Tree Grows in Brooklyn There seems to be a trend in the dance world these days of artists from other disciplines crossing over into theatrical design. A recent example of this is the set for Ralph Lemon's Tree, part two in his Geography trilogy. The sets for both dance works have been designed by Nari Ward, a Jamaican-born, New York-based installation artist.
Tree, which was performed earlier this year at Yale Repertory Theatre, toured the country this fall, and will run at Brooklyn Academy of Music October 24-28, is an exploration of the diversity of Asian culture, a procession of impressionistic scenes, monologues, and movement sequences. Lemon spent several months traveling from India to Japan, following the spread of Buddhism, and he was fascinated by the juxtaposition of ancient traditions and bustling modernity he encountered. His first suggestion to Ward was to design something like a temple.
"The idea behind Tree was not a homogeneous kind of dialogue, which Geography I was, but more about these different worlds spinning off each other," Ward says. "It seemed like he was more occupied with a dock or a port than a sacred space. He was also researching calamities like typhoons and earthquakes. They're about movement but also about being vulnerable and creating a situation where the borders that people normally have are collapsed, and it just becomes about survival, you against the elements and nature."
Ward proposed a wall that combined the translucency of Plexiglas, for light to shine through like stained glass, and slatted wooden warehouse pallets, for contrasting texture and to convey the dock theme. The backstage space, with brick walls and light pipes, is exposed, with clear plastic fringe curtains, such as might be found on a factory conveyor belt, flanking the wings. The set wall is a grid of Plexiglas panels and pallets on a steel structure. The haphazardly spaced pallets make the wall resemble an ancient street of rickety buildings with wooden shutters.
Lemon also wanted the set wall to move - to fall down and become a platform for the dancers to perform on. "But structurally it became a problem," Ward explains, "because the Plexiglas was much too heavy" for the theatre machinery to handle. "We realized we had to choose between this floor or the translucency of the stained-glass effect."
Instead, about two-thirds of the way through the piece, the set wall slowly pivots and tilts, looming ominously over the stage and momentarily jarring the audience. "We came to a great compromise with this wall that sort of twists and comes down like it's falling, and [Lemon] got excited about that, because it changed the space in an unpredictable way. It forced him to engage in a strange new perspective that the stage established; this new format allowed him to keep it really free. And it brought a notion of nature back into the presentation."
Steven Strawbridge's lighting was mostly no color and amber color correction, with a blue side wash for more dramatic looks. When frontlit, the Plexiglas panels take on a tarnished, brushed metal sheen. When sidelit, the wooden slats cast shadows across the wall, creating even more texture. Backlighting reveals the translucency of the Plexiglas, and a "burnt sugar" painting technique gives a unique, rust-splotched look. Says Ward, "He really put it all together in the end, because what I basically made was a field of potential." The burnt-sugar look was created by first coating the Plexiglas with clear shellac, then mixing it with various brown pigments and a faceted plastic crystal dust for texture. "We also threw on salt, which did some beautiful things when it congealed," Ward notes.
Another interesting set element is a winged shopping cart that makes an appearance late in the piece. "Ralph was talking about deities in the Hindu belief system, and he was interested in a specific one that was a bird. He asked me to think about presenting this deity onstage; he was thinking of a mask that a performer would put on and take on this persona, but that was so specific to stage paraphernalia, and we were trying to go somewhere else. The idea of the shopping cart became about looking for a vehicle that someone could occupy and move around the stage, and become an entire mask in themselves. The idea of the wings was referencing the bird deity, although a lot of people started thinking of angel wings, so that was a nice union as well, when ideas get layered, and you start perceiving them in different ways."
The curved wing outlines are narrow brass piping, and the straight-line rays are thin Plexiglas rods. "I wanted it to feel light as well as reflect the light in an interesting way," the designer says. "I was also trying to bring that Plexiglas material in the wall into it as well. We were looking for something that would give Steven something interesting to work with in terms of refracting light and dispersing it."
Ward gives credit to the Yale Rep crew for helping him translate his artistic vision into the proper stage materials. Technical director Rich Gold and senior student Kraig Blythe engineered the wall structure with CAD, resident scenic artist Ru-Jun Wang created the burnt-sugar technique, and properties master Brian Cookson sourced the materials for the shopping cart wings.