Feel for space…

[b]The name of Alexander Kostyuchenko — chief artist of the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre — is familiar to all in the theatrical world — especially set designers. A pupil of People’s Artist of Belarus Yevgeny Chemodurov, he now teaches new directors at the Academy of Arts, showing them how to make use of the stage and the latest technological opportunities, as well as how to gain the best from actors. Of course, he has much to tell us.[/b]It’s a delight to hear his childlike optimism and inspiration. Truly, there is much to admire in Mr. Kostyuchenko, who recently celebrated his 55th birthday. He praises his team highly, saying, “I have a super model maker! All other theatrical set designers envy me.” He refers to Mikhail Logachev, whose tiny chairs in Venetian style are being painted. In the centre of the chief artist’s studio is a magical construction exactly reproducing the stage to 1:20 scale. You can see all the technical gadgets present in the Bolshoi Theatre.
The name of Alexander Kostyuchenko — chief artist of the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre — is familiar to all in the theatrical world — especially set designers. A pupil of People’s Artist of Belarus Yevgeny Chemodurov, he now teaches new directors at the Academy of Arts, showing them how to make use of the stage and the latest technological opportunities, as well as how to gain the best from actors. Of course, he has much to tell us.

“The Boshoi Treatre for me is love and destiny”It’s a delight to hear his childlike optimism and inspiration. Truly, there is much to admire in Mr. Kostyuchenko, who recently celebrated his 55th birthday. He praises his team highly, saying, “I have a super model maker! All other theatrical set designers envy me.” He refers to Mikhail Logachev, whose tiny chairs in Venetian style are being painted. In the centre of the chief artist’s studio is a magical construction exactly reproducing the stage to 1:20 scale. You can see all the technical gadgets present in the Bolshoi Theatre.
Each performance is reproduced here beforehand. It’s easy to imagine the Chief Director of the Bolshoi Theatre, Mikhail Pandzhavidze, joining Mr. Kostyuchenko, bustling round the model set, later joined by the rest of the artistic council, headed by Vladimir Gridyushko. Models have been approved for Giuseppe Verdi’s `Nabucco`, Giacomo Puccini’s `Tosca`, the new version of Verdi’s `Aida` and Dmitry Smolsky’s `Grey Legend`.
In Mr. Kostyuchenko’s cabinet, there’s a diploma for his Frantsisk Skorina award. He has a long history of creating sets for the Bolshoi Theatre and even helped it win the special Presidential prize ‘For Spiritual Revival’ — for the "Grey Legend".
On the day I arrive, there’s a tiny figurine of a ballet dancer in the mock up model set. It makes me think of how small we can feel in the great world around us but Mr. Kostyuchenko just smiles and tells me that the figure is part of the "Seven Beauties" ballet, being staged next season — after the summer vacation. Made from fragile glass, rather than plastic, the figure appears especially lifelike.
“There won’t be any pompous celebrations at the theatre for my birthday,” admits Mr. Kostyuchenko. “We’ll just shake hands with each other and get down to work.” There’s no need to celebrate overly, as my retirement is still some way off. “I’m still young!” he adds.
Alexander, whom I’ve long known, is certainly young at heart, regardless of his wrinkles. In fact, these simply add to his character, as is common for men of talent. Mr. Kostyuchenko is easy going and cheerful, dynamic and vigorous, retaining a passion for his profession. How can he become bored when each theatre set is a unique work of art? His lifetime’s work for various theatres across Belarus speaks for itself.

Where does your inspiration come from….and how much are you guided by the director?
As a rule, I offer the stage director my own ideas, which come from reading the play. Of course, some compromise is needed, since the success of the performance depends on the director. We discuss our ideas, speaking openly. It’s vital for me to understand the essence of the stage director’s vision, which should find reflection in the sets. We need to coincide in our views, which isn’t always easy. Some directors are able to describe their vision more clearly than others, requiring me to listen carefully. I now have plenty of experience in liaising with stage directors, so can adjust myself to their style. I do this successfully, so all is well.

Does the set designer help the stage director to understand the ideas behind a performance and vice versa?
It’s a mutual process. I enjoy co-authoring a performance and enjoy sharing my ideas, which crowd my head. I give my all and receive that which is my due. Sometimes, a single word from the stage director can clarify everything for me. We work to achieve the same goal. However, directors differ widely in their personalities, despite sharing a common love for words and the theatre. There’s no rivalry between us. Rather, we need to combine our talents to create wonderful solutions.

What role does music play?
Music moves along the action and fills empty moments on stage. It’s as important as any other element. My task is to absorb this music and to inject its energy into the sets, so that they come alive.

Do you have a musical education?
No, but my ears were awoken on hearing a particular piece of music. It touched my soul. At one Christmas concert rehearsal, a countertenor’s voice filled me with an inner shiver of delight. Opera is fascinating in its ability to awaken audiences. Colour, light and acting enhance the singing and music…

Do you understand opera?
I understand and admire it. Opera is a great art, arousing deep feelings of happiness, as good ballet does.

Did you acquire your set design experience at the Russian Theatre?
While working as chief artist at the Russian Theatre, I gained a foothold in my profession. Boris Lutsenko was the theatre’s artistic leader and a prominent stage director; we worked together for five years and I gradually gained my wings. I helped make sets for Hauptmann’s ‘Before Sunset’, Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, Yerenkov’s ‘Angelo and Others’, Gogol’s ‘Bridegrooms’, Dostoevsky’s ‘Uncle’s Dream’, Gorky’s ‘Vassa’, Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and Bulgakov’s ‘Run’.

How did you find your way to the Bolshoi?
I worked there at various times, first in 1994, as prop master. Having a degree in set design, they were surprised at me taking such employment. I then became a sculptor and even headed the stage department for four years. I’m well aware of various aspects of theatre production and also took a degree at the Academy of Public Administration, under the aegis of the President of Belarus. So, I’m on friendly terms with the management and the economic side of the theatre. I became bored of heading the department, although I managed to prepare Zaletnev’s ‘Whirl’ [Krugovert] ballet without interrupting my work in the set department. I had enough energy and creativity to cope.
Even before I started my career at the Bolshoi Theatre, immediately after graduation from the Academy of Arts, I worked as props master and production manager at the Musical Comedy Theatre. Of course, there have been times when I’ve been tempted to tread the boards myself. I was a pupil of a wonderful set designer, People’s Artist of Belarus Yevgeny Chemodurov; we stayed friends until he died. My colleague Nikolay Kuzmich introduced me to Lutsenko, which took me away from the Opera and Ballet Theatre for eight years.

Were you pleased to return in 2009?
Extremely. Five years had passed since I was employed as chief artist. I’m now 55 and have spent five years with this theatre. These are my lucky fives… I think that this theatre is like love and fortune for me. The first art school at which I studied, in the 1970s, was located on the fourth floor of the Opera Theatre. Of course, I absorbed something of the atmosphere, which certainly influenced me. After my national service, I went to art college, where I met my future wife; she was 17 and I was 21. We once went to see ‘Swan Lake’ and something incredible happened to me: I suddenly realised that my heart was in the theatre. I remember saying to Natasha: ‘I want to work here!’

You’ve designed sets for many opera and ballet performances. Which gives you most pleasure?
It’s really not important whether it’s an opera, ballet or dramatic performance. What’s vital is finding solutions, with the director and set designer fulfilling their duties. I sketch out my ideas, then make a model in cardboard, looking at suitable materials to suit the performance: plastics, metal or timber. I also work with fabrics, perhaps because of my past experience. Operatic sets have requirements regarding surfaces being reflective, rather than absorbing sound, while ballet sets best use soft, light materials, which are easily transformed. Opera requires more solidity. For a traditional dramatic performance, the sky is the limit.

Did you ever have to change the set after approval had been given for a model?
Budgets tend to be tight so, once a model has been approved, that’s that. I have no right to overrule or make changes. I also have to ensure that each member of the artistic council understands how the set will work on stage. You have to understand the space of the stage and be able to view the model in those terms.

How do you gain this understanding?
Without it you are doomed to fail. Stages are tricky. I begin by familiarising myself with the stage, standing for 15-20 minutes facing the auditorium. I also need to ‘feel’ the space of the hall. When we were staging ‘Tosca’, in Ufa, with Pandzhavidze, I stood on stage for some time without gaining a sense of anything. It took a while for me to capture the atmosphere of the space; something eventually clicked inside me. Of course, as a set builder, I need to understand construction and plans, while using my initiative to invent solutions.

Do you sometimes find that sets or props fail to fulfil their function?
It’s more common that we run out of time to make a particular prop. If actors can continue without these items, they probably aren’t needed anyway! Of course, the stage director often changes his mind about things during rehearsal, so I tend to be cunning, keeping something in reserve for the time when he may need it. If I can see that some items are definitely needed, I’ll get them made.

Are sets able to communicate more effectively than actors?
It can be the case; actors vary, as do sets. However, we shouldn’t be divisive. The success of opera and ballet is the result of joint efforts by actors, stage directors and set designers. When we were students at the department of theatrical artists, my teacher, Yevgeny Chemodurov, told us that we were all equal, which I’ve well-remembered. All elements of a performance need to be in harmony, working towards a common goal. We help the actors by setting the scene, helping the audience to believe what they’re seeing; it’s vital that audiences enjoy the theatre experience and return.
Some sets are so minimal that it seems hardly any effort has been involved, although they can have great impact nonetheless.
Where sets are effective, they’ve been well thought out. Simplicity can be just as expressive as intricate decoration. In fact, less can be more, since an overcrowded stage can be distracting for actors and those watching. There’s no need to squeeze in everything you are capable of producing! The audience doesn’t need to be surprised at every turn. Sets are there to support the performance.

Does the set designer also control the lighting?
Lighting is significant and the appearance of new equipment has considerably expanded our opportunities. We all work together to the same end. Well chosen lighting can even replace sets.

Do you prefer traditional set making methods or do innovations inspire you?
It’s difficult to separate the two, but I do prefer tested methods. We have two devices to raise or lower sets, and a rotating circle, as well as video projection equipment. All these new technologies give us more choice, but must be used in moderation, just like spices in a recipe.

Ballet model of the Tristan and IsoldeDo you have much input regarding costumes?
I work with several costume designers and sometimes make them myself. It’s best to work in co-operation. I like it when a costume designer listens to me but can take the initiative and discuss ideas. Eleonora Grigoruk is clever and has interesting ideas; in presenting her vision, she tries to understand mine. I also enjoy working with Nina Gurlo and with Alena Igrusha. It takes a great deal of time to make costumes. In fact, costume designers need to be good psychologists, communicating well with actors, who need to be happy with what they’re wearing.

Do you have a good relationship with your crew at the Bolshoi Theatre, now you are chief artist?
I do, treating the team as my own and listening to their advice. I enjoy discussing ideas with them and, certainly, they can sway my opinions or make me realise that we need a different approach. I emphasise to them that we are working side by side. It’s not my performance but ours. Usually, I feel comfortable wherever I work.

Have you found it easy to work closely with Pandzhavidze?
I’d already staged ‘Cinderella’ at the theatre when he arrived, and we jointly staged ‘Nabucco’, using some new equipment on stage. The leadership of the theatre requested that we show off our technical abilities and use projection. It wasn’t an easy task making the movement of the mechanisms coincide with the music. However, we’ve achieved it!
I spent many nights with Pandzhavidze, the machine operator and other assistants. He’s a bright and interesting stage director. Since then, we’ve staged ‘Tosca’ and ‘The Barber of Seville’ together. When Pandzhavidze heard that I’d studied under Yevgeny Chemodurov, he was delighted. Chemodurov’s sets were created in 1953 in Bucharest for ‘Aida’, staged in Kazan; the performance also toured worldwide. It was probably the first time Soviet set design had been seen abroad.
I worked with Pandzhavidze on a new set for ‘Aida’ but we paid tribute to the memory of the great Chemodurov. The many sets he created in his 18 years at our theatre have become timeless classics. We went to Kazan to record ‘Aida’. I spent six months working on the project, restoring the performance from old photos. Some elements of the set had been lost and Chemodurov’s family hadn’t kept drawings. Sadly, museums don’t always keep records either but wonderful set designer Yuri Tur helped me. We organised an exhibition of his works to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth, featuring many of his drawings. It’s vital to keep such records so that sets can be resurrected in future. Also, they are part of our theatrical legacy.
I think that ‘Grey Legend’ is the most interesting and successful of my joint projects with Pandzhavidze. Each performance sees a new approach, which is what keeps the job fresh. For ‘Grey Legend’, we created a 19m long bridge, using materials usually applied to dramatic performances rather than to opera. The idea came to me when I visited Pruzhany, standing among the ruins. I had a flash of inspiration.

How do you feel about multi-media effects?
I think that video projection should be used in moderation and only where it fits the situation. I’m not completely satisfied with the net in the ‘Grey Legend’. Our lighting isn’t strong enough to illuminate the actors adequately but if we’d lit the net we’d have lost the sense of space being stretched in time.

Which sets do you think have worked best?
Those which have truly embodied my ideas (inspired by reading the play) and which have replicated the model have made me happiest. It’s great to see your vision come alive; it warms your heart and soul. I’m satisfied with ‘Grey Legend’, which I’m also proud of as a Belarusian opera.

Does the new technology make your job easier or do you still lack particular equipment?
The theatre is completely filled with technical innovations. My imagination needs to make full use of them. I have some time before retirement, so I think I’ll be able to achieve more.

Who designs your home?
My wife. I’m very happy with my family life. I have two sons: the elder, Konstantin, is a sculptor while Alexander is studying at the conservatoire. My wife works at Belarusfilm and is also qualified as a stage director. She paints sets. She’s also a great psychologist, understanding me perfectly. She doesn’t question me excessively, which I really appreciate. She organises our home so that it’s always a pleasure to return.

Do you help with the housework, vacuuming for example?
I do when I’m asked. However, they don’t tend to involve me. Once, I asked my wife how to switch on the washing machine and she asked me fearfully why I needed to know. Since then, I haven’t even attempted to use the microwave oven. I do enjoy clearing snow from around the house and there’s been a great deal this year. I take the spade and think about work while I shovel. I imagine a show at which audiences would be so spellbound that they’d wish away the interval, eager to again feel the magic of the theatre, happy in their absorption.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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