Bournonville’s Visual Aesthetic and the Set Design Process

By Claire Willett

Wilhelm Marstrand, Amusement outside the walls of Rome on an October evening (1839)
Wilhelm Marstrand, Amusement outside the walls of Rome on an October evening (1839)


For the residents of Copenhagen in August Bournonville’s era, Italy was a golden-hued and romantic dream of exoticism and sunshine. Wilhelm Marstrand, one of the most renowned artists of the Golden Age of Danish art, painted “Amusement outside the walls of Rome on an October evening” in 1839, just three years before Bournonville choreographed Napoli, so it would have been a work very much in the forefront of his mind. Bournonville was strongly influenced by the visual artists of his era, particularly the most celebrated and iconic Danish painters, so Marstrand’s work provides an interesting lens through which to explore the ballet.

Bournonville specialist Frank Andersen, former artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet and the artist who has been in residence at OBT to set Napoli on the company’s dancers, provided a copy of Marstrand’s painting to the OBT production department and scenic designer Gene Dent as inspiration for the Napoli set. “I wish I owned it,” says Andersen of the painting which currently hangs in the Thorvaldson Museum, near his home in Copenhagen. “This gives me all the joyfulness of the Italian people . . . it has an atmosphere of summer, sun, happiness, love, affection. And those are the same words I’m working with when I am instructing the dancers.”

According to Bournonville scholar Ole Nørlyng in his essay “Bournonville and the Fine Arts of the Golden Age,” the choreographer had a lifelong passion for the visual arts. His training in Paris and his travels throughout Europe exposed him to the work of numerous artists, always visiting the local museums whenever he journeyed abroad. His social circle in Copenhagen included a number of painters, sculptors and stage designers. His work was often explicitly inspired by the works of particular artists; he composed an entire ballet about the Renaissance artist Raphael, featuring scenes representing his best-known works, while The Kermesse in Bruges was inspired by a number of 17th-century Dutch painters and The Wedding Festival in Hardanger was shaped by scenes of folk life depicted by a pair of notable Norwegian painters.

Bournonville had a passion for Italy, and the Italian-inspired works of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen – along with the paintings of Marstrand and his contemporaries such as Albert Küchler and Jørgen Sonne – provide a fascinating picture of the way Italy’s culture, landscapes and people were perceived by the Danish. “Bournonville was a diligent visitor to the annual exhibition at Charlottenborg in Copenhagen,” says Nørlyng, “and he was open to inspiration from the works on display and what was of contemporary interest. The Danish Golden Age painters living in Italy – having completed their training at the Academy of Fine Arts – sent paintings home every year, and early on in his career Bournonville became acquainted with Italy and Italian life and manners via these interpretations.”

Original set design concept art by Gene Dent.

So how do we get from a painting hanging in a gallery in Copenhagen to the set of the show you’re about to see? OBT’s Director of Production Bill Anderson gives us the scoop. The process began, says Bill, with a series of meetings and conversations among himself, Frank, and scenic designer Gene Dent, as well as other members of the production and design team, to create a concept that was strongly inspired both by the Marstrand painting and by the original production design for the Royal Danish Ballet’s own Napoli set. OBT’s current production contains only Act III; but because the ballet’s first and third acts (both set in the same village) share a number of set elements (overhead green foliage, etc.), the design process took that into account. This way, if OBT ever produces the entire ballet (we hope!), the existing set pieces can serve double-duty without having to be altered.

Once designer Gene Dent had a design concept that met with OBT’s and with Frank’s approval, the next step was the complex process of creating scale drawings of the set. Technology makes this process a whole lot faster than it used to be, says Bill: “now the software is so fancy that you can draw in the shape of the theatre . . . draw in the scenery, model all of that in 3D in color, and then print off any sections you want. So he can color it to look like stone, color it to look like trees, color it to look like bushes, and then print out just this little building over here, this little section of trees over here . . . in scale, so you can measure the drawing and see, you know, how far up that little blue spot is. So the drawings he has to give us . . . have to be calibrated . . . so that you can measure them.” Those drawings are then handed off to the scene shop crew to begin construction.


The Napoli set consists of both “hard flats” (set pieces made of lumber) and “soft goods” (painted fabric backdrops). The fabric panels you’ll see in the show actually came from OBT’s Nutcracker. “[When] we bought Nutcracker from Pittsburgh a long time ago,” explains Bill, “it was for a much deeper stage. And so there’s more sets of painted curtains than we can use here.” He estimates the crew saved about $8,000 by reusing those unused materials rather than buying new fabric. And who’s in charge of repainting all that fabric? Well, that’s where Head Scenic Artist Julia Lancaster comes in. Bill describes her as “fantastic” and explains that her job is translating the painting and the colors from Gene’s original drawing onto the set itself. All the painting you’ll see on the set is done by Julia and her team. “She does really, really nice work,” says Bill. “You want one person to be in charge of coloring and having the final say on brushstrokes and everything . . . Otherwise you wind up with inconsistencies that look bad from the house. So, having one person saying, ‘This is the right red, this is the right blue, this is the right yellow.’ You want one person doing that. And you want someone who’s got a really good color eye. Julia’s color eye is really good.”


Bill estimates that the total process of building the set takes a team of about a dozen people, who are working – literally – around the clock. There’s a carpentry crew that works from nine in the morning until seven at night (sometimes even later). Then, after they finish, the electrical crew comes in. “We can’t both have shop space [at the same time],” says Bill. “So [we] pull out all our stuff and do our work and then put that to the side and then the night shift comes in and works in the same space, does all their work, then puts it all away . . . there’s a ton of equipment. And all of it has to be put together and customized for each show.” The master electrician and his crew work from 8 or 9 pm until about one in the morning to prepare the “gels” (sheets of colored plastic in metal frames that slide into the lighting instruments to change their color) for the over 200 lighting instruments the Keller uses as well as bundling up and labeling all the extension cords that the lights plug into.

“People don’t realize how much time goes into creating sets and lighting for a production of this scale” says Bill. “I feel like the production crews are the [ballet’s] unsung heroes.” We hope that when you see the spectacular Napoli set, you’ll now appreciate their effort!

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