The Australian Ballet

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A vision realised.

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Artists of The Australian Ballet, Don Quixote, 2023

Photo Rainee Lantry

Set Designer Richard Roberts discusses tackling The Australian Ballet’s production of Don Quixote, its magnitude and magnificence and how finding your inner child is the key to creativity.

When Barry Kay first designed the costumes and set for Rudolf Nureyev’s (after Marius Petipa) Don Quixote in 1966, it would be unfathomable that almost 60 years later these sketches, drawings and remnants of the original would form the basis of a 2023 production. The Australian Ballet’s production of Don Quixote has drawn inspiration from the master craftsman, going back to the original set designs from both the 1966 stage production and the subsequent 1973 film.

Kay was later commissioned in 1984 to create new scenery for The Australian Ballet for a stage version of the film but this was unable to be realised due to Kay’s death in 1985. However, thanks to his significant archive of work, The Australian Ballet set designers, lighting designs and costume department have been able to travel back in time to realise Kay’s original vision.

Gustave Dore etching

In a production that pays homage to the film that brought ballet to the big screen, the set design is a pivotal character, supporting the narrative, the music and of course the dancers within it. In fact, in a melding of mediums, The Australian Ballet’s Don Quixote incorporates elements of the film in its opening sequence, projecting film credits across Gustave Dore’s original etchings. Speaking with set designer for the 2023 production of Don Quixote, Richard Roberts, “David (Hallberg) had said, we want to use the film as a springboard, and I said, well, why don't we start as if it is a film?”

In doing so, the transition between prologue and act one brings a contemporary element to the ballet while reflecting on the productions’ history.

“For those that have no knowledge of the film at all, it would be an interesting way to begin a ballet. For those that know the film, they will recognise it immediately” says Roberts.

There are many unique challenges when creating a set of this scale, even more so when it was originally designed for cinema. There’s no one to call cut in live theatre, no time for lengthy set changes, so there are some practical reasons behind Roberts’ choices, including the film sequence at the beginning of the film.

“It gives Bart (head of staging operations) three minutes to change the set where we’ve got an army of stage crew waiting to shift that village into place and get it going. ”

Another challenge was incorporating and recreating Kay’s two-dimensional drawings into a three-dimensional working set. Kay’s detailed drawings and renders of coastal Spain are re-configured through the perfectly to-scale models by Roberts before they can be built for the stage.

“My role has been to try and find a kind of visual and physical structure to allow that (set changes) to happen.” Says Roberts.

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Simon Dow

Photo Rainee Lantry

The production also makes use of abstract imagery, shadows and digital technology, bringing the 1970s concept into the 21st century, but retaining Kay’s original ideas. Kay drew particular inspiration from Gustave Doré etchings and their influence is evident in the architectural design of the set. From the windmills to the structure of Gustave’s house, “Barry Kay had such an eye for detail, the design language that he made for this film really does come out of some careful research” says Roberts.

Don Q Image Carousel

Rudolf Nureyev and Artists of The Australian Ballet
Photo Paul Cox 1972

Don Quixote holds a very special place in the history of The Australian Ballet. When Nureyev and Sir Robert Helpmann filmed the cinematic production in 1973, it heralded a new era of ballet on film, introduced The Australian Ballet to a global audience. Roberts knows all too well the pressure of taking on such an history project.

“I do certainly feel that there's quite a bit of responsibility honouring that you are involved in something that's a very important part of The Australian Ballet's history.” He says.

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Artists of The Australian Ballet

Photo Rainee Lantry

Roberts believes that a childlike frame of mind is the key to staying in the creative zone. He tries to stay in a state of play when designing. “When you see young kids playing and imagining in a sand pit, there's an element of that that you want to get into as a designer at the age of 67. That's quite hard to do, to get back into that pure sense of play.”

The scale of the Don Quixote is both truly astounding and completely functional. At Artistic Director David Hallberg’s request, Roberts included internal staircases, ladders and trapdoors within the design. “All of those doors are practical. The balconies are practical. People can come out onto them. At the very beginning of the ballet, the whole town is activated with people.” He explains.

The entire process took six months from concept to completion, (however if you take into account Kay’s original drawings it’s closer to 60 years!) and is an incredible achievement from the entire team. “It's phenomenal what they've achieved in such a relatively short length of time,” says Roberts “this is a project of the sort of scale that it probably could have done with another six months.”

From first impressions it appears no stone has been unpainted, no costume neglected or structure unsound. Roberts set has paid tribute to remarkable Barry Kay, bringing his vision to life for The Australian Ballet in a history making design at long last.

You can watch the video about Richard Robert’s process here

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