Dressing for decadence: getting the look of Northern Ballet’s Casanova
- Credit: Caroline Holden
Set and costume designer Christopher Oram was the man charged with bringing to life the 18th century world of history's most notorious womaniser.
Legendary lothario Casanova is at the heart of choreographer Kenneth Tindall's lavish first full-length work for Northern Ballet.
Notorious as history greatest lover, irresistible to women with a no-holds-barred life, Casanova was also a complex character who pushed boundaries in the buttoned-down world of 18th century Venice.
To reveal more about this multi-layered character Tindall worked with Suffolk-based writer and Casanova expert and biographer Ian Kelly to chronicle the life of this controversial figure.
But the task of bringing the look of 18th century to life fell to set and costume designer Christopher Oram, who previously worked on the RSC's Wolf Hall and is currently bringing to life the Broadway musical version of Frozen.
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He and his team created 60 individually crafted wigs, 120 masks, dyed over 800 pointe shoes and stitched hundreds of metres of ribbons, silk bows, frills and rosette.
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The common perception of the story of Casanova is synonymous with 18th century decadence and debauchery. Was getting that look what you set out to achieve?
The story of Casanova is one of extremes. The common idea of him is of this notorious rake and lover but that is only part of his story. His life is bigger and more interesting than that. Ian [Kelly] the biographer is the guy who goes into the depth of it all, but our job was to visualise that world. It's a world of both religious fanaticism and sexual depravity. There are lots of contrasts to try to conjure. That is what made it such a great challenge for design.
Was the two sides — the religious and the decadent — usual in terms of visualising the story?
Casanova is fleeing the seminary when we first meet him while training to be a priest. Then things come up and that becomes not his destiny but he becomes dogged by the religious aspects of his work and his need to be respected by his peers, the intellects and the rich and famous of the 18th century world. Those were the kind of circles he moved in all across Europe. He was a fabulously well travelled man and we only get to scratch the surface of it. It's certainly ambitious in terms of the scale of it. He lived a very full life and we are putting a lot of it on stage. Everything we see is true but it is fascinating and leaves you thinking did he really do that.
You mentioned Suffolk-based Ian Kelly. Was his expert knowledge invaluable in terms of getting the right look and feel?
Absolutely. His knowledge is far greater than mine and that was great, but it is also his great knowledge of the subject versus we the fact that we are doing a ballet. There is obviously a dichotomy there and it is trying to straddle that together in terms of what is the best way of telling the story in this form. But he has been brilliant. He is such an amazing man. He is just a font of knowledge so you just want to exploit that because I found it so fascinating. His knowledge is encyclopaedic but particularly the politics of the world at that time, the social politics, domestic politics, how they lived.
Did he pointing out costume errors by saying they wouldn't be wearing that?
We had this basic dichotomy between the fact that 18th century garments are very big and heavy, but obviously the cast need to be able to dance in this stuff. People at the time showed their status by having acres and acres of luxurious fabric. A lot of the characters are ecclesiastical and they are about modesty and covering the body and yet also we are trying to do a dance piece. The Archbishop has to dance as much as courtesan. It means you're cheating like crazy, but you're creating your own vocabulary of how the garments look versus how they perform. That was the challenge.
This is choreographer Kenneth Tindall's first full-length ballet. What was he like to work with?
Brilliant. He is so enthusiastic. Obviously he has danced with the company for years so he knows how the company works and how the ensemble works. He just had everyone running around so enthused, he is so inspiring to work with. His energy is boundless and his knowledge straddles both areas because he has learned up on the period and he also knows about dance vocabulary and how to use movement as a way of telling story. It is such a privilege to work with anyone like that for me.
Challenges very different straight drama or musical versus ballet or dance piece?
I've done a lot of dance musicals so the challenge of actually being able to move in stuff is the same. What is different is the body and the line of the body is more important than the movement itself, whereas in musicals it tends to be about the energy and things spinning. In a piece like this it is about creating shape and form with the body as the primary form. We are inventing a medium of what these people in our danced version of this story would wear. I hope it is clear when you see it that this character is from one social group while other are from another social group.
When it came to the staging were you trying to reflect the lavish sumptuousness of the 18th century world Casanova lived in?
The intention is that it has a richness but also a sense of decay as well. My brief to the painters was that I wanted it to look like a glass bottle that had been at the bottom of a lagoon for centuries. It's luminous and glows but it is also slightly silty and rotten. It's a world and glamour but also slightly tarnished. The look is a combination of the set and you can make something look fabulous by how you light it.
As Casanova is on stage in Norwich, you're working on a very different project in staging the musical version of Disney's Frozen on Broadway. What can you tells us about it?
It's very exciting and very high profile but also I can't really say too much about it. However on the other hand everyone has seen the movie and it is not like we're going to change the ending, so why it's such a secret I don't know. We are currently in the middle of trying to put it together on stage. It is big and complicated but also every exciting. It means I have to fly to America a lot.
• Casanova, Norwich Theatre Royal, until April 8, 7.30pm, 2.30pm April 6/8, £37.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk