Jerome Kaplan’s design recipe for Ratmansky’s Cinderella: “Find first the good ingredients and organise well all together”

From the moment the curtain rises on the ballet Cinderella we enter a topsy-turvy dreamscape. Shoes flip into hats, a sofa is shaped into two plump lips, a door frame is slumped tipsily to one side, a footstool comes complete with human-shaped wooden feet and topiary trees are transformed into metronomes.

This is a world of surrealistic landscapes inspired by the art of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chiroco and by the eccentric designs of the artists’ collaborator, the couturier, Elsa Schiaparelli.

Surrealism stalks through every scene of The Australian Ballet’s most recent production of Cinderella, from the heroine’s modest kitchen to the Prince’s lavish ballroom, from the arrival of the Planets who whisk Cinderella to the palace, to the Prince’s journey to find the missing glass slipper.

There’s the voluptuous sofa, designed by Dali and inspired by lips of the sex siren, Mae West, the tick tock of clocks (the Surrealists loved timepieces), the shoe hats of Schiaparelli, and the relentless clicking hand of life size metronomes based on Man Ray’s Indestructible Object.

Magritte’s favourite headpiece, the bowler hat, rests on the head of the Godmother who makes her first entrance as she steps through an empty Magritte-like picture frame.

Collaborating with Alexei Ratmansky, who choreographed Cinderella for The Australian Ballet, the French designer, Jerome Kaplan, suggested that the ballet’s décor and costumes should refer to the age of surrealism, the 1920s and 1930s. It was an intuitive decision, he said, to link the art movement with Prokofiev’s haunting score for Cinderella.

Replaying the music, written in the darkest days of World War II, Kaplan found the mood “strange and sad and it became very clear that this music was close to Surrealism”.

His idea for the first set was a stage within a stage. Kaplan imagined that Cinderella, and her Stepmother and Stepsisters made their home in an old theatre, perhaps the only building that still stood after the bombing of a city. The décor included theatre props and sets that remained intact after the devastation, as well as objects that the Stepmother acquired in more affluent times, including the Mae West Lips Sofa.

The audience mightn’t completely understand the setting, but the design “gives a mood”.

Cinderella’s rescuer, the Godmother, looks like a woman down on her luck. “Alexei asked me to dress the Godmother as a beggar”, said Kaplan, “not like a beautiful fairy. That’s why I designed this long coat and crazy nose, to make her a charming and funny beggar. Her bowler hat is another important aspect of Surrealism you can see in the paintings of Magritte and Paul Delvaux”.

Kaplan planned to follow the traditional plot of Cinderella ballets in which soloists represent the Seasons “but Alexei said ‘why don’t you work on the idea of Planets?’ I know, it’s crazy!

“The idea was to find something for each planet, something very clear that the audience would recognise”. Designing the costumes for the Moon and Sun was relatively easy, but Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Neptune, all named after gods, were harder to depict. Kaplan studied Roman and Greek images for gods and goddesses and based the costumes on their individual powers. The costume for Venus had aspects of the Goddess of Love, Neptune represented the sea, Mars was the God of War and Mercury, the winged messenger.

He worked with the help of The Australian Ballet’s wardrobe department and the freelance costume maker, David Anderson, who was “really creative”. Tulle fashioned into the shape of bowls formed the basis for the Planets’ costumes: “I remember one that was really very heavy to dance in. It made it difficult to jump. It was actually 10 kilos”.

While the Planets represent a rainbow of colours, the Stepsisters, called Dumpy and Skinny, and the Stepmother, have signature colours that they wear throughout the ballet. Dumpy is dressed in pink, first a puffball dress and then a satin pants suit while Skinny wears turquoise or dark blue, with one of her first costumes a long coat with a ruffled hem and peaked shoulders and then a satin pants suit much like her sister’s.

Why these colours? “Because”, said Kaplan, “they’re recognisable colours that work well with the set and because it’s important to plan very different colours for the soloists so they become really visible”. The Stepmother wears plum and purple, popular colours in the late 1930s but also because “I often use this kind of tint for powerful and negative characters. I don’t know why. Maybe it comes from [the colours worn by] high dignitaries of the church.

As the action enters the palace ballroom, the colour palate moves to a muted tone, with the men in long coats and the women in tuxedo suits of jade, chocolate, garnet and plum. Kaplan first chose a grey and pink colour scheme for the ballroom set but Ratmansky decided that was “a bit too sad and Soviet” and asked for a richer setting. He found the prototype for the ballroom during a visit to the museums of St Petersburg.

There in the green and gold Malachite Hall of the Winter Palace now in the Hermitage Museum was the answer to the richness Ratmansky wanted.

Cinderella enters the ballroom like a beam of light, wearing a statement dress with a skirt so lusciously full that it resembles a full blown rose after the winter passes. The shape of the cinched-waist dress is a nod to post-World War II fashions when women put aside their austere straight skirts and jackets and embraced the femininity of Christian Dior’s New Look.

“When Cinderella appears for the first time in front of the Prince she must be the most beautiful girl he has ever seen”, said Kaplan.

“It’s difficult to create that clear contrast far away on stage with all those beautiful girls from the Australian Ballet around. That’s why I thought that if Cinderella wore a ball gown shaped very much in the Dior New Look, and if the women group wore pants, the effect would be clear and successful”.

The dress is white (tulle) and gold (lamé) “because she must look immediately precious and pure”. When the other women see the Prince’s reaction to Cinderella in that look-at-me dress, they swap their tuxedos for romantic dresses similar in style to the heroine’s, but nothing can make then outshine the riveting Cinderella.

The most magical scene in the ballet takes place in the palace gardens where topiary trees shed their greenery to reveal their inner self, giant metronomes. “Alexei asked me for a garden for the ball. It was a great subject for me and it was logical to have topiary in the palace garden and that became much more clear when I found the idea of Man Ray’s metronome (Indestructible object, 1923) – a perfect idea for midnight and a perfect shape for topiary. The idea came to me so easily, to tell you the truth. It was one of my first ideas”.

Kaplan is both witty and modest when he describes his work and reveals his “secret” design formula.

It’s this: “To collect all the documents I can find on the general concept. Then with time, my mind starts to associate. A good designer is exactly like a good cook. Find first the good ingredients and organise well all together”.

This article was first published in The Australian Ballet’s program for the Melbourne season of Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2015.