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André Delfau Interview No. 01 [October 24, 1985]

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Video Identifier: V.2011-05-0533
Run Time
0h 18m 12s
Date Produced
October 24 1985
Q: How and when did you get started as an artist, painting and doing things for the ballet.
A: Well, I was born in Paris, and the first drawing I remember was on a chalkboard, and I also used white of the chalkboard, and I made drawings on those chalkboards. And, of course, my mother was not very happy with that.
Q: Why not? No artists in the family?
A: It was not useful for the chalkboard.
Q: Oh, it wasn't a child's chalkboard. It was one that you had in the house.
A: Yes, yes.
Q: Oh, she was using it, I see, and you used up all the chalk.
A: Yes, and maybe I was four or five at the time. That was the first thing I remember about drawing.
Q: Did you always have the sense that you wanted to be an artist?
A: Yes.
Q: So that when you went to school what did you do?
A: When I went to school I forget about that, of course, for a while because I have to learn. But after, when I was seventeen, I decided really to be a painter. And my mother didn't object, but my father objected very strongly, because he said that would be a very difficult life and very few artists could make a living out of their own art. And so my life was . . . it was a most difficult period of my life certainly, because I have to fight and to make a living. And I was very young so it was not so easy.
Q: You were living in Paris?
A: Yes.
Q: And how did you make a living?
A: I made drawings for publicity, and after that and with my drawings I go to Vogue --
Vogue Magazine. And I show them my drawings, which were not fashion drawings at all, but
I thought maybe I could try that. And they said "Yes, you could do it." And they gave me
some live models so I could make fashion drawings, and it worked. So, finally I made money.
I made enough money to live and to have my own apartment and my own studio.
Q: When did you get started doing things for the ballet?
A: It was after the war. I was invited to go to New York by Vogue. American Vogue. And
so I came to New York just after the war, what, '46, I think. And I made drawings, lot of
drawings for Vogue in this period and also publicity and things like that. And I met [Pavel]
Tchelitchev, who was a friend of friends of mine in Paris. I met him. He was very kind and
very nice to me, and he introduced me to Balanchine. Balanchine at this period was living in
an apartment as empty as this one, except it was much bigger and it was a duplex, and there was a grand piano.
Q: That's all?
A: That's all, yes, and coming from the stairs I saw Maria Tallchief come in. She was Mrs. Balanchine at this period. And I showed my paintings to Balanchine, and when Balanchine was invited to the Opera in Paris the year after, he thought of me and he asked me to make his sceneries and the costumes. First for Serenade and then Apollon Musagetes. And so I made both for the Opera in Paris, and it was my beginning of my career as a theater designer.
Q: So . . . and you . . . before that you hadn't thought about theater designing at all?
A: Always I love theater. I always loved theater, even as a child. My family would not let
me at night, but I could go to the matinees, you see, in the afternoon. And even at twelve,
thirteen, I was . . .
Q: Enjoying it.
A: . . . in the theater.
Q: It strikes me that it's a very . . . a particularly difficult kind of relationship for an artist who designs for the ballet between the choreography, the music, the dancers, and the art, the scenery, and the costumes. It seems to me it's especially, especially difficult because there is not as much freedom as you have, for example, obviously, when you do a painting.
A: Of course not. And it's never exactly your dream on stage. It's half of your dream. Sometimes it's even less than that. But it's very fascinating. The beginning is marvelous when you think of doing the thing, when your imagination works and when you try things and then work on them. That's a marvelous moment. That's the best moment. After that, reality comes, and, of course, you have to fight with reality. But at least you have nice bodies to put costumes on.
Q: That's true.
A: And I've made opera, too. And that's . . . .
Q: Yes, it's a different proposition totally. What is that process, André? How does it begin when you start working with a choreographer or a ballet director?
A: Oh, it depends. It's different each time. For with Balanchine, working with Balanchine was the easiest thing in the world. He never said a word about anything to you. He just gave you the music, the story -- if there was a story -- and you were allowed to see the choreography . . . . He didn't give you any indication of any kind because in his mind there was no scenery and costume. His mind was with dancers and movements.
Q: Right, that's the way he choreographed.
A: For him, scenery and costumes were something you have to accept, but he couldn't care less about them most of the time. Yes, sometimes, but . . . .
Q: Not usually.
A: You see, it was not important for him at all. It was not in his mind. In his mind is a naked body of the dancer and the movement.
Q: So then after Balanchine?
A: And after it was done, it was a big success. But he never said, I like it or dislike it.
Q: He never said anything?
A: He never said anything.
Q: You showed him the sketches and he said . . .
A: Yes.
Q: Fine.
A: Yes.
Q: After doing those for the Paris Opera with Balanchine, what then did you do?
A: Oh, I did also for all the things [theaters] like the Comédie Française and Opera. Things that were not balletic. But after a while, I met Skibine who was a half-Belgian/half-Russian dancer and a choreographer, too. And he was at this period with the Marquis de Cuevas. You heard about the Marquis de Cuevas?
Q: Yes, indeed.
A: His wife was a Rockefeller, and who spent a lot of money for ballets. And he had a big company with a lot of stars in it and ballets. Skibine was one of the stars, and his wife Marjorie Tallchief, the sister of Maria Tallchief, was one of the stars. She was a really beautiful dancer, marvelous.
Q: Everyone says that about her.
A: Ah, so poetic, so . . . . It was really marvelous to look at her, and he was also very handsome and his proportions were fantastic. And he was a great star. But he preferred to choreograph than to dance, and so he asked me to make ballets together with him, and we worked together for a long time.
Q: Where?
A: In Europe, of course.
Q: Yes, of course. Now what did you do, what ballets did you do for him?
A: Oh, a lot of them. The first one was Tragedy of Verona, which is the story of Romeo and Juliet.
Q: Yeah, Tragedy of Verona. Right, yeah.
A: With the Tchaikovsky music. And the premiere was in Monte Carlo, in this lovely little theater in Monte Carlo. And the second one, I think, was Annabel Lee.
Q: Based on Edgar Allan Poe.
A: Based on the poem of Poe. And after that I made a lot . . . .
Q: Now, how was the working relationship with . . .
A: With Skibine? It was different than with Balanchine, because Skibine had a taste to tell stories. He liked to tell stories. He had a more poetic or literal mind than Balanchine, who had a musical and choreographic mind. And so the importance of the sceneries and costumes were bigger for Skibine. He gave more importance to the problem of costume and scenery.
A: Did that make the working relationship better for you or more difficult?
A: Not difficult at all. With Skibine I've never had any problem. He told me what he want and I show him what I thought would be nice, and most of the time he'd just want like that, you know.
Q: After the Marquis de Cuevas, you also did some things for the Harkness Ballet, the Danish Ballet . . . .
A: Yes, I've done two ballets with Mrs. Harkness.
Q: Which?
A: The first was called Abyss. It was a big success. And as a second was Scotch Symphony with Skibine choreographing.
Q: And for the Royal Danish Ballet?
A: With the Royal Danish Ballet, I made first Night Shadow of Balanchine. And I think they are still dancing it. And the second ballet was Sleeping Beauty.
Q: Now, what was your production of Sleeping Beauty . . . what did it look like?
A: Well, it was seventeenth century atmosphere. Kind of Spanish. Velazquez.
Q: Now, when you go to design a ballet, to what extent do you think you're influenced by the period in which it's set, and to what extent do the ideas come from in terms of where you are living in the history of art? You know, in other words, there are trends going on in art of which you were very much a part, and then there's the . . . how do you make, how do you wed the seventeenth century to the fact that you are a modern artist?
A: Yes, well, there is no solution for anything. I mean, you have to find your solution each time. And each time the solution is different, and that makes working for the theater so interesting, because the problems are always different. And, of course, the solutions have to be invented.
Q: That's right. The solutions have to be invented, yeah, each time.
A: So, that makes things fascinating.
Q: To what extent, André, does the choreography influence you creatively as you work on a concept for the scenery or costumes?
A: Oh, sometimes I don't even see the choreography.
Q: You haven't even seen it?
A: Before, before sometimes. Of course, I prefer to see it, but sometimes it's not created yet, you see. The things go together, and so with the music and the story . . . I have something in my mind, and the choreography comes after.
Q: Are there ever times when you've seen a ballet that you've designed, and you look at the choreography, and you think, Darn, I'd wish I'd known that it was going to take that direction because I would've designed it differently.
A: Well, it never happened actually.
Q: Good.
A: Ah, I remember in Apollon Musagetes with Balanchine. It was the only thing. I had put some long scarves on the three Muses, and he took a pair of scissors and he cut a part of those scarves because it interfered with the movements. But it was the only time.
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Chicago (production location of)