La Bayadère: Making the snakes

21 August 2014 | By Behind Ballet

A deadly snake plays a key role in La Bayadère, hissing from its basket to bite Nikiya, the beautiful rival of the villainess Gamzatti. Houston Ballet uses live snakes when they dance Stanton Welch’s production of the ballet, but that’s a no-go on Australian stages. Much as we love a live snake (the non-venomous kind, of course!) there are advantages to using puppets – apparently, the live ones don’t always feel like performing!

We are fortunate enough to have our La Bayadère snakes made by the talented folk at AboutFace, who were behind such pieces of alchemy as the pelicans for Sydney Theatre Company’s Storm Boy and the dogs in the Hairy Mclary stage show. AboutFace’s Annie Forbes and Tim Denton stopped off for a chat on their way to deliver the snakes to our wardrobe department.

Rohan Furnell, Richard House and snake. Photography Lynette Wills

Annie and Tim – both of whom have a background in performance – make puppets, props and masks for theatre and dance companies. For West Australian Ballet’s production of Pinocchio, they made full-head nose masks ranging from half a metre to two metres, made from millinery fabrics so that the dancers could see out and move. Annie trained with Philippe Genty and his partner Mary Underwood, a choreographer, and says that it is a delight to work with dancers. “They intuitively know how to move, and so can invest movement into other objects. They innately know how to bring something to life through movement – how to project through something.”

Stanton Welch demonstrates the joy of finding the right snake for the job. Photography Lynette Wills

For The Australian Ballet’s La Bayadère, Annie and Tim have made a range of snakes for the scene where the Snake Charmer offers his wares to Gamzatti’s maid. Most impressive is a three-metre python who coils around the dancers body, moving its head and neck and the tip of its tail. “We’ve put weight in the head so that it’ll continue to bob and move around even when the dancer lets go of it,” says Annie. Tim adds, “It’s a very subtle movement, but subtlety can often be the most effective.” They relate the story of a duck that they made for the New Zealand theatre company Indian Ink. “In the production the duck was on stage with one actor, and it kept stealing the scene. They said to us, ‘Make the duck do less!’ and by the end the duck was doing almost nothing, but it just had to turn its head, or peck at something, and everyone looked at the duck. The less it did, the more real it became. Finally, the duck is killed, the actor breaks its neck – and every time, the audience burst into tears! Fourteen years later, people still talk about that duck.”

Amber Scott in rehearsal. Photography Lynette Wills

The snake that strikes the fatal blow to Nikiya is much smaller than the python, and made out of wood, painted red, black and yellow to look like the deadly coral snake. “It has a very strong magnet in its head, and the dancer has a choker with an earth magnet in it, so when she reaches down into the basket the snake will seem to leap up to her throat. When we tested it, it was so powerful that we actually broke the magnets!”

See the snake puppets of La Bayadère in Melbourne and Sydney this spring.