A new ‘Snow Queen’ part 2: Building an ice palace from scratch

Second in a series: Eugene artist and designer Nadya Geras-Carson fashions a fairy tale edifice for Eugene Ballet's upcoming new production of 'The Snow Queen'

Story and photos by BOB KEEFER

Editor’s note:Eugene arts journalist Bob Keefer is tracking the creation of a new version of The Snow Queen by Eugene Ballet.  ArtsWatch will be reposting the series here after each installment appears on Keefer’s Eugene Art Talk blog.

The walls of the palace were of driving snow, and the windows and doors of cutting winds. There were more than a hundred halls there, according as the snow was driven by the winds. The largest was many miles in extent; all were lighted up by the powerful Aurora Borealis, and all were so large, so empty, so icy cold, and so resplendent!

That’s Hans Christian Andersen’s description of the Snow Queen’s palace in his popular fairy tale “The Snow Queen.”

Now just imagine designing and building that same palace from scratch – on a theater stage.

Nadya Geras-Carson, set designer for Eugene Ballet's new 'Snow Queen.'

Nadya Geras-Carson, set designer for Eugene Ballet’s new ‘Snow Queen.’

That’s exactly what Eugene artist and designer Nadya Geras-Carson is doing. The results will be on view at the Hult Center next April, when Eugene Ballet premieres its all-new ballet version of Andersen’s eerie and redemptive story of Gerda, Kay, a magic mirror, and an icy queen. Geras-Carson will also, of course, be designing sets for the rest of the tale, including a village scene and a forest.

So, we asked her, how do you go about creating a fairy tale world on a real-life stage?

The first stop, Geras-Carson explains, is to visit an entirely different world – the mind of the ballet’s artistic director Toni Pimble.

“With any show, you have to get inside the brain of the artistic director to see where they are coming from,” she says. “And Toni is a dream to work for. The first thing Toni said to me was, ‘I don’t want the set to be literal.’”

It won’t be. In fact, while some of the sets will be built – “hardscape,” as she calls them – they will be augmented throughout the show with a series of elaborate video projections and other lighting effects.

Geras-Carson is no stranger to theater or to art. She originally got a theater arts degree in design and technical theater at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco. After acting for a while – she played little-girl parts because of her short stature – she later studied illustration at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, thinking she would like to do poster design.

“But in the back of my mind I always wanted to be a sculptor,” she says. “Imagine!”

A sculptor she now is, as well as a painter – and a set deisgner.

In 2002 she painted a series of images that were projected onto the stage as a backdrop for Eugene Ballet’s production of Aaron Copland’s The Red Pony.

Her initiation into full stage design here in Eugene came with Eugene Opera’s 2007 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Her set for that show was open, looked a bit industrial, and drew on New World themes as well as the Egyptian imagery that is traditional for the show.

She is married to Don Carson, whom she met at the Academy of Art University. They both later worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, where she was a dimensional designer and conceptual designer/painter, and he helped design Splash Mountain and Toontown. Don Carson has also done sets for both Eugene Ballet and Eugene Opera.

Geras-Carson actually got called into doing the Snow Queen design late in the game. The ballet company had originally hired another designer, who took on the project and then backed out due to a job offer.

“They called me in January,” Geras-Carson says, “and said, ‘Can you do this? And, by the way, can you get the sets drawn by June?’”

Once she had read the fairy tale and talked with Pimble, Geras-Carson started with rough ideas and themes. She picked out color schemes. She looked for unifying principles that could help hold the show together visually. She thought about the idea of video projection, and decided she wanted to draw on the visual style of such artists as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Signac.

“You have to have a master concept, a design concept, that tells you these rules are inviolate,” she says. “Because I have to go from environment to environment to environment, I need some rules.”

Here are some of the self-imposed guidelines she’s working with:

  • The Snow Queen palace is all diagonals.
  • The village is horizontal and heavy.
  • The forest is vertical and fluid.

“You couldn’t have something fluid and warm inside the Snow Queen palace, for example,” she says.

She is also looking to Russian lacquer painting for inspiration.  “Russian lacquer painters and plate painters have used the Snow Queen story a lot in recent years,” she says.

Similarly, her color palette will shift coherently from scene to scene. “It’s all cool colors for the Snow Queen. Then you move into the village, and it’s gold and fall colors.”

Color is one point where more people get involved. Geras-Carson is coordinating, of course, with costume designer Jonna Hayden – “Oddly enough, most of our decisions for the colors happened simultaneously,” she says – and with lighting designer Michael Peterson.

The lighting plan, she said, includes “a stained glass effect that kind of makes the set look like it’s moving just a little bit.”

Movement like that onstage is something Geras-Carson is fond of, whether it’s done by lights or by video or by physical sets that transform themselves in front of the audience.

“I love to do a set that changes, especially if it can move,” she says. “The audience is constantly guessing as to what is going to happen next.”

Eugene Ballet’s “The Snow Queen”  premieres at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 9, 2017, at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene.

This is the second story in an occasional series, sponsored by Eugene Ballet, about the company’s creation of a new “Snow Queen.” The new work is funded by grants from the Richard P. Haugland Foundation and the Hult Endowment.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment in “A New ‘Snow Queen,’” Part 3: Portland composer Kenji Bunch takes on the biggest project of his career.

Read part 1 of “A New ‘Snow Queen'”: Fairy tale beginning.

Bob Keefer is an arts writer and exhibiting photographer in Eugene. You can see his work at EugeneArtTalk.com and at BobKeeferPhoto.com.

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