The sets, or scenery, in Swan Lake on Ice have been designed by Eamon D’Arcy, one of Australia’s leading scenic designers. Eamon was the Production Designer for the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and has a career spanning 25 years creating sets for numerous musicals, plays, dance productions and spectacular shows in Australia and Asia.
We talked to Eamon about the creative process behind Swan Lake on Ice:
What gave you the inspiration for the sets you have designed?
First of all, Tony Mercer, the Director, and I discussed the broad look and feel that Tony was after for this production – he wanted the lake to be a place of mystery and beauty, he thought the Palace courtyard should be set in springtime in St Petersburg in Russia, and that the whole production should be set in the Romanov period which was the end of the Imperial era of Russian history, because that was when Tchaikovsky composed the music, and it complements the image of the Company as the Imperial Ice Stars.
Tony was interested in combining the idea of the romantic ballet with the speed and athleticism of ice skating. So the first point of inspiration is classical ballet, and how the stage space is used within that tradition - there’s a particular visual style already set up, so within this context (it’s almost a homage to ballet) it’s important to use traditional staging techniques. But ultimately the work is a piece of fantasy so I researched artists that I felt contributed to the ‘look and feel’ that both Tony and I had discussed.
Where do you get your ideas from?
As I just mentioned, talking and researching are important starting points. I find listening to the music is crucial in terms of the moods and emotions of a work. Then you start to sketch, trying to put ideas down on paper, and then seeing whether or not they ‘work.’ Then I’ll start that process again, so that you try to keep refining the designs… making them work better for the project as a whole. I tend to work from the ‘inside out’ meaning that the intrinsic ideas of the project are vital for developing the design.
What are the main steps in the process from your initial ideas to what we see on stage?
In general terms there is a fairly strong process in designing for the stage. To give a simple answer would be to say that you move from the page to the stage. Although strictly speaking we haven’t got a ‘page’ or a ‘stage’ with this production, but the basic flow remains the same. The page in this situation can be notes, sketches, pieces of music and readings and the stage is the spaces of the ice rink, which is a series of circles. The two dimensional scribbles on the page have eventually to become three dimensional worlds on stage. All the ideas, discussions and drawings have to be developed knowing that eventually a performer will be flying past at breakneck speed. Whatever you do is never ever in isolation because you depend so much on other people to realise the designs. You have to be part of a team, and the processes of designing must always reflect that dynamic.
What considerations do you have to take into account given the sets are on an ice rink with fast athletes?
Well, as I suggested before, there’s a ‘clash’ of cultures in that the soft pointe of the ballet shoe meets the hard steel of the skate. The landscape might be fantasy and illusion but the ‘ground’ is an ice rink, with all the technical planning needed to manage the realities of high speed ice skating. So the way the stage is laid out and set up becomes important to the logistics of ice skating. Unlike drama, this form of theatre is not static but constantly moving, and at great speed. This poses many design and production issues: for example, there’s a certain danger to this project, and the design has to adapt to the rigours of ice skating, yet be concerned with the safety of the performers.
How do you know a design will work on the scale of a stage compared to a drawing?
The simplistic answer is that we do scaled drawings and models. But otherwise it’s a matter of both experience and the knowledge that the technical team will not let you move an inch until everything is resolved on paper first!
How was the set made once you had designed it?
It was made in two workshops, the construction in Adelaide and scenic art in Melbourne, Australia. So firstly the sets and props were built, then they were transported in segments along with the backcloths to the other workshop for painting and special effects.
How many set changes are there in this production?
The show has six different scenes with the lake set being used in three different ways. We have tried to be more three dimensional with the sets this time and have incorporated a flowing fountain, tree, real chandeliers and tents that the skaters can move around. What we have tried to do with the sets is to complement the amazing skating, fairytale story and to try and bring the whole thing to life. I believe the sets enhance all of this.
Who are your role models?
I was very lucky to have studied with a theatre designer in London named Margaret ‘Percy’ Harris. She was one of the famous Motley team of designers. When she retired she established a school (really an ‘open studio’) in London and I was one of her students.
How does this compare to designing the Sydney Olympics?
I think on first impressions they might seem like two different worlds but the themes of culture and sport mixing together are not that unusual, really. Actually, the All Blacks (the New Zealand rugby union team) start each match with a Haka, which is a Maori war dance. So culture, ritual, sport and play are themes that can be easily intertwined. I don’t think this is that far removed from the concept of the Olympics, though of course the scale of the production is a little different!
I have designed the sets for three ice shows, The Nutcracker on Ice, The Sleeping Beauty on Ice and now Swan Lake on Ice and really enjoy working with such a different and exciting art form – it has such energy and the element of danger keeps me on my toes!