Ever since Pablo Picasso created the costumes and sets for the Ballet Russes' Parade in 1917, performances that bring together dance and visual art have been the hottest tickets in town. You can count the 1981 Parade revival with a backdrop by David Hockney on that list and, more recently, performances by the New York City Ballet with commissions by the likes of French street artist JR, sculptor Dustin Yellin, and, this year, multimedia artist Marcel Dzama—all to dazzling effect.
Now, Miami City Ballet is getting in on the action: They've invited artist Michele Oka Doner, known for her signature bronze sculptures inspired by plant and marine life, to create the costumes and sets for the company's "underwater" reimagining of George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which premiered on Friday, March 18.
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A Miami native, Oka Doner found herself fascinated by the mysteries of nature as a child and dreamed of a career in biology—her course as an artist actually began with a 10th grade science experiment, testing different diets for marigold seeds. The resulting presentation was so elaborate and creative that her biology teacher sent her work to the art room as a sculpture. Since then, the artist, who has lived in New York since 1981, has concerned herself with interpreting and exploring that which is clearly most important to her: the natural world.
While Oka Doner is represented by the prestigious Marlborough Gallery in New York and has work in the collections of museums including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Whitney, her best-known project is the mile-long terrazzo concourse at the Miami International Airport adorned with inlaid bronze in the shapes of sea shells, starfish, and coral. But, tonight, she just might become better known for her imaginative and otherworldly sets and costumes for A Midsummer Night's Dream—her first foray into stage work.
When the ballet's artistic director Lourdes Lopez first approached Oka Doner for the project, the artist knew exactly where to start. The setting of the classic Shakespeare play—a comedy of interconnecting plots about four Athenians who venture into a forest and are manipulated by the fairies who live there—reflected Oka Doner's own landscape, to an extent. "I realized that we [in Miami] have our own forest, it's just underwater," she says. "We have all that kelp and turtle grass, all these beautiful things that grow and sway in the currents."
Oka Doner's first stop in working on the ballet was at the Marine Invertebrate Museum at the University of Miami—an unimaginable collection of alien-like sea specimens preserved in jars, which she had been photographing since 2005 for another project. She began to think of this unknown world in terms of Midsummer: "I was able to conjure up what it's like underwater with great accuracy," says Oka Doner, who will also have her first museum solo in decades at the Pérez Art Museum Miami this month. "I was able to create a palette that is very unusual to Miami—a natural palette that doesn't reference the glitter and the Deco—something really different that people haven't seen."
Drawing inspiration from deep-sea plant life such as solitary, medallion-like coral, feathery West Indian sea lilies, and angular sea whips, Oka Doner's underwater setting for this new ballet is as enchanting and unearthly as the play's intended forest.
Now, get an exclusive look inside the making of this reimagined world.
Miami City Ballet's A Midsummer Night's Dream premieres 3/18 at the Adrienne Arsht Center. See miamicityballet.org for more performance dates. For information on Oka Doner's exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum, which opens March 24, see pamm.org.