This week I had the pleasure of interviewing our scenic/graphic designer and great friend Stephan Moravski. Based in downtown Manhattan, he has recently completed his Master of Set Design for Stage and Film at Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. He has also completed his Master of Architecture at the University of Melbourne.
With his Ukrainian heritage and growing up teaching Ukrainian traditional cossack dance, he has a strong connection to Ukrainian culture and politics. He is also a dear friend to all the dancers and crew at KAZKA, as well as the brother to our artistic director and son of our costume designer.
I spoke to him earlier this week about his perspective during the KAZKA journey.
Why are you so passionate about set and production design?
I started as an architect, and finished my masters in Australia because I am extremely passionate about spatial design, history, and humans in environments. The longer I studied the more I realised that there was an aspect of the industry that I was missing. It was through dance, theatre and film that I started to pinpoint that I was interested in story telling, in being part of a team of people who through their various specialties and crafts together tell a story.
As a set designer you get the opportunity to create the environment, the envelope in which the play, dance piece, opera etc takes place in. It’s often the biggest thing you see on stage, the set, and yet most people don’t notice it. They usually take it for granted and in a way that’s good, because they have already accepted that ‘here’ is where the story is being told. As a set designer I love that on any given day I may be involved in research, collaboration, model building, drafting, painting, photographing, script analysis, talking dramaturgy... all to tell a story.
What do you love most about working with the production for KAZKA?
It has been a pleasure working on Kazka, firstly because years ago when we began, a team of talented people came together with nothing but an idea brought to the table by Melanie, and now we are at the other end of the process with a show! It has not been without its challenges however the pleasure is in watching the incredible way the other team members work, watching the support grow as the project developed, and all voluntarily is not only incredible but makes me very proud! To be able to be a part of a strong group of over 60 collaborators who have managed to come together to work, create, dance, sweat, sew, design, compose, write, administrate – it’s incredible, so very heart warming and energizing.
How different or similar is your work on KAZKA compared to your other projects in design?
It’s hard to compare the outcome of the work, project to project, mainly because each project’s design is dictated by its story, and it’s collaborators. I will say that my process to approaching the design was the same as on my other work. I worked from research and collaborative discussions ad then in the model at 1:25 scale (standard for set design projects) to start a conversation with Melanie about what this show was going to look like.
I will say that as a dance show there are always different limitations, especially with space. With a cast this size, space to dance is important and was always taken into account. My work tends to be usually more based in architecture and this show may have been physically less dimensional than my other work. However the whole concept for this show was about bringing the pages of a Ukrainian storybook to life, and to create imagery through symbol and reference that people could relate to and start to imagine their own childhood books. We had the idea for it to feel like moments from the book – the trees, the house, the clouds, the cart, the barrel, the embroidered towel, the ‘Yaramarok’ sign, all the props – creating a tapestry of symbols that help the dancers tell the story. This show has been different to others because of the “tour” aspect, which makes every challenge a challenge 7 times over. It means that the show had to be designed to fit in seven different theatres with different sizes and technical capacities. It had to be designed to be flexible, travelable and adjustable. This was for me a completely new challenge.
Being Ukrainian and spending your life growing up by Ukrainian tradition, do you enjoy working on designs of Ukrainian origin and culture?
Yes I do and always have. Ukrainian culture is beautiful and has always fascinated me. We grew up in a family that understood that it was important to do and share what we loved. It was important to spread our culture. Today as always in our political climate, it never hurts to showcase to the world, and to the country in which we live that we are proud of our culture and are not ashamed to celebrate out differences. This has always been important to me, Why else do we tell stories if not to entertain, to educate, and to connect as humans? Story telling and tradition is so embedded in our ancient culture, and represents not only our idea of Ukraine but ideas that have been discussed and passed on by people on that land for thousands of years, since the bronze age and before - How can it not be exciting to still be a part of that conversation?
Was it difficult working internationally on this project, and unable to physically be there when your designs were being created?
Yes of course! Not only because of the time difference. The main thing about this kind of work and what makes it most enjoyable for a set, costume or lighting designer, is the conversation – collaborating together with the artistic director. As long as we kept that conversation alive through skype, late night telephone calls and emails, random text messages, then the spark of story telling was still alive. The distance did make it very hard however to fulfil my physical obligations as a set designer, giving notes on sets being built, and props being built, being able to sit in tech at a show and be a part of that process. However the incredible team of artists who built the sets and props etc have been excellent in keeping me in the loop and up to date, and we have digitally been speaking and making sure everything is as it should be. These people are incredible! And their ability to so accurately communicate with their craft skills what the design laid out for them has been a pleasure to follow.
What’s it like working with your sister (the Artistic Director & Choreographer) and mother (Costume Designer) on this production?
Is this a trick question? No it has been great! Obviously working with family is different because social barriers collapse and collapse very quickly, and sometimes that can be hard. However, Melanie, Mum and I have been working together for our whole lives. Our Mum is so talented and so knowledgeable; she is the wisest person I know. Living in our house was learning by osmosis. I don’t remember ever not knowing what made something Transcarpathian, or Hutzul, Polissian or Central Ukrainian – whether a step or a pattern. Mama was a choreographer and costume designer my whole life, and after her Melania, but in our family we all danced and we all taught and we all designed. I don’t remember a time when I was not fabric swatching with mama, or not being Melania’s step in dance partner to test out combinations on. It is very rewarding that we can achieve so much and still love each other. Can it sometimes feel like travelling with the circus? Yes. Is that bad? No! I don’t know any different and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Do you miss Australia? Is New York your new home?
Of course I do, Australia will always be my home! I have been in New York now nearly 4 years, and time has just flown, but at the same time, I feel like I have been here a lifetime. It is a wonderful, diverse and all embracing city that has an energy that is its own. New York has definitely become my home. When I am coming back from the airport I heave a sigh of relief when I see Manhattan sparkling across the river and it always scares me how much like home it feels. But when I am home in Melbourne, with so many of the people I love and the smell of the gums and my parent’s couch, of course it feels like home! I consider myself lucky to feel at home in two places. But it is always hard to be apart from so many friends and loved ones.
KAZKA wouldn't be what it is without the incredible work Stephan has done in designing all the sets and props, as well as the graphics for our media publications and programs. He is truly talented and has set the magical nature to each scene. All of the company cannot wait to catch up with him when we perform KAZKA in New York on the international leg of our tour.
KAZKA isn't just any basic dance production. It involves a breathtaking original soundtrack that sends goosebumps throughout the audience, lighting that creates emotions you never anticipated, costumes and choreography that create characters from traditional Ukrainian tales of times ago. But most relevantly, it involves a creative masterpiece, a beautiful image bringing you into a time of Ukraine where animals and maidens danced in the moonlight together, love was influenced by magic and powers beyond the norm, and the vivid Ukrainian culture we hold close to all our hearts came alive.
Visit stephanmoravski.com to see more of his incredible creative work.
Written by Maria Zhdanko - Company Dancer