The Australian Ballet

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Hugh Colman: Grand Design

The revered designer Hugh Colman has had a long and happy association with The Australian Ballet, most notably creating the sets and costumes for Maina Gielgud’s The Sleeping Beauty, and for Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake.

Some of the exquisite sherbet-pastel costumes he created for Gielgud’s Beauty are getting a second life as part of our inaugural ballet for children, Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. On the eve of Storytime Ballet‘s premiere, we talked to Hugh about his journey from childhood marionette shows to full-length tutu ballets.

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Hugh Colman working on the designs for Stephen Baynes' Swan Lake. Photography Lynette Wills

Hugh was theatre-struck at an early age by a circus themed around – as it happens – The Sleeping Beauty. “I have an abiding memory of a beautiful lady in a spangled costume. I think that’s probably when the rot set in! I also remember a pantomime of Sinbad the Sailor, and there was a very lovely scene under the sea, with a giant clam that opened up, and there was a beautiful lady inside that. There was something about what happened on stage that hooked me very early.”

His parents, who were both theatre lovers – they had actually met in amateur theatre – supported his interest. In a classic move for a budding set designer, Hugh started making puppet shows. “I made hand puppets, and string puppets. I was always very ambitious – I wanted to do the whole of Alice in Wonderland! I think I ran out of puff about halfway through. My big school project at the age of ten was The History of Theatre, with lots of drawings.”

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Hugh Colman’s set model for Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty

Hugh had been fascinated by ballet as a child; he has particularly vivid memories of The Royal Ballet’s films starring Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes, and The Australian Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. But it was not until he was a young man, working with the famed designer Kristian Fredrikson at Melbourne Theatre Company, that he began his “strange trajectory towards ballet”. Fredrikson received the commission to design The Australian Ballet’s production of Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, and Hugh was “a sort of assistant without a name” on the production.

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David James as Prince Charming and Georgia Scott-Hunter as Cinderella in Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photography Jeff Busby

Peggy van Praagh, The Australian Ballet’s artistic director, was obviously impressed with Frederikson’s nameless assistant. She commissioned him to design a string of one-act ballets for the company, and to come up with “legs” and borders for an existing backdrop of Les Sylphides. The English star Dame Alicia Markova was coaching the company in the ballet. “I remember her saying, ‘Ladies, when when you put your hands above your head, you’re not just putting your hands above your head, you’re reaching for the moon.’ She had this ability to inject poetry and meaning into movement that might otherwise be tiresome.”

Another English star, Maina Gielgud, turned Hugh’s ballet trajectory into a comet by handing him the commission to create sets and costumes for her new production of The Sleeping Beauty, which would open Arts Centre Melbourne (then the Victorian Arts Centre) in 1984. ‘It came out of left field. It was completely unexpected. I entered a competition The Australian Ballet ran, and the next thing I knew, there was Maina on the phone asking me if I wanted to design her ballet. She took a punt on a completely unknown designer who had never made a tutu ballet. It was a year of the most exciting creative madness … we did the whole thing, designed it and built it, in a year.’

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Hugh Colman’s design for Florestan’s sisters in Maina Gielgud’s The Sleeping Beauty

Maina’s punt paid off. The production, which subsequently travelled the world (most notably to London’s Covent Garden), was lavishly praised. Colman’s designs blended the sumptuous Imperial luxury that every Beauty must have with a zephyrous lightness that captured the ballet’s otherworldly side. There were fanciful touches – fairy headdresses that seemed about to take flight, a White Cat in harem pants.

Hugh drew on his knowledge of period design – the Rococo silhouette, the flowers nestling in the coiffures of coquettes from Bouchard and Fragonard paintings – to inspire the ballet’s court costumes, but the fairies had to come from a deeper place. “You’re kind of on your own there. It’s your childhood memories of what fairies meant to you. I think most of the fairy costumes were built out of elements of nature – a lot of leaves. I wanted them to have a look of something that is only just covered with something very fine, so a lot of the bodices are built on a flesh colour, as if they’re about to peel away – little layers of leaf and lace and things, that could be vegetal. The colouring was built around that as well, with the exception of the Fairy of Temperament [often known as Violente]. I discovered somewhere that her solo was intended to reflect the advent of electricity in the theatre, and it is galvanising! I always knew she had to had an element of surprise, so her underskirt has an injection of pink, where all the rest are greens.”

Carabosse, the Wicked Fairy who curses the baby princess, was also perhaps a surprise for audiences. Traditionally, she is depicted as an ancient hag, but both Hugh and Maina wanted her to be “sexy, dangerous, alluring.” Her bodice plunges, and her cloak whirls off to reveal a dress licked with flame red, expressing her perilous anger. “A designer who gets to come to grips with a Carabosse is a lucky designer.”

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Hugh Colman’s design for Coulante in Maina Gielgud’s The Sleeping Beauty

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Hugh Colman’s design for Carabosse in Maina Gielgud’s The Sleeping Beauty

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Evie Ferris as Carabosse in Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photography Jeff Busby

Binding all these elements together were the abiding themes of blue and gold. “That was what the music sounded like to me. I’ve always relied on the music to evoke what the palette will be. Originally I wanted a blue floor, but there was no blue Tarkett available. Notoriously, the floor was painted, and it did nothing but come off on the dancers’ shoes as they pirouetted. I’d have loved it to be a blue marble floor; that was what I always wanted it to be.”

Finding the essence of a design by looking to the music is intrinsic to Hugh’s process. ‘You just listen to it and it will reveal something to you. It’s where I come closest to giving myself over to instinct. I like design to have a meaning – I don’t like things to go down willy nilly – but having said that, I think sometimes you just have to respond, and to trust that something will pull it altogether, that it won’t become too wayward. It’s like having another collaborator in the room, and it’s actually the best collaborator. It’s the one you can’t quite talk to, but boy, you can listen.” The White Cat’s piquant costume came in just this way. “I listened to the music and I thought, that’s a Persian cat!”

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Saranja Crowe as the Fairy of Grace (Coulante) in Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photography Jeff Busby