Barry Kay 1932-1985

Barry Kay

Barry Kay

He was born in Melbourne on 1 September 1932. He was educated at Glamorgan Primary School and at Wesley College.

Kay studied design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, today’s RMIT University.

In 1954 he created the designs for Maldición, choreographed by Alison Lee to music by Ravel for Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild.

 

Designing for dance

In writing of Barry Kay, who had designed so many ballets for him, the great British choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan acknowledged the ‘sensitivity, perception and wealth of ideas’ that contributed to Kay’s success as a designer for the theatre. ‘Not a lot needed to be said. He intuitively knew my aims: his response to the music was closely allied to mine and his set models and costume designs were so clear and evocative that the task of choreographing was made easier.’

Although Kay is primarily remembered as a designer for ballet, his scope was much wider: he created memorable sets and costumes for opera and drama too, and always with respect for historical accuracy and the practicalities of staging and choreography. And he was a superb photographer.

Most histories of theatre design indicate that Barry Kay’s illustrious career did not start until after his training at the Académie Julien in Paris, but this ignores his early experiences in Melbourne, where he was born on 1 September 1932. He was educated at Glamorgan Primary School and at Wesley College. His father was in the ‘rag trade’ and his Flinders Lane warehouse was a popular source of fabrics for local theatre designers.

Kay’s early artistic interests were music – piano and composition. It was the Ballet Rambert tour of 1947-49 that sparked his interest in theatre and, especially, ballet design. When Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre presented the Cinderella fantasy The Glass Slipper at the Princess in Melbourne at Christmas 1949, 18-year-old Barry Kay designed some of the character costumes.

Kay studied design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, today’s RMIT University. In 1951 he and Barbara Newman won a competition to design the sets for The Taming of the Shrew, another National Theatre presentation at the Princess.

In 1954 he created the designs for Maldición, choreographed by Alison Lee to music by Ravel for Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild. In The Age, Geoffrey Hutton noted that one of the ‘things that remain in the mind [was] the shadowy ornate décor by Barry Kay, which tones well with Ravel’s music and literary suggestions of witchcraft in old Spain.’

For a while Kay worked as an assistant to Kenneth Rowell, who was designing for the Scottish choreographer Walter Gore, the National Ballet’s artistic director. Gore had toured Australia with the Ballet Rambert.

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