Award-winning designer and director Patrick Kinmonth talks to Sara Veale about his multi-pronged career, his intersectional ambitions, and the exciting task of “blowing the dust off” one of the world’s most famous classical ballets.
It’s hard to imagine simply ‘ending up’ as a fêted figure in the theatre, opera, ballet, art and design spheres, but this is how Patrick Kinmonth characterises his career trajectory, which takes in a staggering array of prominent roles across Europe and beyond, from stage designer and fashion editor to painter, arts curator, filmmaker, writer and opera director. “The reason I’ve done so many different things in my life is because I’ve been asked to do them,” he tells me matter-of-factly over tea in the Dresden apartment he’s called home for the past few months. “It’s never been my idea; I’ve just responded to challenges I’ve been given by someone else.”
It’s a modest way to describe a career predicated on creative prowess, and yet Kinmonth insists on ascribing his ascent to opportunity rather than ambition. “It’s all about one thing leading to another – a provocation that leads to a result that leads to another commission,” he says, pointing to his decade-long stint at British Vogue, where he started as a features writer in his early 20s and quickly ascended to arts editor, directing fashion and portrait shoots with the likes of André Kertész and Mario Testino. “The fashion led to an association with Missoni, who commissioned me to design their store in L.A., which then led to other architectural commissions, and from there I found myself curating exhibitions. Each strand has had its repercussions, and paths have occasionally crossed. I’m always going back and forth between different axes.”
His stage career kicked off in the early 90s, when designer Jasper Conran OBE spotted some paintings Kinmonth was exhibiting at the time. “I had designed and performed in a few different shows at the Oxford Playhouse during university, but it didn’t occur to me that I might have a career in theatre of any description,” Kinmonth recalls. “I continued to paint, though, and made some large-scale landscapes, which were seen by Jasper. He was costuming David Bintley’s new ballet Tombeaux for the Royal Ballet, and he asked if I’d design a set to go with his costumes. And so my career as a stage designer began.”
From there Kinmonth began designing operas around Europe – “That happened through friends,” he notes – and in 2008 turned his hand to directing with a staging of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly for Cologne Opera. “At that moment I thought, what am I going to do with my history as a stage designer? I wasn’t going to stop, because I love doing sets and costumes, so I turned my attention to dance. A significant part of my career since then has been working with dance – specifically the re-envisaging of the classical ballet of the nineteenth century, which is an area of great interest to me. I can use my directorial skills to work on the libretto, my musical skills to work on the score, and my design knowledge to make sets and costumes.”
His latest project is a new version of Marius Petipa’s Don Quixote for Semperoper Ballet in Dresden, which premiered last weekend. Kinmonth devised the ballet’s set and costumes, and reshaped its narrative alongside the company’s artistic director, Aaron S. Watkin, and dramaturge Stefan Ulrich. “We relieved ourselves of all constraints and decided we weren’t going to be tethered to the original,” he reveals. “Once we gave ourselves liberty to change the music and libretto, we had a new way into the story.”
A crucial change was developing the ballet’s eponymous hero into “more than just a character tacked on.” Kinmonth elaborates: “You can see in the original ballet that he’s just an excuse to borrow a Spanish feeling, the way a choreographer might borrow an oriental scenario or a Russian feeling or a Hungarian feeling. It’s a flavour, almost a perfume throughout the score. What we’ve done is made that much more emphatic, creating a story that’s both true to Cervantes and full of dynamic opportunities for dance.” The trio’s rewrite sees two distinct love triangles play out over two acts. In the first, the protagonist lusts after an acquaintance engaged to someone else, and in the second he pines for a fantasy woman before realising his companion – the ballet’s Sancho Panza figure, recast in female form – is his true love. “He can go on as many adventures as he likes, have as many fantasies as he likes, but actually the truth is right there from the beginning. People can relate to that.”
Other revisions include changing the setting from the sixteenth century to the 1950s, and incorporating music from twentieth-century composer Manuel de Falla, “whose work is romantic and emotionally complex, and ties in nicely with our efforts to go for a more moving, more modern way of storytelling.” The choreography too has been updated, “to create an interesting piece where you’re not stuck in one period with one choreography.” Many of the corps’ sections feature choreography from Watkin, while Petipa’s original steps shows up in the divertissements, including the famous grand pas de deux of the final act, as well as the “marvelous, energetic and extraordinary” finale devised for the first act. Meanwhile, fantasy sequences like Don Quixote’s battle against a band of gypsies comprise new, “almost street-based” choreography from Semperoper ballet master Gamal Gouda, and Dulcinea dances exclusively in the Bournonville style.
“It was essential to me to assimilate modern thinking into this classical piece,” Kinmonth says. “Part of the intention of reworking any ballet is to update the panorama of movement and move it forward. A basic premise of all my work in classical dance is deepening the possibilities for resonance of the girls’ parts – they’re so dreadfully shallow in the works of the nineteenth century! – and allowing the men to use their bodies demonstratively and artistically, not just by doing a lift or jump every now and then. The boys here are allowed to express themselves in a way not usually allowed in classical ballet – there’s this tension between intense masculinity and femininity. And the female characters are extremely strong. It’s a feisty, juicy situation.”
As for the costumes, Kinmonth has played on the idea that “vivid colour is an expectation from Spanish material. I’ve used colour and its absence very carefully. The gypsies have the darkest palette – they still glitter and have allure, but are quite dark. Then you have Dulcinea, who’s dressed in pastel, a mixture of roses and smoke, almost the colours of Catholic church – a palette rooted in images of incense in the air, smokiness, rosaries and such. The workers in the factory and their girlfriends are all about a very specific, bright 50s palette that conjures a specific time in history. And then there’s the extraordinary history of the toreador and the bullfight, and this is where the we bring in the brightest possible colours, to honour that part of that tradition.”
Balancing these precise aesthetics with the dancers’ physical requirements occasionally required some unconventional measures, he reveals. “For the bullfight, I was determined to use a form of satin, so I designed a costume with Lycra dyed the right colour and superimposed satin on the outside so the dancers get the flexibility they need to do these huge jumps and complex steps while still looking like bullfighters.” And for the final divertissement, featuring tutus that echo full-skirted 50s summer dresses, “we’ve used a shiny and almost net-like tulle to reference the introduction of synthetics at the time. It produces these acid colours but is still light to wear."
“One of the rewards of costuming dancers is how physically dynamic the behaviour of the costume becomes,” he continues. “Beyond the obvious – that people have to be able to do the splits and raise their arms – something you learn designing costumes is how particular fabrics and weights and movement can be used to express character. Costume is giving form to character – that’s what it’s for, whether it’s in dance or opera.”
Our conversation turns to the similarities between the two art forms, with Kinmonth lamenting that the overlap in terms of audience isn’t bigger. “What’s interesting is that ballet and opera came out of the same tradition and were once integrated, but what’s happened in the modern world is that they’ve separated. I’m very intrigued as to why people who love opera tend to treat ballet as an aberration in terms of artistic possibility. I just find that completely extraordinary. Dance takes us to a certain place that no other form can, and, like music, articulates incredible emotion without speech. I think this notion that something literary is automatically of greater significance is a complete falsehood.
“I hope my experience in dance and opera will come together in the future,” he adds. “Opera sometimes uses dance, but it doesn’t usually involve the best dancers or choreographers; it mainly patronises dance when it uses it, like ‘now we want dancers at our service’. Not always, but often. What I want is something that’s not that – for example, a Tristan und Isolde where the set is the dance and the dance is the characters and the whole thing is a total penetration of the two art forms.
“The point is, artistic enterprise, when it’s truly fascinating and truly creative, cuts down barriers; it doesn’t put them up. Picasso was somebody prepared to enter any world. He embraced opera and dance, and while yes, he put up borders between decorative painting and sculpture, he was happy to work with every possible dimension he could get his hands on. I would rather follow that tradition than any other.”