Designing Swan Lake: Gabriela Týlešová
August 25, 2020

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Karen Kain’s new production of Swan Lake for The National Ballet of Canada features striking new sets and costumes by Gabriela Týlešová, an award-winning designer for theatre, opera, dance and film. Gabriela has imagined a timeless, fairy-tale world for Swan Lake using both traditional and contemporary methods, blending her original paintings with video projections and digital printing in what she describes as “a symphony of design, movement and music.” 


This new staging emphasizes the romance between Prince Siegfried and the white swan Odette while remaining true to the darkness in which their story unfolds. Gabriela’s design underscores the point, using the villainous figure of Rothbart – part human, part bird – as a visual cue of the forces against the young lovers. 


“Rothbart is the master of the whole world and he manipulates everyone,” says Gabriela. “So, we decided to make the set an extension of his character. We have constructed enormous wings – 20 metres long – that can move across the stage to open and close the show. They remind us that the darkness Rothbart represents, the danger, is always there.” 
 
Movement and nature are both essential to Gabriela’s design. Along with Rothbart’s wings, the garden backdrop in the opening scenes appears to live and move with the help of video projections. Gabriela photographed her own landscape paintings, manipulated the images and then projected them over the entire scene. She used a similar technique with many of the costumes, creating 3D images of her paintings to be printed directly on the fabric.


“If you can project the moving brush stroke it starts to breathe,” she says. “In certain instances, we want the sets to have that quality – to become alive.” 
 
The most striking element of the natural world in Swan Lake are, of course, the swans and the central figure of Odette/Odile, the first costume that Gabriela designed. She took more than a year to develop a prototype for the feathers alone, 120 of which adorn each swan tutu. Gabriela hoped the feathers would provide a visual link with Rothbart and his wings, serving as a reminder of the swans’ captivity. 
 
“We thought a lot about how to create the feathers,” she says. “The thing about real feathers is that maintenance is tricky and they’re not very big, so they don’t read very well on stage. We ended up developing pleated fabric and digitally printed fabric to approximate the look of feathers, and I think they’re better than the real thing.” 


The design is also filled with surprises, whimsical touches that showcase Gabriela’s imagination and love of theatre. In her hands, the traditional ballroom scene of Act III becomes a masquerade where all the guests arrive in enchanting costumes. With some in nondancing roles, Gabriela had the freedom to experiment in new ways. 
 
“We have a few characters in this production who don’t dance, which is brilliant because it means I can do fun things and they don’t have to be technically danceable. We’re creating new characters that haven’t existed in Swan Lake in the past. I’m really enjoying that part.”
 

Swan Lake is onstage June 11 – 27, 2021.

 
 

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