With a career that has spanned theater, opera, ballet, film and television, Brooklyn-based British designer Julian Crouch designed the sets and costumes for Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, a co-production of SF Ballet and Dutch National Ballet.
Initially a mask and puppet maker, Crouch has worked on The Addams Family and Shockheaded Peter and has designed for the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. A month before Cinderella premiered in San Francisco, we spoke to him about his diverse inspirations, why this production’s isn’t your mom’s Cinderella, and knowing when not to trust Christopher Wheeldon.
Tell us about your transition from Broadway to ballet. What are the challenges? What are the similarities?
Both Broadway and ballet are new to me really. My background is really in experimental theater of one kind or another. In the last few years I have begun designing operas, mostly for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
To be honest, all the live theatrical forms are completely different in how they each work. I have likened it to being an explorer rowing up the Amazon, visiting different tribes. The traditions, hierarchies, and rituals are very different from one another and I am lucky that they let me join in with their ceremonies.
On a purely physical level, there are some fundamental differences. Opera sounds better with something physical behind the singer, which supports the voice, whereas a ballet requires space. An opera design would make a terrible ballet design and vice-versa.
What were some of your inspirations for the sets for Cinderella?
I do a lot of picture browsing at the beginning of a project, as a kind of simultaneous warm-up and procrastination. I spent a while looking at the photographs of Robert and Shana Parke Harrison and the paintings of Max Ernst, but also spent time looking at a lot of random and disparate things that would catch my eye. But since I was a child I’ve been very interested in the Grimm fairy tales, so I think I had a lot of long-term inspiration deep inside myself already.
We know this isn’t the Disney version of the production. What sort of aesthetic were you trying to capture with the sets and costumes?
An aesthetic is something that is hard to put into words. I think for the principal characters I was interested in grounding them in the real world, or at least a believable Victorian-type world. We were very keen that they should seem like real, three-dimensional characters. But there was also a pull from the opposite direction, a dark mythical Grimm Brothers world.
What was it like working with Christopher Wheeldon?
This was my first time working with Chris. We almost worked together on an opera I was designing for the Met a few years ago, and I am glad he remembered me and asked me to design Cinderella. He was great to work with, although next time I won’t believe him when he tells me certain characters won’t really dance! I know now that EVERYONE will dance. I am looking forward to the next chance I have to collaborate with him. This project was a massive learning opportunity for me, and Chris was a great tutor.
Tell us about working with Basil Twist–did the set and production teams work very closely together throughout the whole process? What was the process?
Basil is a truly great artist. I have known him as a friend for a long time, but recently we joined forces on The Addams Family musical. We worked pretty closely on Cinderella, but Basil joined the process much later than me. I had designed a basic look for the tree, and made the masks for the transformation scene, but left details open for Basil’s input. He led a workshop with Chris in San Francisco last summer where he used basic materials and put together the carriage scene. He came back to me with a detailed design idea which I then drew out. Basil also brought along Daniel Brodie, the projection designer, with whom he has had a long creative relationship, and between them they enhanced the tree through movement and projection.
Cinderella is a co-production with Dutch National Ballet. What was it like creating the sets for two different companies and theaters?
Actually we designed the show for the two different companies and some of the smaller venues that they will visit on tour. Generally, you just have to work to the smaller common dimensions so that it will fit everywhere. I received invaluable help on this production by the costume supervisor in Amsterdam, Oliver Haller. It was a huge challenge for me to design classical ballet costumes–and a steep learning curve–and Oliver was such a calm and experienced guide. I owe him a great deal. He and the excellent makers he brought in share the credit for how well they turned out.
What elements are important to remember when creating designs?
I think each design is unique, as each production and art form comes with its individual challenges. However, it’s always important to remember that you are part of a team telling a story together. I think its good to be brave, and it’s important to be awake and attentive. Sometimes inspiration can come through something going wrong or in the most surprising moment. The world is a great collaborator if you are open enough to listen to it.
How do you feel seeing your designs up on stage that very first time?
I’m very hard to please, and to be honest the first look is usually in very stark working lights that do little to help the design. So I generally prefer my designs the fourth or fifth time I see the ballet, once the lighting designer has had a chance to weave in some magic!
Finally, why should audiences come see Cinderella?
Chris is the most exceptional choreographer of his generation, and he knows how to tell a story as well as create beautiful dance and movement. This Cinderella is unlike any that have come before, and should not be missed. And yes, I also think it looks beautiful!