Tag Archive: John Macfarlane


Backstage with John Macfarlane

When Cinderella was broadcast on the BBC, the intervals featured exclusive backstage footage, along with interviews with many of the creative team. Here you can see a short excerpt in which John Macfarlane discusses his designs, and oversees the dancers trying on the full frog and lizard costumes!

With thanks to Glass Slipper Productions.

Modelbox presentation

An interview with John Macfarlane appeared in the Birmingham Post and Mail last week. The designer, who also worked on Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, told Diane Parkes:

‘In The Nutcracker everyone remembers the scene where the Christmas tree grows and the fire turns. In Cinderella we could have gone for just one major pivotal point. But this is a full length classical ballet with a story which has plenty of opportunities for imagination.”

The format of a classical ballet also brings with it some difficulties for a designer however:

‘It is the sheer logistics. You have all these ideas but then they have to fit into the grid and the side of the stage.

‘You have an idea and that is fine but then you realise that you can’t put it where you want to because you already have a piece of scenery there. It is very much like a sudoku puzzle. And that becomes all the more complicated when it is a production which also needs to tour so has to be adaptable for other theatres.’

Click here to read the full interview.

Costume fitting video diary

John Macfarlane was back at Birmingham Royal Ballet’s HQ last month, overseeing fittings for Cinderella. Here you can see a short video diary he recorded for us, including a first glimpse at one of the costumes for the title character.

Prop designs

In addition to designing the sets and costumes, John Macfarlane has been providing sketches for even the smallest props in Cinderella, ensuring a consistent visual style for the production.

Here you can see his drawings for two items; a cup cake and a dress box. Diana Childs, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Senior Stage Manager explains:

‘During Act I, a wig-maker and dress-maker and dance teacher come round to get the sisters ready for the ball. They arrive with dress boxes containing unfinished versions of the outfits that they will wear later in the ballet, so that they can try them on.

Here is the design for the boxes.

‘The second sketch is for a scene at the ball where a waiter is carrying a tray of cupcakes. So John has drawn a cupcake schematic so that the makers at the Royal opera House can make it exactly the way he wants it to look.’

Speaking to John later, the designer explains the importance of getting the look right.

The cakes have to catch the eye of one of the sisters, and be recognisable to the audience, and so it is neccessary that they are able to be stacked on the tray in an eye-catching pyramid. ‘We start with the overall visual that the audience will see and then work out from there the size of each individual cupcake,’ he says.

Once the props have been created the originals go back to John. ‘He’s a fine artist in his own right,’ explains Diana. ‘He exhibits all over the place, and original sketches like these would be worth a fortune, so we make copies for future reference and the drawings all go back safely to him!’

David A. Finn

Lighting Designer David A. Finn has joined the creative team working on Cinderella. He has worked with Designer John Macfarlane before, including on Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.

‘He has strong ideas about how he wants to accomplish the necessary effects, and he’s designing the lighting rig, working closely with our own lighting team’, says Director David Bintley.

Some of the choreographer’s most recent works have incorporated light as a key feature of the production design, such as the dramatic backdrop of bulbs and laser-effect outlines in E=mc², or The Orpheus Suite‘s movable wall of LEDs.

‘We’re working in a different kind of way this time around’ he says. ‘This time the design and the light have been conceived as one thing. John uses a lot of these plastic backcloths that allow light to pass through, so they have already begun to dictate the lighting specifications. And very early in our own discussions, he came up with this ‘Close Encounters’ effect. There’s a moment when a light comes down the chimney, for example, so the set has been designed with these sort of lighting effects in mind.’

John Macfarlane’s set designs

Here you can see Designer John Macfarlane working on cloths for Cinderella, in a specially recorded video diary:

The 'ugly' sisters

Here you can see John Macfarlane’s designs for arguably two of the most pivotal roles in Cinderella: the heroine’s stepsisters.

David Bintley has already praised the images, called them ‘terrific’. ‘I said from the beginning that I wanted to make sure that these two were “real” characters,’ he said, ‘as opposed to caricatures – a couple of dancers acting “ugly”.

‘When John does a costume design it isn’t just a design; it’s a character sketch too. He’s told me that sometimes when he starts work on the costumes he gets hung up on the face, which is the one thing he doesn’t actually need to worry about! But of course he’s painting entire characters, as opposed to simply what a particular dancer will be wearing.’

David’s earlier work, Beauty and the Beast saw the choreographer creating sister roles, however this time around will be quite different.

‘With Beauty and the Beast, for the two girls, Vanity and Pride, I deliberately chose two very beautiful girls. I wanted them to retain that beauty, but in a very haughty way, as their names suggested. In that instance, the fun aspect for me was that they were actually very similar, and their motivations were identical; a desire for money and status. But the sisters in Cinderella are almost entirely different. I’m not even referring to them as the “ugly” sisters.’

As David has already said, he is keen to avoid creating Cinderella’s sisters as purely comedic roles, so as not to run the risk of trivialising the harsh realities of the young girl’s plight. That’s not to say that there will not be funny moments, nor that he is not having fun with the physical appearance of the terrible twosome.

‘In Prokofiev’s treatment one is called “Dumpy” and the other “Skinny”, and I wanted to stay with these original characters. And I’m taking their sizes to extremes. Obviously we have no problem finding taller, more slender ladies, but for the shorter, fatter role we’re having to do a bit of work.

‘We’ve got a prosthetic suit, for which we’ve had initial fittings. With new costumes you always have to look at the practicalities of movement; especially so when you’re using a lot of padding, obviously. But the materials that they use now are so advanced, and so light and non-restrictive. You can get the air circulating to the body in a way which you just couldn’t do 20 years ago.’

The Four Seasons

David has confirmed that all of the design work on Cinderella has been completed. ‘I think the last designs were the ones for the Seasons,’ he says. ‘I haven’t actually seen complete finished designs for Spring or Winter, but I really don’t need to.

‘I spoke with John [Macfarlane, Designer] about them and we both know what the other is after.

‘Funnily enough, over the whole production, the hardest costume for him seems to have been the Spring costume. In theory it will be the simplest, just a little slip of a dress, but he puts so much thought into every one of his creations, and this one just seems to have come the hardest.’

David has also revealed who will be performing the roles of each of the four seasons, who visit Cinderella in the kitchen before she is magically whisked off to the Prince’s ball.

‘Momoko Hirata is Spring, Lei Zhao is Summer, Angela Paul is Autumn and Delia Mathews is Winter.

‘The character of each role is entirely within the steps. You have to establish the roles in a very short space of time – Momoko’s Spring variation is less than a minute, for example.’

David has already created choreography based upon the four seasons for previous works, but these new roles will not be influenced by what has gone before.

‘All of the versions that I’ve done in previous ballets have really been dictated by how each season has been characterised by the composer. The Verdi Four Seasons that I did has really very little to do with the seasons at all, other than Spring wears green, for example. It’s just a response to the music. Althoughy admittedly, there are appropriate qualities to each movement – so you’ve got a brilliance in winter and a langour in summer which would indicate snow and ice, and the hot sun respectively.

With the Prokofiev, there are similar elements. Spring is fast and joyous, and autumn is like leaves being blown around, a little bit menacing with a hint of rain. Summer is beautiful and languorous with flutes, and winter is pizzicato, like walking on ice.

I have been putting a lot of thought into why Prokofiev included the seasons at all – why are they in this story?

‘There’s a constant theme of time passing throughout the story of Cinderella – the imagery of the clock, or the transition from loneliness to joy. In our version, the seasons precede Cinderella going to the ball. And we liked the idea from the original scenario that this was the moment when Cinderella got dressed up into all her finery, and that the seasons all bring her appropriate gifts which become elements of what she wears. So it’s a bit like a little girl dressing up.

‘We’re still talking about the scene at the moment, as we’re still not entirely decided. But the idea is that summer will perhaps bring her flowers for her hair, and winter will bring a cloak of frosted leaves, and so on. All of these elements will then combine into the outfit that Cinderella wears for the ball.’

Cinderella’s coach

It has been hinted that Cinderella’s trip to the Prince’s ball may hold surprises for the audience in this new production.

‘John [Macfarlane, designer] was hesitant to have a coach at first, as he didn’t see how it could be achieved,’ confesses David. ‘I came up with an alternative that we both rather liked, although I’m not sure how it would have worked in practise.

‘There’s a vast starry background, and I suggested that Cinderella could literally run up the stars to exit the scene. So we would have an invisible staircase and she would seemingly disappear into the sky. I liked the idea of her being a bit like a child, with her dress and shoes being a little bit too big, before we saw her at the ball in the next scene.

‘I was also going to parallel that staircase with the stairs that lead up and out of her cellar kitchen; stairs that Cinderella is never allowed to step on.

‘So we were going to go ahead with that concept, but then everybody that John spoke to about the project said: ‘You’ve gotta have a coach!’ So we looked at it again and now we’ve got a coach, but it doesn’t do what coaches usually do…’

New Q&A with David Bintley

A new Q&A with David Bintley has just gone up on the Company website. In the discussion, originally conducted for the launch of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 2010-11 season tickets, the Director outlines how the project came about, and what he sees himself bringing to the classic fairytale.

He also praises designer John Macfarlane, saying:

‘Right from the start, the choice of collaborators is paramount, absolutely paramount, especially when you are creating a big piece.The music is obviously a vital factor, but the look of the production is so important as well.

I’ve never worked with the designer John Macfarlane or the lighting designer David Finn, although they’ve produced work for the Birmingham Royal Ballet before, most famously for Peter [Wright]‘s Nutcracker, created for the Company the year it moved to Birmingham.

I’ve wanted to work with John in the past, but one of us has always been busy with other projects at the wrong times. As soon as we started work on the ballet, John and I established that we were going to do a ‘proper’ Cinderella. John immediately went to work and everything that he has produced is utterly beautiful and wonderful.’

You can read the full interview with David Bintley by clicking here.

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