The designer Tim Van Steenbergen is a representative
of the Belgian artistic scene, within which he has distinguished himself both
for his talents as a scenographer and as a designer. He is a regular
collaborator with choreographers Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Sidi Larbi
Cherkaoui as well as director Guy Cassiers, and with the latter has created the
sets for the first production of Luca Francesconi’s opera Trompe-la-mort and designed the costumes.
You have designed both the costumes and, with Guy Cassier, the sets. What is the relationship between these two elements?
costumes tell their own story first and foremost. They are not illustrative.
Guy told me in fact, “Your costumes are the 15th actor”. They
possess their own codes and make no reference to the scenography. We agreed
that I would create pieces that, without being literally 19th
century costumes, would convey a sense of the historic period, in contrast with
the very modern set, constructed with leds – a technical procedure that we have
already used in the theatre and which I know to be visually very strong. Thus
there is a conflict between the digital set and the frills and furbelows of the
costumes. To avoid the singers disappearing next to the luminous columns, their
costumes had to be very powerful too. Although there is a play of opposites
between the set and the costumes, there is also some overlapping between the
two. The idea is that the uniform forest of the singers’ coats would replace
the totems. The colours and motifs of the videos are reflected in the costumes,
allowing the performers to blend in with the video images. As for the essence
of the scenography, it is based on Building
Cuts byGordon Matta-Clark, an
artist who revealed the skeleton of buildings by cutting holes in walls and
floors.. We transposed this concept to the structure of the costumes. Lucien’s
costume is an example of this technique of cutting: it gives the impression of
being composed of several pieces, whereas in fact there is only one.
Does Balzac's Comedie Humaine also underpin your work?
dare risk literally quoting either the work or the period in which it is set.
That would have been difficult in any case given that the action is spread over
a period of more than twenty years in the history of costume during which
silhouettes changed a lot. I therefore aimed more to create an atmosphere,
mixing different styles. Certain codes are easily recognisable, but there is no
precise reference to anything particularly emblematic of 19th
century costume. Balzac’s idea that life is a grand costumed ball and his
descriptions of the costumes in the novels remain nonetheless very interesting
and inspiring. I have kept to the spirit of these descriptions, particularly in
the proportions, which I have destructured with my Matta-Clark-style cutting.
Although your prints are, for the most part, abstract, they nevertheless seem to have been nourished by various references. What are your other sources of inspiration?
fabrics and prints have been developed in my studios, mainly from magazine
cuttings. For Trompe-la-mort, Gustave
Doré’s engravings constituted the basis for our work. I am fascinated by the
power of his drawings and the morbid aspect of his work. His drawings were very
largely reworked so that, after being extensively modified on Photoshop, their
motifs would disappear entirely. Without being recognisable, Doré’s work is
thus the basis for the fabric designs, which are now totally original graphic
works: designs that vary from one character to another, each character having
Could you tell us about your designs for the principal characters?
protean aspect of Trompe-la-mort justifies his having several costumes. I still
aimed to create a logical progression so that one could follow him and
recognise him in spite of his disguises. His silhouette has a very clerical
aspect, - a reference to the Abbé Herrera whose identity he usurps. Black and
white predominate, with large, very graphic patterns denoting great dynamism.
Lucien is the character with the simplest, most austere costumes. He starts off
in a shirt but little by little dons clothes intended to help him in his social
ascension. He tries to conform to that aristocratic society for which I
produced the condensed images that I was telling you about. They are repeated
and multiplied so that patterns constitute a visual mass in which the content
is submerged. As for Esther, she is isolated, remote from everything. She is an
incarnation of purity and beauty. To translate that, I wanted something very
readable which is why I have associated her with a huge flower, a narcissus.
The Ball marks the beginning of a noticeable evolution in the costumes. At this
point, all the soloists have different costumes, certain elements of which are
difficult to identify. Are they period costumes? Evening dress? It’s rather
confused … Little by little, this aristocratic society begins to take off these
pieces, clearly revealing the codes belonging to their rank. Then the other
soloists make their entrance in the world of society drawing rooms where the
women show off their dresses. Progressively, a certain uniformity emerges,
which, by the end, when everyone is wearing the same costume, becomes complete.
I find it very interesting to show the eradication of individuality and the
malleability of personality through the wearing of an item of clothing.
That leads one to wonder about the very nature of clothes and their function…
Clothes help to structure you and place you in a social category. They play an
essential role in our quest for acceptation and integration within a given
What does the décor tell us about this social structure and the passage from one rank to another?
idea of statistics and of social mobility as our basis, we reflected on a
structure in which the characters would be positioned in accordance with their
social situation. It is the world around them that determines their worth. We
have thus used the axes of a graph within which the entire plot unfolds.
Movement is very limited. It is the scenography that determines the singers’
movements, that activates them. It is the stage that propels them into the
right situation. The ascending and descending totems give them access to a
particular status or deprive them of it. The different levels of the libretto
could not have been shown in a conventional manner.
Was it this idea of slipping from one level to another that brought you to Gordon Matta-Clark?
It is a
coincidence. I’ve always found Matta-Clark very interesting. I must say that
his work is very close to the reflections that a director might have on the
very essence of theatre, on the dividing up of his performance space and his
conception of his work in terms of truth and illusion. Guy and I had for some
time been considering creating a project that would make reference to his work.
On reading the libretto with its social hierarchies, we told ourselves that the
time had come. That’s when we had the idea of using the architecture of the
Palais Garnier and cutting it up. The intention was also to offer spectators a
mirror reflecting an image of the space they have just traversed and are now
occupying. The stage brings them back to their own experience.
Does music play a role in your creative process?
course. Voices are very important, they say a lot about the singer and his/her
character. In the case of a new production, we hear the music a long time after
having begun the project, which can make things complicated. Before discovering
the libretto and the music of Trompe-la-mort,
we were familiar with the major works of opera from which I had forged a very
personal idea. When I met the singers, I was sufficiently conversant with the
characters of La Comédie Humaine to
be able to adapt to their personality and make the necessary modifications. My
work does not consist of making a drawing and passing it on to the workshops.
We begin with a concept, with materials, then, during the first rehearsals and
costume fittings, I observe the performer closely as he is also part of the
costume. We remove or add elements according to how he or she interacts with
them. It’s a work of haute couture whose object is not to transform the
performer but rather to serve his or her personality and the identity of his or