Ludovico Burnacini (1636–1707). “Mouth of Hell” design for Il Pomo d’Oro. Engraving. Performed at the Hoftheater auf der Cortina, Vienna, July 13–14, 1668. Music Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

With the dawning of the Baroque in late sixteenth-century Italy, the introduction of the proscenium arch allowed for the manipulation of the scenery from unseen recesses off-stage. Among the most astonishing uses of the new device were those in seventeenth-century Vienna. Ludovico Burnacini, working in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, is responsible for some of the most legendary productions on the Baroque stage.

The opulence of the Baroque continued to influence theatrical designers throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries, perhaps most famously in the work of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in the early twentieth century. Based primarily in Paris, Diaghilev’s presentations embraced contemporary trends in fashion as well as the eastern exoticism seen in designs by Léon Bakst for Le Dieu Bleu (1912).  Bronislava Nijinska, one of Diaghilev’s dancers, established her own studio that emulated the Ballets Russes aesthetic with its strong affinity for the avant-garde as expressed in Russian Cubist/Constructivist painter Vadim Meller’s costume designs for Fear (1919).

Ballets Suédois Set Design

Rolf de Maré and his Paris company Ballets Suédois rivaled Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes during the early 1920s. De Maré controlled the beautiful Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, which also played host to Diaghilev’s company. At the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Maré oversaw productions that incorporated designs by artists Pierre Bonnard, Fernand Léger, Giorgio de Chirico, Gerald Murphy, and Paul Colin. Best known for his poster designs for theater, film, and music, Colin also made significant contributions as a theatrical designer.

Paul Colin (1892–1985). Scenic drop for Ballets Suédois production of Sculpture Nègre. Pastel drawing. Opened at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1920. Paul Stiga Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)

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Petrushka Costume Design

Nicholas Roerich remains one of most highly regarded designers for the stage. Born in St. Petersburg, he worked in Russia, western Europe, most notably in Paris, and had an extensive career in the United States. He is particularly well known for his work with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, including the design for The Rite of Spring (1913), scored by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and choreographed by the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950). This design for a revival of Petrushka, also scored by Stravinsky, was possibly created for choreographer/director Adolph Bolm’s Chicago Opera production in 1925.

Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947). Design for Petrushka, ca. 1925. Adolph Bolm Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00)

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Brahms Variations Costumes

Hungarian-born Marcel Vertès was perhaps best known for his fashion illustrations, but he also worked extensively in theater, principally in ballet for, among other companies, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. For that company he created costume designs for Bronislava Nijinska’s (1891–1972) Brahms Variations, performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and later on tour. Vertès also worked for Boris Kochno’s Paris Ballet in the 1940s and designed at least two productions for the Broadway stage: the musical Seventh Heaven (1955) and the revue La Plume de Ma Tante (1956).

Marcel Vertès (1895–1961). Costume design for Brahms Variations. Performed by the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, 1944. Pen and ink drawing. Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00)

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A Costume for The Snow Maiden

Russian-born Boris Aronson created this extraordinarily light and delicate costume design for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo production of The Snow Maiden, scored by Aleksandr Glazunov (1865–1936) and choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. Aronson’s style evolved over time and culminated in his legendary scenic work for two spectacular Broadway musicals: Follies (1970) and Pacific Overtures (1976).

Boris Aronson (1900–1980). Costume design for The Snow Maiden. Performed by the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 1942. Gouache and watercolor drawing. Bronislava Nijinska Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (008.00.00)

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The Birthday of the Infanta

In 1919, Russian choreographer Adolph Bolm was invited by the Chicago Opera Ballet to devise an original production based on Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Birthday of the Infanta,” in which a dwarf misunderstands the attention paid him by the royal Infanta. The ballet-pantomime’s score was by John Alden Carpenter with scenic design and costumes by Robert Edmond Jones, today heralded as the most celebrated of early twentieth-century American designers.

The story is set in seventeenth-century Spain. Jones’s sets and costumes embrace the Baroque luxuriousness of the period. First performed at the Chicago Opera House on December 23, 1919, it travelled to New York, where it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera House. Ruth Page danced the role of the Infanta and Bolm danced the role of the very ugly dwarf who was madly and hopelessly in love with her.

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  • Robert Edmond Jones (1889–1954). Costume designs for The Birthday of the Infanta. Premiered at the Chicago Opera House, December 23, 1919. Watercolor and ink drawing. John Alden Carpenter Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)

  • Robert Edmond Jones (1889–1954). Final set design, part one of two scenes for The Birthday of the Infanta. Premiered at the Chicago Opera House, December 23, 1919. Watercolor and ink drawing. John Alden Carpenter Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (011.00.00)

  • Robert Edmond Jones (1889–1954). Set design, part one of two scenes for The Birthday of the Infanta. Premiered at the Chicago Opera House, December 23, 1919. Watercolor and ink drawing. John Alden Carpenter Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00)

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Sleeping Beauty

Tony Walton’s work for the American Ballet Theatre’s 2007 production of Sleeping Beauty, choreographed by Kevin McKenzie (b. 1954), was a worthy successor to the magnificent original, which premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1890. The sets for the 2007 production took full advantage of the great depth of the Metropolitan Opera House stage, which gave Walton an enormous expanse to fashion his magnificent sets.

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  • Tony Walton (b. 1934). Sleeping Beauty curtain design [stage right]. Performed by the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 2007. Tony Walton Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00) Reproduced by permission of Tony Walton

  • Tony Walton (b. 1934). Sleeping Beauty curtain design [stage left]. Performed by the American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 2007. Tony Walton Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (017.00.01) Reproduced by permission of Tony Walton

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Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre

Lighting and production designer Peggy Clark and Elizabeth Montgomery (a member of the three-person, theatrical design collective known as “Motley”) designed the scenic productions for Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre’s national tour in 1953 and 1954. The tour encompassed more than one hundred cities. Agnes de Mille (1905–1993) was one of the foremost American choreographers of the twentieth century and worked with Clark in productions of Brigadoon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Paint Your Wagon. This production design was created for de Mille’s Dances from the Golden Era (1953).

Peggy Clark (1915–1996) and Elizabeth Montgomery (1902–1993). Design for the Agnes de Mille Dance Theatre, 1953 tour. Watercolor. Peggy Clark Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (047.00.00)

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