BWW Interview: Designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno Talks Costumes and Set of Houston Ballet’s New GISELLE

“As always, I start with colors,” says Roberta Guidi di Bagno with a laugh. It is October 2015, and the acclaimed designer is in the early stages of crafting the set and costumes for Stanton Welch‘s reimagining of GISELLE, the iconic romantic ballet centered around a young peasant girl who unwittingly falls in love with a cheating, duplicitous nobleman, and subsequently dies of a broken heart.

“It’s a dramatic, very tough story,” says designer. And staging it is equally tough. For one, GISELLE is a study in comparison. There are two separate worlds, one of the peasants and one of the nobility, explains Guidi di Bagno. Then there is the contrast between the different acts. “For me, Act I has to describe the joy, the sun and the light,” says Guidi di Bagno. “Everybody’s happy. [The peasants are] celebrating a wedding and Giselle is in love,” whereas Act II is “death and gloom.”

In many productions this is a source of confusion.”I’ve seen many GISELLEs where you don’t know why what’s happening is happening,” the designer says. To connect the acts, Welch provides subtle cues. For example, in the background of the nice sunny and airy village, you can see hints of the dark forest and spooky Wilis to come, she says.

Guidi di Bagno compounds Welch’s efforts with her own subtleties. The villagers use warm, natural colors like Giselle’s sunny green and yellow bodice, says Guidi di Bagno. And though the royal court characters naturally have more gilded fabric in their costumes, Guidi di Bagno weaves shimmering threads of Lurex fabric into the peasant costumes as well, hinting at the inner “nobility” of the peasants. And while the second half calls for light color to depict the Wilis, even the white takes on different shades (due to Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting design), says the designer.

More impressively, each element of her design connects with the other. Guidi di Bagno drew from the colors of Giselle’s bodice to create the color scheme for her “painterly” and “impressionistic” set designs.

Making changes to such a universally venerated work may be the toughest challenge the creative team faced. Not only is GISELLE quintessential ballet, it is quintessential Houston Ballet. The original 1967 production attracted funding, ever elusive to start-up companies of all types, and jumpstarted the company’s rise from local relevance to international prominence. Old guard audience members loyal to this legacy may rebuff even the most enhancing revisions. And any slip-up can incense iconoclasts and traditionalists alike.

Guidi di Bagno has an altogether different focus. She wants audience members to feel they’re doing more than sitting in their chairs witnessing just another ballet. More than a gallery, she wants an involved, participating audience. “I want them to suffer, to be part of the joy and of what happens–even the surprises, if they don’t know the story,” Guidi di Bagno says. “All these emotions–they should come through.”

Guidi di Bagno works toward this by supporting Welch’s vision. “[Welch] gives the same importance to dance steps and technique as to the interpretation,” says Guidi di Bagno. “[The dancers] really understand what they’re dancing, what they should represent.” So Guidi di Bagno’s costumes are geared towards amplifying acting performances. “What I would like to achieve is not that the characters are pretty or ugly but that the costume is [the dancer’s] second skin, which allows them to describe the role.”

But Welch doesn’t make it easy. “Of course,” says Guidi di Bagno with a laugh, “Stanton always wants everybody to dance on pointe.” And his GISELLE features more dancing than the original. Guidi di Bagno calls to attention Welch’s reinterpretation of the noblemen and noblewomen of the court. Productions usually confine these characters to ornamentation, which results in costume designs that prioritize form over function. In an upset, Welch puts the characters in motion. “So the challenge is to give them the ability to move like they were in a tutu but being in a full dress,” says Guidi di Bagno. “Those are the challenges that I like.”

It is now June 2016, and Guidi di Bagno, along with Houston Ballet Head of Costumes Laura Lynch, lead me around the Houston Ballet costume shop. “I am the one who comes and says what she wants, more or less, and goes,” explains Guidi di Bagno. “Laura’s the one who has to deal with all the practical issues.” Lynch similarly demures, crediting Costume Shop Manager Kaleb Babb and the costume shop crew (“extremely talented, highly dedicated,” says Lynch), for doing the unglamorous work like cutting yardage, creating color swatches, and dyeing the costumes.

The costumes use a variety of materials half sourced in Houston by Lynch and half sourced in Italy by Guidi di Bagno–lycra, lurex, as promised, and of all things, leather. Leather may seem an odd choice of material for nearly two century old ballet. But not so, say Lynch and Guidi di Bagno. The leather is used in the costumes for the duke’s hunting party, and it’s a perfect way to express the raging masculinity of the characters. It’s textured and durable. It’s also “rock and roll in the best way,” says Babb.

Shortly before I leave, Guidi di Bagno shows me the skirt for Berthe, Giselle’s protective, worldly-wise mother. It is hearty and rustic, yet soft to the touch. Proof that Guidi di Bagno has worked with Lynch (and many others) to successfully design costumes that express GISELLE’s weighty themes while they drape weightlessly on the dancers.