Constructed Sets

Breaking with traditions in stage design for the ballet

In reflecting upon Barry Kay’s inspired and subtle designs for the stage, it is his finely tuned perception, combined with a profound sense of comprehension and compassion, that always springs to mind. His ability to identify with man’s nature, his characteristics, also his quirks and predicaments, or with circumstances forming the settings for specific events, invariably found expression in designing ravishingly beautiful costumes and the most ingenious sets for the theatre. The acclaim, recognition and respect he was credited the world over bore witness to his extraordinary talent.

Kay’s vision and talent, however, extended further than met the eye. Following the completion of his studies, he entered a predominantly stuffy world of stage design – a world deeply rooted in conventional, unimaginative design concepts. Surprised by the noticeable lack of meaningful design, particularly evident in the ballet, he began questioning such traditions and conventions. Motivated by ambition and an enthusiasm for innovative stage design, he avidly championed a fundamental change by setting out to pioneer three-dimensionally constructed sets. In winning their realisation, Barry Kay revolutionised stage design for the ballet almost single-handed. Eventually, he created sets on a scale so grandiose hitherto not seen.

Images of Love
Set design, drawing
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
World première 2 April 1964

Traditionally, stage design tended to be very rudimentary. A painted backdrop, wings and borders – all arranged in a box: the stage – constituted the basic elements. Appearing static and rigid, they were practically and visually of little or no consequence, except for concealing backstage work and storage areas. Despite their being painted, they were characterless, stereotyped and rarely related to the stage action. For a long time neither stage design, nor other theatre-related operations, received any specific attention. But that was to change.

From 1866 onward, the Meininger Theaterreform, an initiative of Duke Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen, Thuringia, gained fame all over Europe and paved the way for modern-day theatre generally. It entailed the abolishment of long-ingrained deficiencies that existed across all sectors involved in mounting and presenting theatre productions. Such shortcomings were subject to the reform’s singular objective: the harmonious unifying of philosophical, dramaturgical, performing and decorative aspects.

The Russian Constructivists of the early 20th century concentrated on breaking with stale design traditions, and in fighting the two-dimensional stage background they introduced three-dimensional architectural components. Fuelled by their courage to radically change stage design, they became instrumental in the European Theatre Reform Discussion of their day. Influenced by the Swiss reformer of stage art, Adoplhe Appia, the Italian Futurists also contributed immensely to this course. Whereas the new approach was beneficial to both drama and opera design, it however appeared to have bypassed ballet design altogether.

For a long time the evolution of ballet design, namely for the narrative ballet, was greatly inhibited by the fact that the theatrical genre itself was considered an appendix to the theatre. This attitude primarily concerned opera houses where opera and ballet usually coexist. As the ballet was regarded less popular and, therefore, less profitable, opera houses tended to prioritize the opera. This adversely affected ballet design in terms of its financing and hence its extent. The continuous subjection to compromise forced ballet design to remain extremely elementary, which usually meant a painted backcloth and wings. Over time this practice became a widely accepted convention, essentially representing a status quo that kept stifling the advancement of ballet design. The perpetuation of non-convincing, thus, insignificant ballet design concepts, prevented the long-overdue progression from gaining momentum until the early second half of the 20th century.

Images of Love
Stage setting, photograph
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
Première 2 April 1964

To Barry Kay, who comprehended the demands of his sphere of work as a constant challenge to his creative potential, conservative design concepts were flawed in more than one sense. He viewed them as extremely limiting in his creative work. They provided no scope for any experimentation with new ideas that would present the narrative ballet more appealingly, thereby sufficiently addressing the audience’s stimuli. Likewise, the sets, if any, restricted the dancing to the extent of not supporting it favourably. Instead, it rather constituted segregation from each other. Figurative ballet may intentionally need to rely on a plain setting in order to emphasise its specific purpose. Conversely, the narrative ballet, by its very nature, largely depends on an aptly descriptive design. Thus, traditional design concepts intrinsically tended to have a disillusioning effect on the audience and a counterproductive one on the narrative dance action. Kay was determined to change that.

In a documentary about his work Barry Kay had this to say: “When I began designing for the ballet in England there was a tendency to make only a painted backcloth and wings – very simple sets, really. Anything that would be constructed in the way of sets in the theatre would be considered suitable for either operas or plays, but never for the ballet. And that is one of the first things I really questioned: using the ballet as a means of being able to make very quick changes in the repertory from opera to ballet. It was convenient that the ballet did not have any substantial sets; it was really the poor cousin. It was not easy to make that change acceptable for the opera houses without having to fight… and I remember the intendant of the Deutsche Oper Berlin saying, when he first saw the model [for The Sleeping Beauty]: «This is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer». And Kenneth [MacMillan], who was at the meeting, said: «Yes, that is exactly what we are trying to do».”

With regard to the imminent termination of the prevailing stagnation in ballet design and the much delayed shift, Kay further explained: “From observing of what was happening, I saw a need for change with the emphasis on ballet. Seeing so much being done with opera at the time [from 1956 onward], the ballet companies were using very, very simple sets. Not very interesting at all. Lack of opportunities and also ways of finding money complicated the process to have opera companies accept doing [ballet] productions on such scale.”

Instinctively driven to do something about it, last but not least for his own contentment, he faced a multitude of stage design criteria correlating with the dance action. Firmly convinced of sets and dance needing to interact integrally, he consequently was aware of the call for harmoniously amalgamating both the ballet’s narrative message and the interpretation of its Zeitgeist with the choreographer’s intentions. At the same time, counteracting any possible dissociation of the stage setting from the dancing, and balancing the two, were of equal importance to him. With these criteria in mind, he began exploring and resorting to new methods by fully taking advantage of the possibilities the third dimension had to offer. Intuitively and unswervingly he followed the path of his conviction to this end.

Kay’s thinking and initial experiments were aimed at exploding the surface as well as visually dissolving the eye’s constant awareness of the barren and rigid ‘box’. Making a virtue of necessity, he overcame their limitations by transforming and assigning them functions within an overall architecturally constructed design. At first, he began incorporating three-dimensional elements – steps, stairs, ramps, platforms, jetty-like structures etc. – envisaging their use by the dancers and thereby virtually shifting, or lifting, the action off the ground. Later on he included constructions that served interactively with the dancing. By achieving a reciprocally beneficial integration of constructions with the dancing, he instigated a symbiosis that offered the choreographer, as much as the dancers, a completely new dimension of infinitely more possibilities.

Exploratory drawings for the sets from Barry Kay’s sketchbook
Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
First Night 28 April 1978

Recognizing his talent for innovative pointers and impressed, Kenneth MacMillan invited Kay to design his ballet Images of Love (1964) for The Royal Ballet in London. Creating this set constituted a decisive turning point in Kay’s pursuit of three-dimensional ballet design. It unmistakably exposed his individuality. Here, he incorporated a sculptural structure of which MacMillan made use. The author and art critic Charles Spencer observed: “What I was impressed with was this remarkable structure. The choreography used the structure. The dancers went through and around, and up and down the structure. I realised there was a link between Barry Kay’s work and the constructivist theatre at the revolutionary period in Russia, where the stage action has been taken off the floor into the space above – and I realised and saw what he was after.”

Since Kay’s creative achievements enabled dancing to take place on different levels, thus opening up increased choreographic diversification, ballet dance seemed less floor-bound, lending it additional ease and dynamics. MacMillan identified Kay’s approach as a significant tool and, based on the success of Images of Love, an extraordinarily fruitful and productive co-operation evolved. Among many other ballets, this resulted in Kay’s designing MacMillan’s Anastasia (1967) and The Sleeping Beauty (1967), both for the Ballett der Deutschen Oper Berlin; Solitaire (1978) for The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet; The Four Seasons (1978) for the Ballet de l’Opéra in Paris; Anastasia (1971) and Isadora (1981), again both for The Royal Ballet.

Anastasia, one-act version
Blueprint of stage layout incl. backstage
Angled segments:
free-standing architecturally constructed wings
Four curves:
suspended sails serving as projection screens
The Stuttgart Ballet
Staatstheater Stuttgart
Premiére 14 April 1976

The design for Images of Love drew the attention of Rudolf Nureyev, who also spotted Kay’s refined skills and the potential of his approach. He subsequently asked him to design act III of Raymonda (1966) for The Royal Ballet, and Don Quixote successively for the Wiener Staatsopernballett (1966), the Australian Ballet (1970) and the Ballet National de Marseilles (1971). The sets for these productions were examples of Kay’s first major ventures on a grander scale of moving away from simply painted surfaces. Wherever necessary to retain them for technical reasons, he transformed them into imaginatively shaped cut-outs, embellished with either architectural features or appliquéd sculpted components. In his Byzantine set for Raymonda he conveyed how to effectively overcome the dullness of plain wings by turning them into three-dimensional colonnades. Kay’s sets for the movie version of Don Quixote (1973, Nureyev & Helpman/Australian Ballet), though, strictly not stage design, deserve mentioning as an opportunity for Kay to have had a field day in three-dimensional ballet design.

The special way of constructing of chandeliers – Kay’s brainchild – such as he designed for Raymonda, poses an interesting technical design issue. In order to avoid likely interferences, specifically collisions, in the overhead flies, Kay had to devise the chandeliers in such way that they fitted into the narrow interstices between borders and drops. So instead of designing customarily circular chandeliers, he opted for an elliptical shape. He reasoned that a circle viewed in perspective from the auditorium always registers as an ellipse. As the human brain adjusts for these variations and the observer does not perceive them, Kay concluded that the difference would never be noticeable. Since experience proved him right and the use of elliptical chandeliers was in fact most effective which last, but not least, also allowed for more expeditious scene changes, he adopted this method of construction for the chandeliers he created for the The Sleeping Beauty in Berlin.

The Sleeping Beauty
Stage model
Carabosse centre stage
Ballet of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Première 8 October 1967

In talking about their co-operation when working on The Sleeping Beauty MacMillan commented: “… and to have Barry there… as an absolute ally – and we were on the same wavelength about working – was a tremendous help to me. What he did was absolutely tremendous and it knocked the theatre sideways. They have never seen a ballet production so sumptuously designed, and after many arguments they said: «Yes, we can do it, but it will take a year or so». So I had to persuade Barry to stay on in Berlin for a year.”

In part, the arguments concerned financing a production of such magnitude. It took Kay – reputed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin to be a designer of no compromise – and MacMillan some convincing and persuading. The costs of staging The Sleeping Beauty was estimated at one million Deutsche Mark, a phenomenal amount of money at the time. It by far exceeded any monies ever expended on a ballet. Eventually, a petition to the Berlin Senate procured the funds, a government grant, to go ahead as planned.

In the interim, while The Sleeping Beauty was in its making, Kay created Anastasia – later to be known as the original one-act version. This set was a perfect example of steering away from a setting in the ‘box’. Conscious of the classic principle of harmony – the circle in the square – he divided stage space in a visually most exciting way. Four huge curving sails, calculatedly positioned and suspended high above the ground, swept elegantly across the entire space (illustration above). No longer was the eye aware of any rigidly rectangular element. In this design Kay presented direct intercommunications between dance action and stage setting. In having Anastasia interact with historic film clips projected onto these sails he accomplished a virtual shift of the dance action, thereby also contributing to the dramaturgic quality.

Eventually, The Sleeping Beauty had its première – and it was absolutely sensational. Here was a most grandiosely designed fairy tale setting of an imaginary Tsarist court and of truly palatial proportions. As the Deutsche Oper Berlin is equipped with one of the world’s largest stages, Kay had a free hand in exploiting its realms to the full. And he certainly did: marbleized columns, interconnected with wide-spanning arches, an elegant grand staircase, flanked by an arcade, and an opulently designed throne were dominating the stage. Not even the backcloth escaped lavish treatment – its entire expanse was clad in gold leaf. The tranquil transformation scene, mounted on the revolve, unexpectedly revealed a grotto cleverly tucked beneath the stairs. The enormous extent of architectural components as well as meticulous attention to an overall architectural concept and detail were evident everywhere. And in the winter scene Kay demonstrated how flat surfaces can be transformed creatively for three-dimensional effects: a number of gauze flies, decorated with frosted branches, were flown in. Their staggered arrangement described basically empty space and created an optical depth. The effect of depth was enhanced by the dance action taking place in the interstices.

An anecdotal reference relayed by Kay: not only did the architecture of Russian basilicas and palaces stand godfather to this setting but, for reason of their their spaciousness, also that of ostentatious Moscow underground stations, which actually originated from this very palace architecture.

As proof of the deeply ingrained notion of ballet merely being an appendix to the theatre, and of how arduous a task it was trying to eradicate this attitude, it must be stated here that, most sadly, the Deutsche Oper Berlin acted without any foresight at all when ultimately scrapping The Sleeping Beauty – without visually recording it – at a time when modern technology easily provided the means to do so. It was one of the most important documents in the history of stage design, and in particularly a highlight of ballet design. Alone for its merit of being a splendid example of breaking with stifling traditional design concepts, this magnificent production should never have been lost to posterity!

The Sleeping Beauty / Dornröschen
Act III, princess Aurora’s wedding
Stage floor plan & assembly of architectural components
Ballet of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Première 8 October 1967

1 – concealed stairs to upper level 7 – gold leaf wing borders
2 – gold leaf backdrop 8 – floor-mounted columns supporting plafond
3 – architectural structures, collonades 9 – throne with baldachin
4 – suspended (flown-in) columns 10 – chandeliers
5 – gold leaf transverse borders 11 – floor-mounted gold leaf wing screens
6 – semi-circular staircase & upper landing 12 – revolve perimeter & canopies (dotted curves within)

Kay’s ingenious design for the three-act version of Anastasia in London ranked as another of his master strokes and was by no means second to The Sleeping Beauty in Berlin. His superb construction of sweeps of interflowing curved screens for the Russian birch tree setting – an excellent adaptation of the sails of the one-act version – was singularly outstanding and convincing. Again, it was nothing short of successfully making use of the entire stage space. In this setting the stylised overhead foliage served as the projection screen.

In designing Solitaire, Kay experimented with another medium. As dance space without any kind of obstruction was the condition, he used transparent inflatable material to create a huge tree, filling the entire upper sphere of the stage. Branches and foliage, externally appliquéd, provided for a spacious feeling of depth. The idea of inflatables was so successful that Kay applied it again to The Four Seasons. Here, dancers were placed aloft on swings amid inflatable clouds, enveloping columns that reached all the way up into the stage tower. This idea was truly daring and everything but conventional.

The creation of Isadora, a very complex ballet, constituted one of those rare occasions on which design and choreography evolved concurrently. For this reason their creative processes were mutually dependent in many ways. This allowed Kay a far greater choice of options than otherwise pre-existing design provisions had to offer. Working hand in hand with the choreographer right from the start meant that he was very much part of the overall decision making. For Kay it was the ideal opportunity to implement his belief that stage setting and stage action should reciprocally benefit each other.

Creativity inevitably involves disassembling, sifting, sorting, selecting and reassembling into a different form. As Kay once succinctly said: “creation by destruction”. Well into the advanced working stage, at a certain junction, MacMillan found it necessary to change his original plan for the choreography. A substantial part of both his and Kay’s work became obsolete and it required them to rethink their previous plans. Now, that the number of scene changes had increased, they could no longer be curtain-off and instead determined an open setting to enable swift transitions.

The many scene changes that were to follow one another in quick succession posed a complex design problem, which was magnified by the considerable amount of essential props that needed to be moved just as frequently. Accordingly, the revised design had to, as Kay put it, “allow maximum fluidity” to avoid delay and disruption by repeatedly appearing stagehands. To eliminate such complications Kay suggested abandoning the help of stagehands entirely. MacMillan instantly took to this idea. They jointly decided to turn the stage into an an open workspace. Inspired by this prospect Kay created a setting that appropriately resembled a backstage work area. This concept allowed all the larger props to remain visible, positioned in easy reach immediately adjacent to the dance area. The smaller props were stored in open cages flanking the offstage corridors and camouflaging the wings. As a central feature a tracked curtain encircled the entire stage. In his choreography MacMillan incorporated the dancers’ handling of the props and the drawing of the curtain into varying positions, thus displaying a different locale for each scene. – The success of such profound artistic interaction between designer and choreographer made irrefutable Kay’s idea of the benefits of reciprocity between the setting and the dancing.

Three-act version
Set design, drawing
Act II, imperial ballroom
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House
World Première 22 July 1971

Barry Kay’s repertoire of designs demonstrates the progression of the exemplary concept he pursued – and its validity. What once began with three-dimensional elements came to maturity over the years ahead, culminating in brilliantly constructed architectural masterpieces for the ballet stage. His sense of harmonious balancing was as refined as his gift for exquisitely creating visually polarised tension, subliminally affecting everyone. These qualities were simply magic and omnipresent. Kay’s pronouncedly magnificent sets for The Sleeping Beauty constitute the paragon of his achievements in constructed sets. Overwhelmed audiences, bedazzled upon curtain rise, testified that here was epoch-making stage design.

In taking up again the advances made by the theatre avant-garde of the early 20th century, and developing them further, Kay left his mark in the history of ballet design. Alexander Schouvaloff, founder-curator of the V&A’s Theatre Museum (1974-1989)1, confirmed in an interview: “Barry… is one of the most important designers working at the moment. Part of my brief… to the Theatre Museum is to make sure that we have… the leading designers of the day represented in the collection.”


Michael Werner, October 2004