2019 is our 50th anniversary and we are championing some of the people who help make Scottish Ballet a great place to work. Each week we will introduce you to a different career at Scottish Ballet and the person behind it.
Lez Brotherston is an award-winning set and costume designer. He trained at the Central School of Art and Design, graduating in 1984 and became a production designer of Letter to Brezhnev in the same year. Lez has worked in dance, theatre, opera, musicals, and film, and has collaborated with many artists, directors, and choreographers including Christopher Gable, Matthew Bourne and Scottish Ballet's CEO/Artistic Director Christopher Hampson.
We caught up with Lez to find out how he became a designer and what he loves about collaborating with Scottish Ballet on our new full-length production The Snow Queen.
What inspired you to become a designer?
I attended Liverpool Playhouse Youth Theatre when I was 16 years old. I didn’t want to perform, so when show time came around I got involved with painting the sets. I applied to study Stage Management at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama but the designer from my youth theatre stopped me from going. She said I should be a designer. So, I caught up with all my A-Level Art exams and went to Central School of Art and Design to study Theatre Design.
What is the difference between designing for theatre, opera, and dance?
I like doing narrative work so, for me, it is always character based and there is always character and story. I don't particularly enjoy working on abstract work because they aren't particularly interested in the narrative but are instead interested in the exploration of movement in space. For me, I find that harder as I don't know what I'm doing. Instead, if I can relate it to a story and a character, I know that my job is to make a character that you believe in and a world that the character can be in or can fight against.
That's the fun of design and, in dance, it's a bigger job as there's no words. If someone enters the stage and their relationship is significant, visually you need to express that in the costumes or set.
When did you first meet Scottish Ballet?
I designed some one-act ballets for Scottish Ballet in the 90s. When Scottish Ballet was granted permission to re-stage Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling in 2013, I came up. I designed the original production and had a ball tweaking it for Scottish Ballet. After that, I was asked to help revive Peter Darrell’s charming version of The Nutcracker.
You’ve been working with Christopher Hampson on his new full-length ballet The Snow Queen, what has that involved?
Distilling the story and figuring out how to tell it visually. The audience must know who a character is by what they look like. If they need to look at the programme to decipher what’s going on, the designer hasn’t done their job.
If you could describe the design of The Snow Queen in three words, what would they be?
I think The Snow Queen has an element of the Gothic about it, and it has to, as all fairytales in their original form have that.
They can be cruel, and often have malice and redemption. They have a journey and a discovery, and it's about family, journey, and love.
For me those elements and themes are things that dance can do better than song, for example, as it doesn't get limited to the word which can make it feel concrete.
Watching someone dance 'love' is much more poignant than someone singing about it. With dance you interpret it and you feel it. Dance does emotions better than anything else, and any other form.
In three words The Snow Queen has got magic, mystery, and romance.
There is a number of different characters within The Snow Queen, how do you go about representing each of them and making them unique?
You research by looking at pictures and photographs of people and you pull out what, in my eye, tells me is recognisable to each character.
Once we have the characters and the story, and choreography begins, we can start to explore their own story further in this world and decide who each character is, what they are doing in the production, and what their individual story is.
In the Christmas markets, for example, I've drawn people who could be selling fruit, Christmas trees, and mistletoe, so we are working at allocating specific characters and stories to people who may come under 'City Dwellers'.
What makes Scottish Ballet unique?
Scottish Ballet is collaborative and it puts productions at the heart of its company. It's production led which means that it's owned by everyone, and I find that exciting and very good fun.
Everyone is committed to Scottish Ballet, and I like the flavour of an ensemble company. It's great to collaborate with everyone to make something happen, and everyone here cares so much, which is great.
What inspires your creativity?
Text. Professor Pamela Howard OBE taught me to go back to the story, the answers are always there.
Do you have any top tips for aspiring designers?
Opportunities are hard to come by. There is so much competition, you must bubble through – with nerve, perseverance, and having faith in what you do.
What's your 'get up and go' song?