Arts / Culture

In conversation with artist and set designer Elizabeth Gadsby

Live performance – whether the medium be theatre, dance, ballet or Opera – has a certain kind of magic to it that feels irreplicable. In part for its humanity, its community, its one-take nature. But in part because we get to see the human imagination stretched and contorted by world-building techniques – be it through costumes, makeup, or set design.

For Elizabeth Gadsby, whose costume and set design work is created primarily for live performance, the confines of a stage feel limitless. Whether she's crafting luminous aerial arcs for Bangarra Dance Theatre or recreating a double-storied foyer on stage for Sydney Theatre Company – she's constantly pushing the boundaries, both literally and figuratively, of what a set can entail.

Adding a new name to the long and esteemed list of companies she's collaborated with over the years, Gadsby is now working toward her first show with Sydney Dance Company. Since 1969, their ensemble of 17 dancers, led by artistic director Rafael Bonachela, have been a force in the world of contemporary dance – and their upcoming show momenta look to be no exception to their reputation. Opening on 28 May, momenta is set to be a journey – one that moves through poetry and physicality to present a mesmerising and kaleidoscopic vignette about the beauty and fragility of our shared humanity.

Ahead of the opening night later this weekwe spoke with Gadsby about her set and costume design for the show, how her approach remains flexible between mediums, and the most unusual places she's pulled inspiration from.


How did you approach the set and costume design for momenta? Was there a particular theme or idea that you built upon?

I drew from the brainstorming that Raf [Rafael Bonachela] had developed on the concept of momenta. I was interested in how Newton's laws of motion could be made manifest in the work.

I was drawn to the notion of "momentum [being] neither created nor destroyed, but only changed through the action of forces as described by Newton's laws of motion. (description from NASA's Glenn Research Center on conservation of momentum). I wanted to create gestures in the space that could exert force upon the dancers or have the dancers exert force upon them. For example creating an airborne image that could be disrupted by the dancers' movements, or something that obstructed the dancers' movement through the space.

The costumes developed organically. The dancers aren't characters in this work, they are representative of human embodiment as it moves through time and space. They really exert themselves in this work and become exhausted, like the body does over a lifetime. I wanted a palette of colour and texture that felt neutral whilst playing with sheerness. We want to see the body under the clothes, the way that even in stillness the breath keeps the body in motion.


How does the process of creating a set work? What comes first?

For me there always needs to be a strong conceptual logic to the work before I even know what it "looks" like. There is a process reflecting on what meaning we want to convey to the audience. This can be really open ended and abstract. For example with Bianca Spender's AFW show last year she wanted the clothing to communicate the feeling of being held, so that is what I attempted to do with the set design – a space in which the audience and the models felt held. We worked closely with the composer Gary Sinclair to create a bed of sound that reinforced this feeling.

Likewise in momenta, all of the key creatives are exploring collaboratively and tangentially this idea of making manifest momenta in all its forms. I am most invested in communicating this idea of microscopic movement, be it breath, gravitational vibration, or light. This conceptual foundation is followed by innumerable tests of materials and effects, working with the production teams to make visible the ideas we dream up.



Where do you turn to in order to pull inspiration for costumes and set design?

It depends on what project I am working on, they are all so different. For direct inspiration, in order to solve or create a design, I continuously turn to the source material. If it is an Opera, the music and libretto; a play, the script; a dance piece, the instigating idea or story. Sometimes it can be an active meditation on the sequence of images or the shape of the space. Exploring the ideas of the design in a deep, relaxed mental state is useful.

I believe in making sure you are creatively fed. I find creative nourishment in reading, listening to music, going to art galleries and museums, and creative conversation with other artists. The recent exhibition of Louis Bourgeois at the Art Gallery NSW. The book Portraits by John Berger is a collection of his essays on different artists and artworks. Beyoncé video clips and visual albums. A recent gift, a book of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran's work – I adore the colour, texture and iconography.

I'm looking forward to Hiroshi Sugimoto's upcoming exhibition at the MCA. Reading articles on the latest breakthroughs in physics and astronomy. Watching live music like Nick Cave's solo tour with Colin Greenwood. The documentary Honeyland. The Sopranos. Composer and singer Jane Sheldon. The domestic assemblages of my 4-year-old. People watching on the train from Lawson to Sydney. All of these sources and influences churn around and are drawn on. Some more consciously than others.


What is an unexpected place you have found inspiration in the past?

I once found the perfect priest waiting to board a plane at Melbourne airport. The detail of his shoes, socks, hair, watch, cassock, and how he held his Bible were perfect. I needed to dress a priest for the play I was working on, so he appeared at just the right time.



Was there a particular element of the momenta set or costume design that was particularly tricky, or which required some innovation or extra attention to detail?

We did numerous tests on how to make a cloud form in thin air, and hold for a period of time, slowly descend, and then dissipate. Atmospheric gestures in theatre are so difficult to control as the air temperature, humidity, natural airflow and air conditioning all impact the ability to replicate them. From all of the testing we have some good guidelines in place on how to best approach the cloud. I am sure there will be some nights that I am happier with the cloud than others, but I feel we have landed on a good spectrum of clouds.


When working across different mediums – like theatre, ballet and Opera – what is the biggest difference in your approach?

They just have different things to solve, with different requirements and parameters.

In theatre, the design needs to serve the text and work for the actors in that space whether abstract or naturalistic. In Opera the music drives the rhythm and pace and any set transitions need to sit within that framework. With dance, often choreographers just want space to move, so it is finding a way to create an environment without getting in the way too much (unless that is developed alongside the choreography).

Their needs for costuming also vary so much, actors really want to believe that the character they are developing would wear those clothes, so it is a really collaborative undertaking. Opera singers need to be able to breathe. Dancers need to be able to do the movement in the costumes – and ballet dancers are all about the line of the body – especially muscle definition in the legs! But fundamentally my approach is the same.


Do you have a favourite set you’ve ever created? Or one that you felt most proud of executing?

It is hard to choose just one. The works I am most proud of have been with Sydney Chamber Opera, whose repertoire and artistic team encourage gestures of scale. An Index of Metals by Fausto Romitelli directed by Kip Williams is an early work of ours that I still think about a lot, and La Passion de Simone by Kaija Saariaho directed by Imara Savage is something I would love to remount internationally. We dropped three tonnes of rice on the soprano to create a film that was projected on a 9 x 20 metre screen in Bay 17 at Carriageworks. I also felt proud of the design for Appropriate by Brandon Jacob Jenkins directed by Weseley Enoch. It is the biggest naturalistic set I have done and it had a wonderful sequence of collapse at the end.


What’s been your favourite part about working with the Sydney Dance Company?

This is the first time I have worked with the company. With any new relationship, it takes time to figure out how things run. It is such a wonderfully tight-knit team here, and at times the process is unconventional. The small teams create an incredibly supportive environment and the company of dancers is full of an amazing array of talent and personality that comes pouring through the work. I am so excited to get into the theatre and see all of the elements we have been working on come together.


Sydney Dance Company's momenta will be performing from 28 May – 8 June 2024 at the Roslyn Packer Theatre. Tickets for momenta are on sale now on the Sydney Dance Company website.


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