BWW Interviews: Internationally Acclaimed Designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno Talks Houston Ballet's ROMEO AND JULIET

Sketch by Roberta Guidi di Bagno
Costume and Scenic Designer

"Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife."

Seem familiar?

Houston Ballet continues its Shakespeare series with Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch's premiere of his interpretation of ROMEO AND JULIET, Shakespeare's ever relevant deliberation on the perils of vengeance and love, on February 26. The ballet will be set to Sergei Prokofiev's masterful score and will feature sets and costumes by acclaimed Italian designer, Roberta Guidi di Bagno.

We talk with Roberta Guidi di Bagno, the creator of the exquisite sketch you see above. Her costumes and sets are vivid, evocative and just downright astounding. If it sounds like I'm gushing, it's because I am.

BWW: Why do you think ROMEO AND JULIET is such an enduring and compelling story?

Roberta Guidi di Bagno: First of all, the music, I think. Especially in [Sergei] Prokofiev. The music is so stunning it describes what every minute and every step is about. That is very inspiring. And of course the story: love and death.

BWW: Was it difficult taking on this iconic story of love and death?

Roberta Guidi di Bagno: If you take those topics, those subjects and think from there, it's an easier task. You want to create something from that. The difficult task is if you have done it before. You want to do something different every time. Especially with a different choreographer.

BWW: How was it working with Stanton Welch's choreography?

Roberta Guidi di Bagno: Stanton Welch's choreography is very modern and contemporary and, at the same time, he likes to envision it in a classical view. Not always, but especially in this ROMEO [AND JULIET]. It's a combination of contemporary and classical. Of course, Stanton directs the game. [Laughs] He gave me all the information and knowing how he works, I just went on. Music, Stanton, and Shakespeare. I think that's what you need.

Sketch by Roberta Guidi di Bagno
Costume and Scenic Designer

BWW: You were the designer for the English National Ballet's ROMEO AND JULIET, which had Derek Deane's choreography. What will be different about this production?

Roberta Guidi di Bagno: Every choreographer has his own style. His own words, if I can call them that. It's really a completely different creation with the same designer, which is me. It is, however, the same style, but adapted to totally different inspirers because the choreographer is my inspirer.

For instance, Stanton wants fluidity through the different scenes. This is why the sets are on wheels. Everything is sort of coming in fluidly. Normally in ROMEO AND JULIET, you have a screen coming down between each act and within each act. We won't have it like this. It should all go from one set to another without interrupting and with the action being made either by the dancers themselves, blocking, or magic. I hope. [Laughs] That is the plan. [Laughs]

BWW: In what other ways did you adapt to Stanton Welch's directorial philosophy?

Roberta Guidi di Bagno: He did give me many indications of what he wanted. For instance, the colors. You have to divide the colors in the ballet to visualize which family people belong to. That is a really important issue that doesn't seem like it. You normally do Capulets in red and Montagues in blue and that's it.

Well, Stanton took his whole idea from [William] Shakespeare. From the real Shakespeare. He set in many characters that are not normally in the other ROMEOs that I've done who tell the story of each family better. And it really is interesting how we are dividing these color schemes so that people will have the correct, exact perception of each family. And it's not as easy as you'd want. [Laughs] There are like 30 people in a family, and you have to have different colors, but the same basis color. Technically, I think I achieved it with one color that fits each family. And a lot of colors that go with that. It's hard to describe.

Sketch by Roberta Guidi di Bagno
Costume and Scenic Designer

BWW: I know we've already discussed the challenges of making sure the Capulet family is distinct from the Montagues, but what were the challenges of representing Romeo and Juliet?

Roberta Guidi di Bagno: That actually is a very good question because, of course, you have to represent two young people from the period and they have to dance like crazy. So they have to be like they're wearing nothing. That's what I'm good at, I think. That is, I don't want the dancers to wear anything that is my design and that they will hate. [Laughs] I want something that I like, and they do too. I know dancers, so I do work a lot knowing that all you have to do, and this is of course also Stanton's point of view, that it has to look good and it has to look easy. For instance, Juliet has specific colors, which have to stand out from all the other groups. And she has six costumes. Every costume is adapted on the basis of what's she's doing. Like if she's in the nursery or at the ball. Let's say the poison scene where she goes and gets the poison. All of sudden, she is in blood red, but it's a very beautiful thin silk with a little lurex that you'll have to see because it's good. [Laughs] Everything has a color to identify or a specific material.

BWW: How did you achieve that? How did you research? What is your process?

Sketch by Roberta Guidi di Bagno
Costume and Scenic Designer

Roberta Guidi di Bagno: If it's [a ballet] like ROMEO, the process is actually always from the old paintings, the old masters [Luca Signorelli, Piero della Francesca, Pisanello (Antonio di Puccio Pisano), Cosmè Tura, Pietro Perugino, Andrea Mantegna, Ercole de' Roberti, Lorenzo Costa, Andrea del Castagno, Francesco del Cossa, and Il Pollaiolo (Antonio del Pollaiolo)]. If it is a modern ballet, of course I will research modern painters. Most of them I have in my mind. In this particular case, I had a couple of painters from 15th century in the Renaissance town, Serrada. These painters had decorated frescos in churches or palaces. So I sort of took details from each of these particular styles, and then what I do is I wash it away in my mind. There is still a shadow underneath of what it really is. Then I put my idea, my style and my colors. But [the painters are] sort of the basis. The basis is still quite real. So it's between me and those old masters. It allows [me] to also do something wearable. A painting is not a costume. You cannot dance in a painting of clothes. That is what I mean when I say I wash it away. I do the theatrical image, let's say, and consequently the technical one. You know, you have to get it on a person. And I think I'm achieving it.

See Roberta Guidi di Bagno's achievements for yourself. Houston Ballet's ROMEO AND JULIET runs from February 26 - March 8. 7:30 p.m. on February 26, 28 and March 6. 2:00 p.m. on March 1, 8, 2015. 1:30 p.m. on February 28. Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Street at Smith Street.

This performance lasts approximately three hours. There will be two intermissions lasting twenty minutes and fifteen minutes.

Sketches courtesy of Roberta Guidi di Bagno and the Houston Ballet

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From This Author Katricia Lang