The Cutting and Shaping of a New Work

Interview with Tim Van Steenbergen

By Marion Mirande 18 February 2017

© Elena Bauer / OnP

The Cutting and Shaping of a New Work
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?

The 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 by Gordon 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?

I didn’t 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?

The 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 his own.    
© Christophe Pelé / OnP

Could you tell us about your designs for the principal characters?

The 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…

Exactly. 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 milieu.   

What does the décor tell us about this social structure and the passage from one rank to another?

With the 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.

© Christophe Pelé / OnP

Does music play a role in your creative process?

Of 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 her character.

Interview by Marion Mirande

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