Developing a Dancer’s Toolbox: Setting the Stage

Guest writer: Jaclyn Youngblood, Academy intern

Arts and crafts aren’t just for elementary school children. Half of the Level 8 students, the highest level at Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program, are taking Set Design for their career studies class. Like its partner course, Costume Design, the Set Design class aims to introduce students to other aspects—beyond exceptional dancing—of producing a world-class ballet.

Thomas Boyd, Director of Production and former dancer with Houston Ballet, teaches 21 students about the use of space, imagery, color, and the relationship between performer and environment—all essential elements of set design. In this case, that means enabling students to use the knowledge they’ve gained to create a 3D scale model of a set for a scene from a ballet, either Giselle or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As with the Costume Design class, students are designing through the lens of John Neumeier, renowned American choreographer and Artistic Director of the Hamburg Ballet.  Boyd said he guided the students through research of Neumeier’s style and had them brainstorm a few themes they saw in his set designs. “They noticed he is an unconventional designer, and he tries to represent the unexpected,” Boyd said.  Students incorporated nuances of Neumeier’s style into their designs by playing with elements out of scale, surrealism, and surprise.

Student Set Design of Giselle
In this model of a Giselle scene, the student team explores proportions relative to the figure of the dancer.

Boyd said the first few classes are designed to equip students with the “tools of the trade,” so by the third and fourth classes the students are already working on their models.  The students cut, glue, paint and design their models, paying attention to things like prop placement, the proportion of set elements relative to the dancers, and coloring as one moves upstage; that is, that elements get cooler as they recede from the front of the stage.

Ellen (VA) and Shelby (NC), teammates who are designing Act I from Giselle, love the creative aspects of the class. “I like that the class is hands-on,” Ellen said. “It’s not like we’re just hanging out in chairs getting lectured.” Shelby has enjoyed using a different part of her brain during the Set Design class. “It’s nice to have a change of pace from the intensely physical routine of our classes,” she said.

Student Set Design - Tree
Students use watercolors and markers to create the standing set elements for their models.

The students will present their work to one another during tomorrow’s last Set Design class. Just like the Costume Design class, the top teams will then present their models at the beginning of the Lower School performance at 12 p.m. on July 29.

Jessica (CA) echoed Ellen’s and Shelby’s sentiments, adding that the opportunity to try something new, apart from physical dancing, was terrific. “It’s fun to explore the visual and creative side of producing a ballet,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like this.”


One thought on “Developing a Dancer’s Toolbox: Setting the Stage

  1. Great entry! I love reading these posts and watching the videos every week. Jaclyn, you’re awesome. Thanks for all of the updates. The Houston Ballet should definitely hire you full-time – I know all of your readers would love it!

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