In April 2015, the then relatively new Louisville Ballet director Robert Curran initiated a series of collaborations with Louisville artists to produce scenery and costumes for ballet productions. Artists, with little or no background in theater, were faced with such tasks as reimagining classics like Swan Lake or bringing to fruition a world premiere of How They Fade. For Curran and the artists, choreographers, and dancers involved, these projects entail creative conflict, discomfort, and experimentation to generate visual experiences that defy our expectations of ballet.
The sixth such collaboration, Human Abstract, appearing February 22-26, provides the ideal scenario for Curran, choreographer Lucas Jervies, and artists Andrew Cozzens, Tiffany Carbonneau, and Ezra Kellerman to respond to the potential of creative conflict, because the ballet is itself about the complexity of human emotion and love. Jervies and Curran, who co-founded Jack Productions, revisit their 2010 production of the same name that took place in Melbourne, Australia. For Curran, partnering with artists rather than professional set designers “adds a level of complexity and conflict—in a good way—to the process.” He says, “It wasn’t easy for Lucas to work with three people. It also wasn’t easy for the visual artists not having worked in the theater before, but, the beautiful thing that comes out of that are fresh ideas that we wouldn’t normally come up with. It’s a very carefully controlled recklessness.”
Carbonneau says the artists interpreted Human Abstract’s themes of interior and exterior, in the context of love and war, to “design an environment where the dancers could seem fragile due to the the perceived vastness of space.” Artificial grass covers the entire stage, acting as a metaphor for infinite space, while frames and objects created with LED tubing, such as a chandelier, reference human-scale architecture and interiors. Kellerman explains that their design was intended to function as more than a backdrop, to challenge preconceived notions of what a stage should look like.
Curran worked with Louisville Visual Art (LVA)—an organization that serves as a conduit between artists and the community—and a community panel to select Carbonneau, Kellerman, and Cozzens. Curran recognizes the creative impact the artists had on the performance, as well as the financial benefit the performance had for the artists. He says, “There is an altruistic component to the collaboration. The ballet company has a much more significant budget than some of the visual artists have here, and that gives them the opportunity to be in front of a different demographic.”
For Carbonneau, this was a factor in her decision to participate, “As a video projection artist and professor, I am often presented with ‘opportunities’ for myself or my students that ask us to create less than thoughtful work with little to no compensation,” she explains. She agreed to work with the ballet based on its past artist collaborations which were thoughtful in content, allowed for conceptual practice, and were funded appropriately.
The financial benefit is mutual—artists bring with them an audience new to the ballet, and audience growth is, for any performing arts institution, a constant struggle. Curran noted especially their performance of Swan Lake in October 2016 as an example of how collaborating with artists Ryan Daly, Tiffany Woodard, and Garrett Crabtree (see this excellent video interview with the artists) brought in a really “mixed group,” including, Curran hopes, the next generation of ballet supporters. While Human Abstract pushes a lot of boundaries as a ballet, Curran is counting on audience members to come to the ballet with an open mind.
These artist collaborations began a few years ago, with Balanchine’s Square Dance, when Curran hired Letitia Quesenberry to design the scenery (she also designed How They Fade). The opportunity to work on Square Dance also introduced Quesenberry to an international scene—it is notoriously difficult to get approval to perform a Balanchine piece from the Balanchine Trust. For Curran, the international exposure for Louisville artists, dancers, and audiences is key to the future of the ballet and a boost for the artists as well.
In April 2016, the Louisville Ballet performed a second Balanchine performance, Kammermusik No. 2, marking for Curran an awe-inspiring moment in a collaborative relationship. While Curran says each of the performances has been “surprising in a joyful way,” he specifically recalls Chris Radtke’s environment for Kammermusik No. 2 and Jacob Heustis’s installation for Coppelia.
For many of these participating artists, the collaboration has made a lasting impact on their practice. “As visual artists, we are used to developing ideas, researching, making decisions, developing skills, and producing all aspects of our own work, as well as marketing and exhibiting the work once it’s done,” Cozzens said, “We are used to being in control of everything. This collaboration requires a step back as it is multiple minds coming together and a completely new list of rules and regulations within the theater environment.” Collaboration has inspired him to take on more projects of scale, and Quesenberry shares his sentiments. Radtke was so profoundly influenced by both the scale of her work and the collaborative effort, she has since installed large bodies of work at the 21c Museum Hotel and in the lobby of Clairiant, Inc., and has collaborated on a contemporary dance piece with choreographer Stephanie Harris at the University of Kentucky.
Certainly, the Louisville Ballet’s productions with artists continue a long and illustrious history of artists designing scenery and costume for the theater—from Alexandre Benois and Henri Matisse, to Pablo Picasso and David Hockney. The list is long and powerful. Curran says, “These people were extraordinary, and I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be at the Châtalet when The Rite of Spring was performed,” he says. “I think that art that pushes you that far is really good art.”
Eileen Yanoviak is a PhD Candidate in Art History at the University of Louisville and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She is also Membership Manager at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.