BOOK REVIEW: Kristian Fredrikson, Designer by Michelle Potter, Melbourne Books, 2020
In her foreword to KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON—Designer by Michelle Potter, Maina Gielgud AO, The Australian Ballet’s artistic director from 1983 to 1996, speaks of the attention Kristian gave to the tiniest detail, and how his research into every project, and every character, was so obvious from the results: not only did you ‘look good’, you got right inside whatever role you were to portray. Dr. Potter travelled far and wide in her investigations into this book, she recorded the oral histories of Kristian’s many collaborators, from, not only the world of ballet, but opera, the dramatic stage, film and television. She also presents us with some writings of his that have never yet been seen.
To quote Maina, ‘Kristian was an exceptional designer, perhaps we might even call him a genius in his field. This book tells you why’.
‘I'm the original Peter Pan: I never wanted to grow up’ heads Chapter One—Frederick John Sams, an only child, was born in 1940 in Wellington, New Zealand. He later came to be known as Kristian Fredrikson (and we learn how the change of name came about)—and he began his career while still in his teens as cadet journalist, copy-holder, reporter, and finally theatre and music critic. Earlier, for two years from the age of fourteen, he had attended a Catholic School that had appeared to trigger his interest in religion, it was for its ‘spectacle aspect’ rather than its religious one.
His very first commission—now calling himself Kristian Fredrikson—was to design somewhere between seventy and one hundred costumes for an operetta by Johann Strauss, A Night in Venice, which premiered in October 1962 in Wellington. It was then that he met, in a professional capacity, its director Harry Baker, a commercial artist who had taught the design night class that Kristian had attended the preceding year. The young Kristian designed the costumes, Alan Lees, an established designer, the sets. These early costume designs were strikingly bold and without the incredible detailing that his later work displayed, but the finished results were described as ‘fantastic head-dresses and masks cut in strange shapes and brilliantly painted and sequined’—later he stated that he felt these designs were ‘horrifyingly bad’ but his reviewers disagreed.
Dr. Potter gives us a mysteriously romantic but also revealing glimpse of Kristian’s family history. He was determined to create a persona quite independent, and not reflective, of his early family life.
But then, as is appropriate for Peter Pan, he flew. Kristian left New Zealand in September 1963, headed for Sydney, but almost immediately he was back home to design his very first ballet, Arthur Turnbull's The Winter Garden, ‘a comedy of manners in high society’. Here his style can be seen developing, experiments with different drawing and painting techniques, always a great sense of colour, and what became more and more evident as time went on, a fascination with detail; he researched and sourced fabrics, created head-dresses, devised props and designed sets and back-drops.
Back to Sydney, and shortly after a move to Melbourne, where the work began to pour in—plays of Shakespeare for the Adelaide Festival of Arts, plus a new production of Aurora's Wedding for the Australian Ballet, also scheduled for the Festival. Peggy van Praagh, first artistic director of the ballet company—1962-1974—entered Kristian's life, along with Bill Akers, stage manager and later director of productions. Kristian collaborated with painter and stage designer Warwick Armstrong, and further along, Anna French, Richard Prins (set designer for the University Theatre Repertory Company, later to be known as Melbourne Theatre Company) and the legendary Marjorie Head, milliner extraordinaire. Kristian received commissions for ballets for television as well as the stage—for ABC Channel 2, at least two ballets choreographed by Rex Reid and directed by Brian Faull. And from 1965 he was involved in play after play, mostly with the MTC’s John Sumner and George Ogilvie (whose death occurred only this year), and other productions all across Australia. His preference was to be both set and costume designer, but there were many collaborations with other designers throughout his career.
Now in the 1970s where an amazing depth of research was invariably evident, giving a clear indication of the familiarity with and nature of each character and every aspect of the production. Kristian worked with other directors, in particular Tyrone Guthrie who was most specific, and dauntingly so, about the designs for his production of All’s Well that Ends Well in 1970. The West Australian Ballet Company, under the directorship of Rex Reid, presented in 1971 a season of two programs, mostly divertissements. Gloriously elaborate costumes were created, as distinct from the austere but perfect simplicity of, for example, the MTC’s production of The Three Sisters, back in 1968. In fact George Ogilvie claimed that this was the finest work he had ever done, and with Fredrikson, something that Kristian was also very proud of. Design for opera followed—more collaborations with Ogilvie, Richard Bonynge, Joan Sutherland (in the role of Lucrezia Borgia in the opera of that name) and artistic administrator Moffatt Oxenbould. His costumes for opera were heavy and highly finished and multi-layered, but always, fabulously right.
Towards the end of the 70s Kristian was fortunate enough to be awarded the opportunity to design the costumes for the ‘romantic play’ The Day after the Fair. Based on a short story by Thomas Hardy, with script by Frank Harvey, the director was the Londoner, and original director, Frith Banbury. All in all, over the decade, Kristian designed costumes and/or sets for well over a score of dramas and comedies, in Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne.
More ballet followed—for both the Australian Ballet and the Royal New Zealand Ballet Companies: Cinderella (over the course of his career Kristian designed three versions) and an utterly perfect Coppelia, directed by George Ogilvie and still in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire today. The MTC production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, premiering in 1975 at St. Martin’s Theatre in Melbourne, was an important and momentous one for Kristian. The words ‘opulent, decadent, nightmarish and obsessive’ spring to mind and years later, he stated that his set design for this production was his ‘most memorable’.
It was at this point that Kristian first met the choreographer and ex-dancer, soon to be director of the newly formed Sydney Dance Company, Graeme Murphy, and a collaboration began that flourished for almost thirty years. Although they had initially met through The Revenger’s Tragedy (where Graeme's choreography was thrown out by the director imported from the UK, Australian-born David Myles), it was not long before Graeme was offering Kristian a commission to work on a new ballet, Sheherazade, set to a score by Maurice Ravel.
Design-wise, how very different were the costume sketches and drawings for Tragedy and those for this ballet! How very different the influences and the inspirations. Michelle Potter writes marvellously of this ballet and the collaboration and we are treated to some entrancing images. There does exist, I believe, a record of this Sheherazade on film or video. Kristian and Graeme worked so well together, and between them, over the years, they created at least seventeen works, for a range of ballet and opera companies. To quote Kristian—'Graeme is like some magic thing that happened to me in my career’. If Kristian was Peter Pan (even though he had somewhat ‘grown up’) Graeme was Puck—'He's pure, brilliantly creative [with a] risk-taking ego’. In fact, back in 1969, Murphy was Puck in the Australian Ballet’s production of Frederick Ashton’s ballet The Dream and he absolutely was Puck—I swear he flew across that stage, summoned by an imperious Oberon.
And then, importantly and leaping ahead, The Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, a ballet created for the Australian Ballet one hundred years after the original Nutcracker back in 1892 in St. Petersburg. Once again we learn how the whole concept came about, how choreographer and designer, commissioned by the then artistic director, Maina Gielgud, eventually arrived at a complex and significant narrative, moving through several eras and ages, and involving three separate performers as Clara, plus some extremely demanding choreography. As Miranda Coney, the dancer who created the role of Clara the Ballerina, wrote ‘... to make costumes that made you feel beautiful through all that was a difficult feat. It was a real collaboration between designer, choreographer and dancer’.
And almost another ten years on we have Murphy’s Tivoli Ballet, choreographed on the dancers of both the AB and the SDC—a celebration of the vaudeville shows presented by the Tivoli circuit of theatres.
The chapter on Kristian’s work in film and television, now reverting to the 1980s, is truly an eye-opener—who would have thought that he could have created such settings and designs for such diverse productions as The Shiralee, Short Changed, The Dirtwater Dynasty, Vietnam, Sky Pirates and Undercover? This last-mentioned, in 1982, for instance, dealt with the story behind the Berlei undergarment business, and was set in the 1920s, utilizing locations such as Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building and George Street’s Regent Theatre. He undertook an immense amount of research—he drew on the catalogues and magazines of the era, the journal that the Burley family produced, and any related records of displays, parades and musical events. Towards the finale of Undercover Kristian really ‘went to town’ with his designs for a theatrical extravaganza, drawing on the Berlei Review for September 1926, with the garlanded tunics of the review’s Dance of the Sprites.
In 1983 the film The Magic Telescope—an extraordinarily innovative and imaginative body of work—but sadly these were drawings and models that never saw the light of day—let alone the light of a studio! But, mercifully, we do see some examples within this chapter entitled On Screen. The following year he was involved in a 13-part mini-series for television called The Maestro’s Company, aimed at introducing children to opera. In 1986 he was the designer for Vietnam, a film for Kennedy Miller Productions and Network Ten Australia. In fact the 1980s kept Kristian extremely busy, what with more than a dozen productions for ballet, nine plays and/or musicals, five operas and at least half a dozen film or television ventures—and no doubt many of these commissions overlapped, adding to an already weighty workload.
Also in the 80s Kristian was back designing for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company: Titania Wakes, Orpheus, The Firebird Suite, Tell Me a Tale, A Servant of Two Masters, and for the company in 1985 his beloved Swan Lake. Particularly for the latter can one see the style of drawing that comes closest to showing every tiny costume detail, pearl and sequin, scrap of lace, trim and layer of fabric—designs executed initially in pencil and so delicately, so accurately. Little wonder that I find myself constantly searching for superlatives! We are regaled by Dr. Potter with many anecdotes, with memories and with insights.
The 1990s saw Kristian continuing with the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company and the Wellington City Opera, working with such professionals as Australian-born Harry Haythorne, New Zealanders Gray Veredon and Russell Kerr, and Jack Carter from the UK. Other productions elsewhere—George Ogilvie and English director Ian Judge—plus the ballets with Murphy and Australian-born Stanton Welch and the Houston Ballet.
Kristian and Gray Veredon, a choreographer who had trained at the Royal Ballet and whose sense of design absolutely accorded with that of Kristian’s, established a very strong collaborative bond. A Servant of Two Masters was one of the RNZB’s most successful and extensively toured productions. Within this particular chapter, New Zealand Impressions, there are pages and pages of photographs, costume designs and fabric samples.
Fredrikson and Veredon worked together on two operas, Faust and The Magic Flute, Gray both directed and choreographed the two productions and Kristian created, for the latter, some gorgeous, orientally-inspired designs. For Faust his creations were, as always, extremely original and highly dramatic.
Then, into the 1990s and a further four ballets for the New Zealand company. In addition, he was responsible for the costumes for the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. In 2001, the ballet A Christmas Carol, once again with the RNZB, and again with an entirely new take on The Nutcracker. This, in 2005, was to be his last NZ commission, but also within those last few years, he created designs for several plays, presented by Sydney companies, five ballets and in 2004 another opera, Norma, with Opera Australia, working with Ogilvie for what would prove to be their last project together.
With this final Nutcracker, Clara's tale was set in a hospital ward where she is suffering from concussion. Tragically, this ballet premiered just a few weeks before Fredrikson's death in November 2005. It was obvious throughout the whole design process he was experiencing much pain and that he did not have the strength to present the usual perfection, and ironic that his last ballet, or the last ballet of his that he would see, should be set within a hospital. There is no question, Kristian had lived his life entirely for his art.
Michelle Potter includes a chapter on ‘the design aesthetic’. She lists the influences and inspirations in Kristian's work, the designers—English, French and Italian, the books and a variety of publications. An astonishing amount of research, very often historical, went into every aspect of every production: he knew how costumes were constructed and what would work to transport every actor, singer or dancer into the character they were to inhabit. And before anything, he would make sure that he had incorporated the correct poses, the right movements, into his finished designs.
For Kristian, the 'ultimate ballet' had always been Swan Lake. For him this ballet encapsulated ‘some of my most important dreams’. For many, many years he regarded it as ‘not only one of the greatest ballets but also a designer’s pinnacle’. Over more than four decades he was involved, in a major design capacity, with five differing versions, with the AB and the RNZB, and finally the Houston Ballet's production, which premiered three months after Kristian's death. And, evident as always, outstanding designs and total involvement in all phases of the production—designs that obviously had been finalized months before.
KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON—Designer by Michelle Potter concludes with most comprehensive notes, lists of works, bibliography and index, and truly this book, lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced, is the most fitting tribute to an extraordinary individual, a designer non-pareil, a man who could transform mere silk and cotton, leather and linen, into the stuff of dreams, of nightmares, or indeed something way, way beyond both.
Kristian Fredrikson, Designer may be obtained from Melbourne Books, hardcopy, $59.95, https://www.melbournebooks.com.au/products/kristian-fredrikson or from all good book stores.