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Here’s a holiday story: Once upon a time, a talented, young woman began a ballet class but fell in love with the scenery instead of the dancing. That was merely the beginning of her story.
Jill Carter was fortunate to be mentored at The Evergreen State College by Ballet Northwest founder Bud Johansen in 1987. She went on to design sets for the American Conservatory Theater, Animal Fire Theater Company, Harlequin Productions and many other theaters and stage productions over 20 years. Carter is one of the consummate set designers and production artists in the Pacific Northwest, with submissions requested by the Moscow Ballet and design companies around the world. In 2017, she’ll be the art director for a major feature film.
Yet Carter has always maintained her interest in local ballet productions. She’s created complete scenic designs for Coppelia, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. She also contributed to ballet productions of Cinderella, Don Quixote and Sleeping Beauty.
OLY ARTS interviewed Carter in the midst of her creative flurry for this year’s Nutcracker set design at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts.
OLY ARTS: What did you first do for Ballet Northwest? How did you become involved with the company?
Carter: One of the first design projects I worked on for this production of Nutcracker was creating stick horses for the toy soldiers. I was raised with horses, so I modeled the stick horses after my favorite pony, Snowcloud. I still get a little pleasure each year seeing Snowcloud prancing around on the stage. Then in 1996 Bud hired me to redesign the “Land of Sweets” set. I’ve been designing or redesigning several parts of their production ever since. When Ken and Josie Johnson took over running the company from Bud and Mary Johansen, it was a natural transition to continue to design for them, as I’d worked with Ken for many years when he danced with the company as a child.
I love creating an environment in a large scale and collaborating with a huge range of people to all together create something magical and live.
OLY ARTS: What are the differences in working with the ballet company and a theatrical company?
Working for ballet is all about scale and space. The dancers need lots of space on stage to dance, so ballet sets are usually all about backdrops and scenic painting, whereas designing for a drama or a musical you would usually incorporate a lot of levels and architecture. Ballet allows you to be much more fantastical then most theatrical dramas. One lesson I’ve learned with ballet is to never lose site of the scale of the dancers, and to not let the set overshadow them and to give the dancers an environment that makes them look grand and regal. It’s really easy when you’re designing things on a piece of paper to make windows, for example, that fill the space of a 25-foot-tall drop, but in real life, with a five- or six-foot-tall person standing next to the window, something that tall would make a person look tiny.
OLY ARTS: How does the history of The Nutcracker inspire your work? What other ballet or artists inspire your work?
The story of The Nutcracker is filled with fairy tales and magic. The original story was written by a German author, E. T. A. Hoffmann, in the early 1800s and then adapted into a ballet in Moscow in 1892, with original music composed by Tchaikovsky. The ballet became popular in the United States in the ’40s, and was first done in Olympia by Ballet Northwest in 1983 in the Experimental Theater at The Evergreen State College, before The Washington Center for the Performing Arts was built.
My original Nutcracker “Land of the Sweets” design was heavily influenced by my love of art nouveau. This new set will have some of that influence, although I’m also getting inspired by Japanese snow paintings, baroque opera sets, Russian lacquer boxes and fantastical temples in Thailand.
Swan Lake has always been one of my favorite ballets, and I was thrilled to get to design the set for it several years ago. But nothing compares to the music in Nutcracker!
OLY ARTS: Can you share any inside information about the Nutcracker set and scenic design?
Ballet Northwest has been replacing various parts of the set over the years. The Silberhauses’ parlor was the last of the original 1983 set to be replaced when I redesigned it four years ago. The original house set had two portraits painted onto the drop that were of Bud Johansen’s grandparents. So when I redesigned the set, I had the portraits repainted and mounted on the new set to continue the tradition.
OLY ARTS: How long does it take to put together a ballet set design like this? How much work goes into it?
It usually takes me at least a year to design and build a set for ballet. The first phase is research about the production, the history, what story we want to tell with this set, what shapes, colors, styles. Then comes a variety of sketches and rough budgets to make a proposal to the board for funding. It is kind of staggering how much it costs to create these sets. Then I start drafting and creating paint elevations and building a scale model of the set. Then there’s finalizing the budget, ordering all the material and setting up the crew to build and paint the set. On average it’s about 600 hours to design and to oversee the creation of a set this size. It will take at least 1,200 hours to paint both of these sets, when you combine all the scenic artists and volunteer painters’ time.
We have all of the backdrops sewn by a company in Los Angeles and shipped up here for us to paint. It will end up being approximately 980 yards of cotton muslin and will take about 42 gallons of paint. These drops are large. The main backdrops are 50 feet wide by 24 feet high. There is no paint frame in Olympia to stretch and paint a drop like that upright, so we paint them on the floor and put our paintbrushes on long sticks so we can stand on the drop and paint it. Many of my drops have parts of them cut out so you can see through them to drops behind them, to add depth to the stage. To achieve this effect we paint the drop, then sit down with a pair of scissors and cut out the parts that are not part of the design, then flip the whole thing over and glue a fine net over the whole thing to hold up all the parts that are cut out. It’s an incredibly time-consuming process, but the effect is well worth it.
It’s one thing to be able to sit at my drafting table and do a painting of a backdrop. It’s an entirely different skill to then blow up that painting to something 50 feet wide and 25 feet tall. I couldn’t have painted the original set without the talented scenic artistry of Amanda Wilkening and Marko Bujeaud. For this new design I’m lucky enough to have the talents of Jeannie Beirne and Steve Bylsma to guide the army of painters to create whatever fantastical illusion I can come up with.
OLY ARTS: What’s your ultimate hope for your ballet set design work? Where will your set design go next?
Twenty years ago when the curtain rose on the “Land of the Sweets” for the first time, there was a little gasp from the audience, then a round of applause. I was so thrilled that the set elicited such a response. Having this set design in my online portfolio has opened many design opportunities for me from around the world, including getting requests for design submissions from the Moscow Ballet’s touring production of Nutcracker, a design company in Hong Kong that designs holiday-inspired sets for shopping malls, a company in California creating an all-projected version of Nutcracker and the design of a “Land of the Sweets–Hardware Style” photo booth for our local Habitat for Humanity.
Next year, I’ll have a new version of the set design for The Nutcracker, and we’re already working on this new design. It will be sad to see the present design go, but I’m excited to see what evolves next.
What: Ballet Northwest’s The Nutcracker
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts,
512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9, 10, 16 and 17;
2 p.m. Dec. 10, 11, 17 and 18
How much: $14-$33
Learn more: 360-753-8586 | Washington Center