacle. (Shakespearean plays are often still performed in the round, as you may have seen them staged in the Stratford Festival's mainstage Festival Theatre in Stratford.)

A revival of interest in ancient Greek and Roman art in the mid-16th century in Italy was accompanied by an added interest in architecture and the art of perspective. Permanent stage backdrops were constructed as architectural wings and proved to be the beginning of stages as we know them today. A problem did arise in that these elaborately painted stage designs were fixed and could not be changed, and they inevitably proved not only boring for the audience but confusing. When the action moved to a mysterious cave, it did the audience little good to be looking at a tropical garden setting.

Niccolo Sabbatini invented numerous ways to create scene changes. One was a three-sided vertical structure that revolved for each scene, at each turn revealing a new set. He also created painted screens to cover the side wings like shutters that could be turned to reveal other scenes.

In the early years of stage design, it was primarily architects who designed stage settings. The 17th century English architect Inigo Jones, who was also a painter, set the standard for scenic design and scene painting as we know them today. In France and England a trend toward simplicity, elegance and lightness in stage design developed, whereas in Italy, lavish presentations continued to dominate the stage right through the 18th century. The Italians created magnificent caves, grottos and mountainous landscapes.

In France, the 19th century brought ballet to the forefront. Artists created moonlit glades and lakeside scenes for realistic mood settings aided by the use of gas lighting. Though innovative, the new era in dance did not progress and soon Russia took over as the major dance centre of the late 19th century with a return to lavish spectacles.

In Sweden and Denmark, fascinating examples of late 18th and 19th century stage design can still be seen. The Drottingham Court Theatre in Sweden still has original stage backdrops and wings and even a "wave machine" used to create the effect of a billowing sea.

With the advent of the 20th century came new trends and philosophies in stage design. Why should the stage be decorated only with a one-dimensional painted backcloth? Artists began to question former practices and to voice their opinions and demand a collaborative part in the creation of works. The standard stage setting had all too often been a mixture of baroque and Roman and artistic integrity had rarely been questioned, but now harmony in period and style became a requisite, as did innovation.

The Russians also began to use easel painters for stage and costume design, artists who brought great colour, exoticism and unity to dance presentations. Many of these artists who included such famous names as Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Nicholas Roerich and Natalia Gontcharova worked in collaboration with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.

Later Henri Matisse, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali collaborated on major choreographic works early in the 20th century. Though not all of them created designs that would remain staples of the ballet repertoire, their daring and imaginative use of the stage proved that dance was not immune to 20th century design concepts and could use Cubist and Surrealist trends among others.

With the elevation of ballet to a respected place in the world of the performing arts, dance also began to attract composers of note including Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. Thus, some of the 20th century's most respected and innovative artists and musicians joined forces with choreographers to create modern ballets that were a far cry from the Russian spectacles of the late 19th century.

Today some designers have returned to Romanticism, antiquity and other classical settings for inspiration, while others have followed abstract composition. Fashion designers such as Christian Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent, artists Robert Rausenberg and David Salle and sculptor Isamu Noguchi have all contributed to ballet stage design. When answering the needs of a choreographer, today's designers are able to incorporate five centuries of stage design and history in their creations, rather than keeping to a single style. Contemporary choreographers and designers work together for a unified stage presentation and create a harmonious combination of gesture, word, dance, music and image within a specific period and/or stage concept.

Design should complement the dance and music and be an extension of them.

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