Creating Ballet Scenery
Q&A with Resident Scenic Artist Kelly Palmer
April 17, 2019


Describe your work as Resident Scenic Artist and how you got your start with the company.
I’m responsible for all the painting and decorative finishes for all the hard and soft scenery including the backdrops. I work closely with our Assistant Scenic Artist Mark Reid and up to eight other scenic artists depending on what we’re working on. Depending on the show, we could be carving, sculpting, sewing, texturing, painting and more. We also often draw full-scale construction drawings from the designs provided by the set and costume designer, which assists the carpenters during construction.

I’ve been working as a scenic artist ever since I graduated from OCAD in 1998. My first theatrical scenic job was with The National Ballet of Canada for James Kudelka’s Swan Lake (1999). Working on the new production of Swan Lake is a full circle moment! I worked for several other performing arts companies and in film before joining the team full-time in 2006. I love the National Ballet because it’s historical – I appreciate the longevity of this company and think it’s amazing that we maintain and keep all our old sets.



Is there anything the National Ballet does differently when it comes to scenic work?
There are other studios that paint backdrops while they’re hanging, but we paint our drops on the ground while standing on them as we paint. Painting drops on the ground allows us to use different painting techniques like spattering, spraying and painting with large broom brushes. We also often make our paint from scratch using powdered pigment and binder, which is unlike any shop in North America. Doing this gives us a greater control of colour mixing and the colours appear more vibrant. I love that this is a traditional technique that we’ve continued to use.

What is the process like to build a new production?
It’s fascinating because you get to see things come full circle. You learn the designer’s vision at the beginning of the process and then you get to watch things grow and see every little detail constructed from scratch. Whether the design is modern or classic, there’s an ever evolving, organic process. It’s wonderful to work as a group to see it all come to fruition.

Many of our other productions get used year after year, what does it take to maintain a production?
It’s a constant process – we are constantly repairing productions that are heading back on stage, going out on tour or being rented to another ballet company. Every summer, we work on some aspect of The Nutcracker. Right now, I’m repairing and reconstructing a few items for The Sleeping Beauty, which was originally built in 1976 and refurbished in 2006. It’s important to look back at our older works because they incorporate techniques that I might not have seen or learnt about yet. Those bits of history on the process are so important – repairing and caring for older sets is like studying, I definitely learn a lot from them.

What has been your favourite production to work on?
There are so many! I love Santo Loquasto’s designs, Onegin (re-designed 2010) and James Kudelka’s Swan Lake are two of my favourites. Santo just has such a creative flow to his designs which makes them so inspiring work on.

Our Footwear Coordinator has said that the first time she sees a ballet she only watches the shoes. Do you experience something similar when seeing your work on stage?
Totally – I’m constantly staring at my work! But that’s when it makes the most sense. Productions involve so many people and, in the end, everybody becomes one. Of course, I’m looking at the set but I’m also recognizing how the lighting designer lit the set or how the dancers move around the set. I’m looking at the quality of the set, but it’s part of a whole. It’s how it comes together that I’m staring at. That being said, I can still enjoy an evening at the ballet!

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