Here's the director's cut, below the photo.
|Le Corsaire: Tamara Rojo and Osiel Gouneo wear costumes by Bob Ringwood. Photo: courtesy of English Naitonal Ballet|
It seems a long way from Bob Ringwood’s wooden house by the sea on the Kent coast to the fantastical worlds he has created for film, theatre, opera and ballet. The British designer, twice nominated for Oscars, is particularly celebrated for his ability to make fairy-tale or sci-fi spheres into palpable reality. When English National Ballet called upon him to take over their 2014 production of the 19th-century extravaganza Le Corsaire, having parted company with the original designer, the stunning visual results, replete with oriental glamour and magical transformations, drew superlatives all round. A revival is now on at the London Coliseum.
This ballet is just the latest manifestation on an extraordinary path, which the ever-lively Ringwood remarks has been partly luck and partly down to his willingness to seize opportunities with both hands. At 69 he is semi-retired, at least from film – he suffered a stroke around nine years ago – but he still bubbles over with energy and creativity.
“Originally I wanted to be a painter,” he says. “But later I realised that that meant being in a room on your own. I like very much working as part of a team, so I went into the theatre and then cinema. I’ve loved it – and have done for 50 years. I haven’t had a life; I just work. But it’s like any vocation: if you love what you do, you become a slave to it.”
In some ways, though, this is more than a vocation. Ringwood says he has a degree of autism – and he is convinced that without it he would not have had such success. “I’m very obsessive, I have an elaborate fantasy life and I dream amazing dreams every night,” he says. “I can’t switch my brain off; I’m either asleep or switched on, and I have huge amounts of energy because of the autism. It really motivates you. Designing is like being allowed to wander in the landscape of your own imagination and create it for real. It’s an amazing gift that theatre and film producers give you – and if you’ve got an overactive mind that’s endlessly visual, it’s a wonderful release.” Having turned the condition to his advantage, he wants to encourage others with autism to do likewise: “Remember, you can do anything.”
That overactive imagination had nearly free rein in the exoticism of Le Corsaire, set in what Ringwood describes as a fantasy version of Istanbul. “Designing for ballet is all about line and movement,” he says, “and the sets shouldn’t overshadow the dancers. I believe the sets are part of the costumes and the costumes are part of the set. Tamara Rojo [artistic director of ENB] liked the painterly quality of my work and she wanted a design that looked 19th century; so we emerged with something like a painterly modern interpretation of a 19th-century staging.”
(Above: Le Corsaire pas de deux starring Alina Cojocaru and Vadim Muntagirov)
He transformed details from thousands of “orientalist” 19th-century paintings to devise skylines and palaces; and for the costumes he sourced much-beaded Pakistani, Indian and Afghani fabrics on Southall High Street. “It was a gold mine,” he declares. “And it gives a ring of authenticity to the look – these materials bring their history with them.” Add a sparkling of well-placed Swarowski crystals and the magic is complete.
Ringwood, who was born in London in 1946, studied at the Central School of Art, where his mentor was Ralph Koltai: “He was a clever teacher and tough as old boots – you either shaped up or shipped out,” he says. “I loved him.” While he was on the design diploma course, the Old Vic closed for refurbishment and the National Theatre, based there under Laurence Olivier’s directorship, was left temporarily without a stage – so elected to work with the college. “Three of us were chosen to create stage productions with the National Theatre actors,” Ringwood recalls, “and the producer was the director of the National Theatre – so, imagine, as a student you’re showing your work to Laurence Olivier.
“My parents, who were very ordinary people, came to the opening night,” he says, “and in the interval Sir Laurence came over to us. I introduced them and my mother curtsied! He lifted her up and said, ‘I don’t think you need to go quite that far’ – and he talked to them through the whole interval. PR people were calling him, but he could see my parents were nervous and he stayed with us.”
Fresh from art school, Ringwood won an Arts Council bursary to work in a theatre for a year. He went to the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, under the direction of Giles Havergal and Philip Prowse, he relates, and promptly won an award on Scottish TV. “I jumped in and was a success, quite by chance, from the beginning,” he beams.
It was Katharine Hepburn who helped him find an unexpected route to Hollywood. Ringwood had worked with the director Noel Willman on a play for the Chichester Festival Theatre; Willman was friendly with Hepburn and the design work was done in the actress’s US home. Hepburn, Ringwood says, saw his designs, was impressed and requested that he might take on The Corn is Green, George Cukor’s 1979 film in which she was to star. The producers would not entrust the design to someone new to movies, though; the job was offered to David Walker, a more experienced friend of Ringwood’s.
“David called me one day to see if I would help pick out some clothes for Hepburn,” Ringwood says. He went, met Hepburn and was asked to help with fabric shopping the next morning – but that very day Walker fell ill and dropped out of the project. “Katharine Hepburn wouldn’t let them bring in another designer. She said: ‘I want that boy who was here yesterday.’ So I ended up doing the film after all. She said to me, ‘I wanted you at the beginning and in the end I got you!’ And she kindly wrote a letter to the film union in Hollywood, which let me in because of it. The whole thing was fate.”
Destiny soon intervened again. Finishing that film, Ringwood found himself in the studio canteen at the next table to the director John Boorman and overheard him lamenting that he had just lost his costume designer for Excalibur. “I leaned over and said, ‘Excuse me, but I may be able to help…’” he recounts.
(A scene from Le Corsaire. Source of some of this gorgeous costume material: Southall High Street)
Equally serendipitous was the arrival of Batman. Ringwood had had to resign from a James Bond film, which was to be shot in Argentina, due to his mother’s serious illness. Walking down the corridor from that meeting, he says, he spotted Chris Kenny, the associate producer with whom he had worked on Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, sitting with his head in his hands. “He said, ‘It’s awful, we just lost the costume designer on Batman…’ So that’s what started my so-called ‘rubber goods’ career.”
“In a way,” he adds, “I changed the course of superheroes. Tim Burton wanted to cast Michael Keaton as Batman. Until then, superheroes had been like Christopher Reeve, wearing tights. Michael’s not tall, and I said we can’t put him in tights, it’ll look ridiculous. So I had to find a way to make him into a superhero. I gave him a completely armoured body based on the original concept of Batman and so I went into the rubber world and sculpting. But the costume budget was so small that it didn’t cover even the rubber suits. I begged, stole and borrowed to get that film done.”
“Over several films,” he says, “we perfected these rubber body suits until we got to Val Kilmer’s [Batman Forever, 1993] with the famous nipples on it. I found a wonderful sculptor, José Fernandez, who supplied much of it – I wanted it to be sleek and sexy like a panther, and it’s known as the Panther Suit. I put nipples on it not to be provocative, but because if you’re sculpting a body it would seem bizarre not to have nipples – they’re like punctuation.”
Jack Nicholson, as The Joker, had other concerns. “His costume had to reflect the original comic strip, so it had to be purple and green,” Ringwood says. “Jack said that I could do whatever I liked as long as he didn’t look silly. Luckily it turned out that aubergine, the colour of his overcoat, is one of the colours of the Lakers, the basketball team he supported.”
Ringwood was nominated for Oscars, first for Empire of the Sun and later Troy, which lost out to The Aviator. “They should have given that one to me,” he growls. “The Aviator was dressed in 1930s clothes, but we had to create everything for ancient Greece from scratch, including 18,000 pairs of sandals in Bucharest and thousands of suits of armour.”
But of all his films, he names as his favourite Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. “I did the sets, and everyone was working for love rather than money,” he says. “We did everything ourselves, on a tiny budget – and it looks amazing.”
Shouldn’t he write his memoirs? “I don’t think so,” he remarks, “because you can’t tell the truth. I’ve seen things so outrageous they’d take the skin off the back of your neck.”
But he wouldn’t say no to another ballet. To judge from the joys of Le Corsaire, companies could do worse than beat a path to his door.
Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, London Coliseum,13-24 January. Box office: 020 7845 9300