Lucky Thirteen

Tatiana Mikhailova

Magazine issue: 
#4 2014 (45)


"13" was remarkable for being ideologically, aesthetically and conceptually unbiased, and the exhibition project was put together in a very democratic manner. Since the participants were given free reign in choosing their exhibition material, some of them decided to show work from the last four or five years, while others included productions from the i960 and 1970s. There was also a wealth of genre and variety of subject with pieces ranging from tragedy to farce, from musical sets to stage costumes, from feature film drawings to animation work shown on screen.

In spite of the great span in time and genre that was covered, the display gave a singularly united, almost classically straightforward impression. In this particular case artistic consistency without a hint of anything eclectic came from the highest level of excellence demonstrated by the participating artists.

It is a common perception that any theatrical concept goes through a life cycle of a generation and then changes, having exhausted itself. In the i960 and 1970s, when most of the participants were young, there was a relentless opposition to old-fashioned forms of stage set design, tedious in their descriptive character and recreating mundane details of everyday existence. Progressive stage designers were aiming to uncover the subtext of a play, its deeper meaning, by invoking associations and probing visual metaphors. It was a time of complete and sometimes defiant disregard for the theatrical wisdom of previous years.

There have been significant shifts in ideas about stage design in the 21st century too, but they are less drastic and less aggressive, allowing older practices to actively co-exist with recently acquired stage techniques. Nothing is discarded in a hurry and much of what was previously rejected has returned.

The way the audience reacts to various innovations does not back up the commonly articulated opinion about the future of production design being mostly reserved for computer technology. Those who go to theatres and cinemas today, art critics included, show equal appreciation towards onstage metaphorical structures, traditional back-cloths and drop-cloths, an odd aesthetic twist of Surrealism and computer animation. Nothing is seen as outdated, as long as it has a distinct individual appeal.

"13" was captivating in its selection of such individuality. A video recording of the "Carmen Suite" production designed by Boris Messerer (1967) on screen, stage designs for "And Quiet Flows the Don", by Eduard Kochergin, Sergei Alimov's drawings for the animated film "Little Organ. The Story of a City" based on the writings of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1993), film sets by Alexander Borisov for "Anna Karenina" (2009), scale-models designed by Sergei Barkhin for plays directed by Mindaugas Karbauskis and Kama Ginkas in the last couple of years - all were shown on the same museum-like level. At their core is each artist's background of an excellent art education, including classes in painting and drawing, which only reinforces the notion of the depth and breadth of opportunity offered by traditional art courses.

The paramount relevance of the traditional painted stage design was singularly evident in the work of Valery Levental that opened the exhibition. It has been a long time since this artist participated in theatre and art shows, but he still does a lot of work for Moscow theatres. Exclusively for the exhibition he prepared a carefully chosen and streamlined series of six stage sketches for Jacques Offenbach's"Les Contes d'Hoffmann", created for the Stanislavsky Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre in 2011.

By commissioning a theatre designer such as Levental, any director (in this case Alexander Titel) is from the start providing for the significance of the artistic interpretation in the future production. During this performance the stage sets were changed in full view of the audience, a huge semi-sculptural figure of Pegasus pushed out by the stage-hands to its fitting place in the centre of the stage and illuminated to give a halo effect was used as an artistic overture and a final chord. The sketch to this proto-prologue only slightly reflects the beauty of the theatrical imagery, tuning the audience into an "elevated" combination of tragedy and comedy. The rest of the sketches corresponding to the acts of the opera give an almost complete insight into the feeling produced by the performance with its amazing back-cloths and multi-dimensional acting space created by the side scenes.

The city tavern next to the theatre is filled with a colourful crowd, and the rigid architectonics of Coppelius' laboratory with its scary revolving machinery and white prisms; an arched colonnade in Venice with rotating romantic landscapes in the background; the atmosphere of sadness and utter solemnity in the house of the ill-fated Antonia - everything reveals the masterful touch of someone experienced in translating musical ideas into fine art. Due to his firm character and the high regard that the members of the production team have for him Levental knows how to make sure that the ideas from his sketches are adequately transferred to the images on stage. This artist does not admit approximation, detached aesthetics or drawing-room cliches. The images from the fairy tales are truly living and authentic, harmonizing with the poetic world of the music in the opera.

In Boris Messerer's sketches for the Bolshoi Theatre production of the "Hump-backed Horse" ballet by Rodion Shchedrin staged 15 years ago the fairytale motive is rendered in a way more symbolic but no less integrated within the context of the music. The unfading aesthetic value of those great canvases is apparently owing to the bursting polyphony of colour combined with a clear-cut, somewhat coarse structure and packed with theatrical wizardry. How all this flexible entertainment came together on stage was shown in a video recording demonstrated on a screen in the same hall.

As well as the stage design classics of the "Hump-backed Horse", Messerer also introduced some of his recent commissions, including a scale-model and costume designs for last year's premiere of Maurice Maeterlinck's philosophical tale "The Blue Bird" at the Sergei Obraztsov Puppet Theatre. After a decade and a half this scale-model conveniently "hosts" the stylized peacock feathers that had been the theme for the Firebird in Shchedrin's ballet. They are less stylized here, or rather are stylized in a different way. In "The Blue Bird" they come across not only as a symbol of the eminent bird of fortune but also as a blue-shaded sculptural sign of our universe set against the background of the cosmos represented by the sparks of the Milky Way on black velvet and lace. It is the place where the young characters in the play are faced with the other world - the world of ancestors. The dwelling of the poor blacksmith in the scale-model looks much too sweet in the midst of such surroundings.

Spectacular phantasmagoric costume designs for the same production are capable of awakening children's imagination, and are simply wonderful in their fantasy and plasticity, which could be realized on stage only in approximation. It might have been possible perhaps in a different theatrical context, where the latest computer and animation technology was available.

The search for an alternative language of artistic expression, into which the full force of drama could be translated at the same time as reducing the effort and costs invested in the production, has led to the introduction of innovative theatrical methods. The use of computer technology, digital imaging and animation more or less opens up new horizons for fresh modes of expression. The multi-dimensional and wide-ranging variety afforded turns both into a short-cut for the stage designer and into a precarious test, a touchstone for proving their artistic taste and personal discipline. The new technological devices, when skillfully integrated into the living structure of the set, become part of the imagery coming together in completely relaying the message behind the drama. This, however, can only be attained to a professional fine art level with a background of solid artistic training.

Yury Ustinov, the youngest member of the Department of Theatrical and Cinema Decorative Art and a graduate of the Surikov Institute has such a background of knowledge and skill, as witnessed at his frequent personal exhibitions where easel paintings are displayed along with set designs. Some of his large-scale painted set designs for theatre and film and a number of amazing little TV drama illustrations made their way to "13" as well. There were new offerings, too: he introduced visitors to the exhibition to the 3-D stage designs made for Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" at the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Krasnodar (2011), and for Wagner's "Rienzi" at the Saratov Opera and Ballet Theatre (2013). They were shown in a video recording on screen: highly expressive and streamlined projects where the artist transforms his own paintings into a moving three-dimensional artistic space on stage that gives a powerful visual effect. In this particular instance there is no place for any serious questioning of his artistic capacity.

However, this kind of stage design where technological innovation does not remain on the level of assistance only, but evolves into the main aesthetic category is gradually becoming a mass phenomenon, a factor which often invites controversy regarding the limits of theatrical convention.

Alongside Ustinov's innovative video ran the recording of a perfectly traditional version of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" designed for the Krasnoyarsk Opera and Ballet Theatre by Dmitry Cherbadzhi in 2006. Given all the various approaches to musical classics, the force of talent and pronounced artistic standpoint the set design as such did not come across as inferior or outdated. Cherbadzhi is the most vehement follower of tradition in painted decorations, in theory, in private practice (as is evident from a wall full of sketches for classical opera and ballet productions staged in various cities across the country) and in teaching.

Computer graphics was the medium used by Alexander Orlov in his stage designs for Borodin's "Prince Igor" at the Essen Opera Theatre in Germany (2009), for Shchedrin's "The Left-hander" at the Mariinsky (2013), and for Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" at the Nizhny Novgorod Drama Theatre (2012). The artist makes room for the new technologies but they are less poignant and intensive than in the latest work of Yury Ustinov. He mainly goes for computer-assisted preparatory stages, including sketches, but reverts to more traditional techniques for the actual stage decoration. At the centre of the stage design for a modernized version of "Prince Igor", the back-cloths have a soft-drawn imagery representing the moon and solar eclipses in different phases that creates a tragic undertone. Whereas one of the few but carefully chosen and telling symbols of the doom overhanging the deeply-rooted way of life in "The Cherry Orchard" is a large chandelier covered at the beginning and later just lowered to the floor: an unremarkable but totally fitting set-up.

In recent years the artistic scale-model has taken precedence as a form of arranging set designs for exhibitions. Drawings are less and less important in theatre life and are slowly giving way to displays."13" was no exception: the majority of productions commissioned in the last two or three years, especially from the most active theatre artists who are in high demand and enjoying success in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities, are displayed as scale-models.

On the other hand, one of the show's participants, Edu-ard Kochergin, preferred scale-models both in his studio and at exhibitions even 40 years ago, often adding complementary sketches and small drawings. At the time, together with David Borovsky, he was a master of this eloquent theatrical form of production design presentation. Their theatrical scale-models were always a treat at stage design exhibitions, an artistic phenomenon that became part of the history of Russian theatre art, as did the performances they represented.

Creating different combinations and using his favourite materials (much loved by audiences, too) like sack cloth, matting, roughly tied-up wooden boards, paper and tree branches Kochergin turns out every time a meaningful solution quite unlike the previous one, inventing a new dramatic metaphor, an unexpected image. The scale model for "The Fighters" by S. Karas for the Bolshoi Drama Theatre in 1974 where the stage set interior is made of separate sheets of rough unbleached canvas sewn together is a classic. Scale-models next to it for Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and Mrozek's "On Foot" (staged at the same theatre in 2012) are of an exquisite style and highlight the art of making the strongest impression with the least resources. The artist uses carefully chosen, reserved and straightforward architectural and decorative devices which in the course of the performance turn around and move across the stage; tiny but important and very expressive details (in the Mrozek production these are painful reminders of war time childhood and destruction); and austere colour patterns of black and gold for Shakespeare, and of black and grey with small coloured spots for the story of war.

One of the most integral and artistically clear personal sections of the exhibition belonged to Sergei Barkhin. It hosted five scale-models for recently staged plays, most of them from the last two years. Brilliantly erudite and a fine expert in style with a taste for artistry and a gift of subtle paradoxical thinking, Barkhin in his vast artwork has gone through many devotions and diversions experienced by Russian stage design without ever giving up, even outwardly, his independence. Today he is enthusiastic about creating aesthetic equivalents of theatrical space based on the search for ideal stage geometry and drawing upon the popular (and much used in architecture) law of the golden section and its connotations. His success in searching in this direction, as declared by the artist, was profoundly evident in the scale-models for Brecht's "Mr. Puntila and his Man Matti" (2012) and for "Kant" by Marius Ivaskevicius (2013) at the Mayakovsky Theatre, and also for "Shakespeare's Fools" at the Moscow Young Generation Theatre (2012). Those models are hard to analyze, and can only be marveled at as pieces of harmonious beauty. Seeing the stage set (by and large) not in terms of a conceptual or historically placed work of art but as a purely aesthetic phenomenon might be the most progressive way forward for stage design. As it is utterly impossible, in principle, to attain perfection in this form of art (just as it is impossible to invent perpetual motion), here the perspective opens up for a ceaseless moving forward devoid by definition of stagnation and far-fetched pretensions.

Pure in its minimalistic simplicity (refined down to an almost bare stage) Vladimir Arefiev's arrangement of Prokofiev's "War and Peace" at the Stanislavsky Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre (2012) could in some sense be considered in the same vein. But the majority of his other scale-models on display were of a more conceptual character, coming from opera productions where the setting is fashionably updated or at least brought closer to our own times. In all these performances, including Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" at the Opera Theatre in Innsbruck (2010), Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" at the Stanislavsky Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre (2012), Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" at the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Yekaterinburg (2012), Arefiev worked together with Alexander Titel. It is worth mentioning this director's rare capacity for adequate modernization of classical opera without losses in music and drama. It is a difficult task, in which the stage designer plays a significant role.

The stage set for"The Barber of Seville", with its lively, ironical touches and scenes of Italian life after the spirit of neo-realist cinema, was completely convincing. Past and present were connected and woven into the fabric of "Boris Godunov", where the artist chose a modern industrial building in the form of a huge rusty old reservoir with a black iron staircase around it to be the centerpiece of the set. Against the backdrop of this very un-bo-yar-like stage arrangement without the beauty of the churches and the splendour of costume the focus is on the poverty, discomforts and misery characteristic of life in the "Time of Troubles" of Russian history.

Modern interpretations of classical material are always a test of how talented and close-knit the director-designer tandem proves. It is increasingly difficult to give fresh energy to a classical play staged many times before when leaving it in the period stated by the author, and not falling prey to the manoeuvers of "resuscitation" that are popular nowadays. This kind of ideal tandem is represented by designer Stanislav Benediktov and director Alexei Borodin, who work together at the Russian Academic Young Generation Theatre (RAMT). Benediktov's acute poetic giftedness can make any play "breath" afresh. In his work for Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" (2004) the artist chose to interpret the feeling of the drama, getting the audience involved within the psychologically nuanced atmosphere. Lovingly and tenderly recreating the spirit of the dying manor house he uncovered subtle but powerful details and employed unexpected impressionistic imagery. A complex structure with the set space taking over part of the small stage and the stalls (with the audience occupying the other part of the stage), offered additional opportunities for creating the necessary stresses in the arrangements throughout the play. The gentle and finely crafted scale-model of the set presented at the exhibition gave a pretty accurate idea of the special features involved in the arrangement.

Benediktov generally loves working with space, and makes a good job of developing the arrangement on a wider scale with a talented and extraordinary usage of the stage circle, as he did for Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra" (2012); changing the stage structure by moving folding screens or drastically changing the colours from black to white for Akunin's "Yin and Yang" (2005); or placing part of the set in the first rows in the stalls for Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" (2007). As an acknowledged professional he is however capable of anything imaginable in terms of stage design, introducing and inventing new approaches while all the time keeping his deeply held sincere and noble artistic style. The elegant black-and-white pages of sketches gave a welcome insight into the artist's work.

Sergei Alimov participated in the exhibition not only as a stage designer and creator of scenographic arrangements for plays staged at the Obraztsov Puppet Theatre, but also as a world-famous animation artist and illustrator. In his stylistically consistent section it was hard to trace any significant differences in the way he approaches those various forms of decorative art. But who would say this kind of personal consistency is a flaw?

Characters from the puppet shows "Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift (2010) and Cervantes's "Don Quixote" (2013) are vividly eloquent in the stage designs depicting different subplots and at the same time retain their usual literary and artistic credibility. Theatrical intonation works in various way, and this was one of them.

His grotesque sketches for "The Story of a City" (1993) with their affected awkwardness of gesture, fancy angles and broken movements that have long become classic were available as a final product too, in the form of an animation film on a screen next to the artist's personal section at the exhibition. This was yet another opportunity to see Alimov as a supreme master of the aesthetics of the absurd.

Throughout the years of his variations on Gogol (in this case illustrating "The Nose" in 2009-2011) the artist every time uncovered some new aspect in the study of the writer's life and work. His illustrations become better and better adjusted, even ascetic, acquiring a noble simplicity.

The patriarch of the theatre and cinema decorative art world, who enjoys great reverence among department members, Alexander Borisov is a virtuoso of similar noble simplicity. At the exhibition the sketches to his lesser-known films re-appeared after many years: "An English Murder" (1974), "Who Is That Knocking on My Door?" (1982) and "Parts of Potapov's Life" (1985). They are all the more interesting to look at afresh, from a contemporary point of view, and the indisputable authority of the master who knows how to make the visuals noticeable without too much fuss remains apparent. Each of the sketches is a subtle, gentle artwork in its own right. The tempera series of four sketches for "Anna Karenina" directed by Sergei Solovyev (2009) has the clarity and transparency of a watercolour. Borisov has been the constant creative partner of Soloviev, and they have always shared an understanding of screen flexibility and have often succeeded in achieving it ("One Hundred Days after Childhood", "The Station Master"). As for "Anna Karenina", the visuals there, especially as represented in Borisov's drawings are undoubtedly the best part of the film.

The two artists whose displays at the exhibition concentrated on (but were not limited to) costume design were the outstanding designer and fashion guru Vyacheslav Zaitsev, and a unique expert in theatrical and concert costume, Maria Fedorova.

Zaitsev's costume designs for Shakespeare's "Richard III" at the Vakhtangov Theatre (1980) are purposefully traditional. As an expert in the history of costume with a fine taste for style he focuses on balance, dressing the characters with historical accuracy and making them fit in with the overall production concept. He did not call attention to his role, or to try to force any personal ambition forward (which is a sign of authentic professionalism and artistic integrity). The same was true of his approach to the costume design for Edward Albee's "All Over" staged at the Moscow Arts Theatre (1979). A striking, daring, distinctive and artistic interpretation of Russian costume traditions was represented by the adjacent display from his "Origins" and "Extravaganza" collections.

Maria Fedorova started her artistic career in the 1970s under Vyacheslav Zaitsev by designing a series of collections with imaginative versions of everyday dress. She then had 30 years as a costume designer for folk groups, and became a unique expert in this rare field. Fedorova considers it to be her task (not least through costume designs for Nadezhda Babkina's ensemble "Russian Song" displayed at the exhibition) to merge the traditions of Russian folk dress and theatrical costume. Both in group sketches and on stage she strives to create a consistent and artistically verified stage design.

Among recent exhibitions at the Russian Academy of Arts "13" was special in a number of ways. It was a well-considered and painstakingly prepared project. The show had a particular "preface" in the form of large posters with sets of group photograph portraits of the participants with famous theatre people (taken mainly at the production stage or on opening nights), photos from theatre and private studios, and images of the department staff with their theatre students, a unique selection covering half a century.

Each of the personal sections of the exhibition were accompanied by information containing the major points of the artists' biographies. All in all, the exhibition had that unusual conception - a contemporary yet academic feel.





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