Building a Sci-Fi Ballet


What if your workplace challenge was creating an outer-space octopus with retractable arms made out of dryer tubing?

And these arms also had to be able to withstand the wear and tear of multiple performances?

That’s the exact request Eleanor Moriarty and Star Pytel fielded from Wonderbound Artistic Director, Garrett Ammon, for the ballet Celestial Navigation. Moriarty is Wonderbound’s Production Manager and Pytel the Lighting Designer, but in true Wonderbound fashion, both step out of their traditional roles to create props for the company.

“We are thinking B-movie space films from the sixties, like Lost in Space,” says Pytel. “The challenge is to make props that are made from simple materials—plumbing parts, PVC pipe, party plates hot glued together to make space saucers.”

Moriarty says that unlike other ballets, Celestial Navigation has not required deep-dives into researching specific time periods. Wandering the aisles of hardware stores has been the biggest source of inspiration for the piece.

“The workers in Home Depot will ask what my project is to help me find the appropriate materials,” Moriarty said, “but it is a little hard to explain.”

Wonderbound's Production Manager Eleanor Moriarty with UFO props for Garrett Ammon's 'Celestial Navigation.' Photo by Amanda Tipton. 2017.

“Costumes start first, they take so much longer to make and they inform the lighting,” says Pytel. “ With this ballet, the characters are traveling to different planets, so I get the chance to use those colors I otherwise wouldn’t, like bathing the stage in green—maybe with some weird shapes and texture all over everything.”

Pytel also immersed herself in the world of LED lights for this production. Audiences can catch them illuminating props in a myriad of ways, a glowing effect inside the hot air balloon, for the saucers flown by devious space bandits, and even for a monstrous octopus.

“I found these lights that can change color with just a push of the button, which makes it super easy for stagehands or dancers to use. The lights we are using for the octopus eyes are meant to illuminate your closet space!”

Pytel and Moriarty love the challenges of creating props and designing lighting for each ballet.

“This is some strange stuff,” says Moriarty. “Celestial Navigation has been a fun show to work on. Garrett is great about embracing props, not only utilizing them but also involving them in the movement, so that they become an extension of the dancers. This happens in all of the ballets—be it a bench or a stack of books, he incorporates it into the choreography in some ingenious ways.”

Pytel agrees, “each ballet is different. It keeps me very engaged as a designer and challenged all the time. I like that. It makes me better.”

Hot air balloon prop and rehearsing Wonderbound dancers for Garrett Ammon's 'Celestial Navigation.' Photo by  Amanda Tipton . 2017.

Hot air balloon prop and rehearsing Wonderbound dancers for Garrett Ammon's 'Celestial Navigation.' Photo by Amanda Tipton. 2017.

Meetings around these nuances started in August.

“Garrett starts working on concepts and usually has a very clear image in his head. For example, a reference photo or a material he wants it made out of it,” says Moriarty. “It is our job to then take it and figure out how to make it work, and to understand the limitations.”

The duo starts with a prototype, learns the way it moves and how the dancers can interact with it, and then continues to adapt and change the prop as needed.

For example, the lead character in Celestial Navigation (played by Morgan Sicklick) travels through space using a puppet-sized hot air balloon suspended from a six foot tall rod. The teams had to work together to find something that not only looked impressive from the audience, but that Sicklick could could move in. They settled on a giant beach ball suspended via a contraption harnessed around her waist.

One of the biggest challenges in Wonderbound ballets is that props and costumes are often intertwined. Generally, a prop is considered something a dancer or actor holds, while a costume is something an individual wears. But with Wonderbound, those lines are blurred. This requires a constant line of communication between the prop makers and costume department in terms of color, texture, and even the physics of the pieces.

Creating a ballet can start as much as two months before the dancers actually enter the theater and each item placed on the stage, whether prop, costume, set-piece or dancer must work together to create a seamless aesthetic.