A new 'Coppélia' comes to life at Pacific Northwest Ballet
An interview with Roberta Guidi di Bagno, a designer who was imported from Italy to create new sets and costumes for Balanchine's "Coppélia" at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
Seattle Times arts writer
'Coppélia'Pacific Northwest Ballet, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-June 5 and June 10-12, 2 p.m. Saturday and June 12., 1 p.m. June 13, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$160 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).
In a little village in Eastern Europe, a young girl lives in a delicately painted house that looks like a pretty china teacup. Her eccentric neighbor, who wears a coat laden with cobwebs, has a darker house that looks like a coffeepot. Inside, in his lab, everything is made of books — the chair; the steps; the laden, dusty shelves.
Welcome to the quirky world of "Coppélia," the beloved 19th-century story ballet about a pair of young lovers, a mysterious toy-maker and a doll who appears to come to life. While the story is old, these sets and costumes are brand-new, created by Roberta Guidi di Bagno for Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Coppélia," opening Thursday and running through June 13. This version of the ballet, choreographed in 1974 by George Balanchine for New York City Ballet, has rarely been seen outside of New York — and, di Bagno thinks, never redesigned.
"It's an honor to do," she said. "This is, to me, very special. What we're trying to do is give the audience a lot of things to look at. Not just the story, but fill it with special effects."
Di Bagno, a native of Rome, is an acclaimed designer of sets and costumes for opera and ballet around the world, including "The Merry Widow" at PNB several years ago. Artistic director Peter Boal invited her back for "Coppélia," knowing it would be a vast undertaking. The new production has been planned for three years, he said, with the actual work of sewing and building beginning a year ago.
Inspiration for the designs came from all over — and, in the case of Dr. Coppelius' lab in Act II, very close to home. Boal, in his initial meetings with di Bagno, told her about his son Sebastian's "science experiment room" in their home, filled with old books and new inventions. "When she was able to come to the States, she went to Sebastian's room and took notes, then constructed the set around that idea," said Boal.
Other ideas came from the lush wisteria that grew at di Bagno's home in Italy (it will be prominent — handmade, from fabric — in the village scene of Act I and the garden wedding scene in Act III), and the whimsically painted porcelain found in Portugal and Spain. Because the story is so charming, di Bagno said, "I set it in a special place, a porcelain world." She smiled at a drawing of Swanhilda's teacup-shaped house, all blue-and-white with hanging flowers. "I think you will want to live there," she said.
PNB lighting designer and technical director Randall G. Chiarelli and costume shop manager Larae Theige Hascall have been on the front lines for the creation of this "Coppélia," leading dozens of staff members in work that's been ongoing since summer 2009. To create a large story ballet anew — which requires three distinct, detailed sets and 125 different costumes (not including duplicates, of which there are many, to accommodate double casting) — it's essential to start early. "There wasn't a week this year when you wouldn't have come by and found [the scene and costume shops] working on 'Coppélia' all year long," said Boal.
Hascall notes that by elongating the schedule, they can keep the work in-house. "If we only had a short period of time, we'd have to send stuff out," she said. This does, of course, bring its own challenges: most notably for the costume department with the 36 young PNB students (ages 10 to 15) who appear in the ballet's wedding celebration scene in Act III. They had their first fittings for their coral-colored ballerina dresses last year and their second fittings last week. "I'm hoping those girls haven't grown too much," said a worried Hascall in April. (The dresses were created to be easily expandable, just in case.)
It's been a long process, but, di Bagno says, a rewarding one, as she praises the efforts of the many people (approximately 60 total) who contributed their expertise and ideas to the sets and costumes along the way. "It's amazing how you can work this way, it's really the best way — you take from everybody," she said. "It's really a collective."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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