Painter Cassandra Christensen Barney has plenty of experience coming up with costumes and set designs for the characters in her paintings — whimsical females in period dresses, often surrounded by a menagerie of flora and fauna. But she has found doing the same for live dancers on the stage a unique challenge. Barney is the set and costume designer for Utah Regional Ballet’s current performance of Snow White, which is coming up on its final weekend March 17 and 18 at the Covey Center in Provo. “It’s better than any painting I’ve ever done,” says Barney.
Never having been involved in stage design before, Barney faced new challenges in creating Snow White. Designing costumes for dancers was especially different for Barney, as she has no prior experience in clothing design. “There were things I wanted to do, like having an extremely elaborate and heavy robe for the queen when she was disguised as an old woman,” explains Barney. “Talking to the people sewing the costumes, however, I realized that some of those ideas wouldn’t be possible. The dancers have to be able to move to create art, so it was definitely a learning process of what could be beautiful but still functional.”
The experience of working as a creative team is often something surprising for painters, who are used to spending time alone in the studio. “I feel like the composer, director, the dancers, and I all kind of feed off each other. With the dancers and music it really became a living, breathing thing,” she says. “We started with basically nothing, making up our own version of the story, and it’s turned out beautifully.”
Throughout the process, Barney treated the stage like a painting, especially the proscenium, which features a portrait of Snow White’s mother as an angel, watching over and protecting her daughter. “[Snow White’s mother] isn’t in the original fairy tale, but I felt like it fit and she became an important part of the design to me, the idea of a sort of guardian angel,” says Barney. When Snow White receives a crown at the end of the ballet, its form matches the proscenium, an echo of convention in the stage design, but also a visual tool to show that Snow White’s mother has done her work in protecting her daughter.
Barney’s personal touch comes through in other areas of the stage as well, including the mirror the evil queen uses to spy on Snow White, which features an angel and devil on either side. “The whole show is really about good and evil and I really wanted to show that through symbolism in the show,” Barney explains.
Influenced by her father, the late James Christensen, Barney often uses symbolism in her artwork inspired by her experiences and perceptions. “I put a lot of thought into this show. I probably did three to eight drafts of each design, each costume,” she says. “Like Snow White’s dress. She starts out wearing blue [a symbol of purity] and that is echoed through all of her costumes, even when she wears mostly white at the end, the dress still has some blue trim.”
The designs, she says, came naturally, as if they already existed in her mind simply waiting for discovery. “I’ve been painting stages and dancers all my life, so it just seemed like little pieces of that were coming together to make this whole,” she explains. “It’s been weird because I felt that I’d already been painting this before I even started.”
Though set design presented some interesting challenges for Barney, she says the experience has been enormous fun and she has been able to put her personality into the work. “After I started, I was thinking I should have been a set designer and not a painter,” she comments. “But I think my development as a painter was really crucial for me being able to work like this now…It definitely became my style of painting rather than something simple or realistic, more symbolic, whimsical, a little more odd.”
Snow White, Utah Regional Ballet, Covey Center for the Arts, Provo, March 17, 7: 30 p.m., March 18, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: https://secure.coveycenter.org/webtix/ or 801-852-7007, http://www.provo.org/community/covey-center-for-the-arts/2013-2014-calendar.