Art of showcasing a performance

How to be innovative without being overbearing, how to endow a play, opera or ballet with new meaning and not illustrations of stories, and how to do so with a subtlety that is in harmony with the rest of a spectacle’s constituent elements: That’s the challenge that every stage and costume designer is faced with at some point during their career. The success of Nicholas Georgiadis, the renowned Greek stage and costume designer who died a few years ago, is partly due to the artist’s extraordinary talent at showcasing fascinating aspects of the ballets, plays and operas whose sets and costumes he designed. This talent, which stemmed from his knowledge of history, music and period styles, blended with his background in painting and architecture, his perfectionism and restless spirit, to produce some of the most influential works in the area of stage and costume design. The innovation, talent and diversity that went into his work is revealed in «Nicholas Georgiadis – Paintings, Stage Designs (1955 – 2001),» the first comprehensive monograph on the artist which was recently brought out by Olkos Publications. The book was first published in English to coincide with the retrospective exhibition on the artist organized at London’s Covent Garden in late March, and now has a Greek edition (the translation is by Irene Maradei) to coincide with the staging of Verdi’s «Traviata,» a performance that uses Georgiadis’s stage design – currently on at the Athens Concert Hall. Prefaced by Sir John Tooley, general director of the Convent Garden in the 1970s and ’80s who has written an enthusiastic essay on Nicholas Georgiadis (he mentions how his fame was worldwide and his influence second to none), the book is edited by historian Dr Robert Oresko and contains an obituary from Financial Times art critic Clement Crisp as well as a chronology at the end of the book. Evgenia Georgiadis, the artist’s niece and author of the book, traces Georgiadis’s work from 1955, when he first worked with choreographer Kenneth MacMillan – the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration – to the end of his career in 2001. Structured on the four separate periods and styles in the work of Georgiadis, the book tracks the impressive transformations in his work: From the early, colorful set designs to the minimalist, symbol-rich settings of his later career. One of the strands running right through the book is the connection between Georgiadis’s paintings and his works as a stage and costume designer. Georgiadis himself often said that he was a painter first and secondly a designer; painting, he said, provided him with a language and set design was its vocabulary. As for MacMillan, he used to say that for Georgiadis, the stage was a huge canvas on which to paint. Trained as a painter and an architect at the University of Athens and then at New York’s Columbia University, Georgiadis left for London in the early 1950s to study painting and stage design at the Slade School of Fine Arts, where he also spent 30 years teaching. Dame Ninette de Valois discovered his talent and asked MacMillan to hire him. Georgiadis’s work for «Danses Concertantes,» his first collaboration for the Sadler’s Wells Theater Ballet, was a huge success. Georgiadis’s early stage and costumes designs were an extension of painting and constituted what the artist himself called his «painting period» or «painting designs.» His stage designs of the time used a broad palette of strong, vibrant colors, his so-called «fauve palette,» a daring turn away from the more traditional, pastel-colored hues that were used in British stage design back then. Georgiadis’s works breathed modernity. The acid greens, yellow, strong oranges and blues in «Danses Concertantes» matched the energy and angular quality of Igor Stravinsky’s score. Up until the early ’70s, Georgiadis designed mostly for ballets but also did some work for operas and plays. Examples include the production of «Lysistrata» in 1957 at the Royal Court under the direction of Minos Volanakis (with whom he also worked on Berlioz’s «Les Troyens» at the Royal Opera House in 1969), and his design for «Aida» at the Royal Opera in 1968. By that time, his work for the stage had gradually turned away from the use of strong colors and begun to use architectural, three-dimensional elements. This marked his so-called «architectural period.» What also stands out during this period is Georgiadis’s partnership with Rudolph Nureyev, with whom he worked even more extensively when Nureyev became director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983. Their shared interest in reviving and, to some extent, «modernizing» the tradition of the grand ballets of the 19th century resulted in a fruitful collaboration in ballets such as «Sleeping Beauty» in 1966 or «The Nutcracker» in 1968. Placing those ballets in a new context, such as Nureyev’s «Swan Lake» in 1964, was one way of breathing new life into what had become rather old hat. Although Georgiadis was deeply knowledgeable about period styles, he did not produce replicas, but reinterpretations of the period style that each ballet or opera was set in. In most cases, Georgiadis also created a blend of styles that evoked the time that the play, opera or music was written. His work for «Aida,» for example, hoped to transmit something of the 19th century viewpoint that colors the opera. For that reason, Georgiadis used paintings of Egypt by Gustave Moreau and Eugene Delacroix rather than ancient Egyptian culture as a source of inspiration. From the early ’70s, Georgiadis’ work became more «symbolic» and less descriptive or illustrative. His drawings, collages and prints of the time (he had stopped painting, most likely as a result of the crisis in painting that the spread of conceptual art had caused) are strongly connected to his work for the stage. Color is completely absent from his settings which – as in MacMillan’s 1974 production of «Manon» illustrates – are usually spare and contained. Georgiadis continued with non-descriptive stage design right to the end of his career. Moreover, his «postmodernist» period, which is what the book dubs his work of the 1980s and ’90s, contains a mix of styles aimed at removing the play or ballet from a particular temporal context and drawing attention to a more general atmosphere and timeless concepts instead. Golden ladders in front of a black background, for example, were part of the setting for «Orpheus,» staged in 1982 at London’s Royal Opera House. A metaphor of the world and the underworld, this spare, dark setting captures Georgiadis’s dense visual vocabulary at the time. Compared to his early, colorful works, those later designs show a sea change. But both periods were marked by innovation and great imagination. They produced work of great talent and influence which the Olkos publication helps bring the reader closer to.

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