June 8, 2003
Santo Loquasto Adds the Afterlife to the Worlds He's Designed
By VALERIE GLADSTONE
SANTO LOQUASTO was behind schedule. On this chilly morning in February he
was working on his set and costume designs for "HereAfter," a highlight of
American Ballet Theater's current season. His other projects for the
spring included Woody Allen's new movie "Anything Else" and Mr. Allen's
new play "Writer's Block," and productions of "Long Day's Journey Into
Night" on Broadway and "Love's Labour's Lost" at Stratford, Ontario. There
was also the Metropolitan Opera's "Salome" for next season.
Surprisingly, he appeared relaxed, even jovial, as his associates handled
the phones in the small office in his apartment on the Upper West Side of
Mr. Loquasto, 58, is one of the foremost set and costume designers. He has
received nominations for countless awards, from Oscars to Obies to Tonys ó
including a Tony nomination this year for "Long Day's Journey." In
addition to filmmakers like Mr. Allen, he has worked with a veritable
who's who of choreographers, including Agnes DeMille, Kenneth MacMillan,
Paul Taylor, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Mark Morris. "I'm a romantic,"
he said. "I love the high level of fantasy dance allows."
Mr. Loquasto grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He got hooked on theater in his
teens, when his mother took him to see "Gypsy." He acted in high school
plays and majored in liberal arts at King's College in Wilkes-Barre. He
later studied theater production at the Yale Drama School. After a few
summers at the Williamstown Theater in Massachusetts, he was asked by Joe
Papp to become the resident designer at the Public Theater in New York.
Later Jennifer Tipton, the lighting designer, introduced him to Mr. Taylor
and Twyla Tharp.
His apartment was covered with art books and magazines open to pages where
he has found inspiration. "I lift from everyone," he said. "I call it
On the dining room table was a model of the set for "HereAfter": an
ancient-looking temple, which reflected the ballet's spiritual themes.
Nearby he spread out silky fabric in muted reds and blues, which he was
considering for the costumes. "It's my job to help create a visual
narrative," he said.
Mr. Loquasto and Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of Ballet Theater,
first discussed "HereAfter" a year ago. Mr. McKenzie explained that the
two-part work was about man's journey through life and death. Natalie Weir
would choreograph one ballet to John Adams's "Harmonium" and Stanton Welch
the other to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." Both are choral works, and the
New York Choral Society would accompany them, which meant more than 100
singers had to be accommodated onstage.
After hearing all the plans, Mr. Loquasto recalled saying to Mr. McKenzie,
"What will you guys think of next?"
Mr. McKenzie said: "Santo is undaunted by challenges. And he's sensitive
to dancers' foibles, and insecurities, and takes them into account in his
Before designing anything for a dance, Mr. Loquasto listens to the score.
"The music is the catalyst for me," he said. "It evokes a time, a place, a
mood and frees me to imagine a whole world."
At her first meeting with Mr. Loquasto, Ms. Weir told him that she wanted
her ballet to reflect the music's spirituality. "I thought of opening with
my main male figure suspended from the ceiling," she said, "as if in an
embryonic state, between life and death."
Mr. Loquasto sketched a cagelike contraption, and because Ms. Weir did not
want it to appear as though the dancers and chorus were interacting, he
devised see-through blinds that divide the chorus from the rest of the
stage. "Santo understands that the designs should interact with the
choreography," she said. "He gave clarity to the images in my work."
In keeping with the ballet's tone, Mr. Loquasto suggested simple costumes
that showed off the dancers' bodies. They looked natural enough to have
been bought off the rack. In fact, some of them were. "I keep an eye on
the money," he said.
Mr. Loquasto often offers advice that affects the choreography. He worried
that a ballet set to "Carmina Burana" might look kitschy. "It's very
tricky," he said, "when you enter into primitive worlds." He designed
unitards that make it appear as if the dancers' bodies have been painted;
he also suggested that the dancers wear temporary tattoos. "I drew from
Aztec, Mayan and aboriginal art, hoping to convey a sense of
timelessness," he said.
When Mr. Morris asked him to design costumes to look like M&M candies for
his "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes," Mr. Loquasto asked if he meant the
inside or the outside, which sounds like a joke. But Mr. Loquasto chose
brown, for its suitability to the Englishness of the piece.
"My collaborations are my greatest reward," he said. "Whether they are
combative, remedial or genuinely collaborative, I look forward to them,
the ongoing ones for the pleasure of working with people I've known for
years, and the new ones for the challenge. They're as exciting as
But Mr. Loquasto's relationships with choreographers, particularly with
Robbins, have not always been easy. "No matter what I suggested, Jerry
would do what he wanted to do, which was always the same thing," Mr.
Loquasto recalled. "Once he asked me, `Why can't you do for me what you do
for Twyla?' and I told him, `Because she allows me to respond and you're
not interested.' "
Mr. Loquasto and George Balanchine had a showdown over Robbins's "Four
Seasons." When Balanchine saw that he had used the same color for the
women's dresses and tights, he asked Mr. Loquasto to change the tights to
dance briefs. "I told him that I could not cut their legs there," Mr.
Loquasto said. "No one was going to think they were naked. After I made my
pronouncement, he turned to someone nearby and remarked: `That's why I
like working with Rouben Ter-Arutunian. He's not like Santo; he does
exactly what I tell him to do.' " The women did not wear dance briefs.
By late April, Mr. Loquasto was almost back on schedule with "HereAfter."
All he had left were the final fittings in Barbara Matera's costume shop
in downtown Manhattan. As he pinned layers of cloth on one patient dancer
after another, he was still designing, trying to find just the right
combination of patterns that would please the audience's eye, be
comfortable for the dancer and enhance the choreography.
"At times," Mr. Loquasto said, "I think I draw too broadly and have no
real style of my own. But in a way I really shouldn't have a recognizable
style. I'm supposed to represent the artist's vision, not mine." When it
was suggested that he was an artist, he laughed and continued adjusting
fabric on a dancer's leg.
Valerie Gladstone is a freelance writer in New York who specializes in