OSCAR Wilde’s story “The Happy Prince” has been with Kim Carpenter for many years.
Published in 1888, the story of the prince who asks the swallow to take the ruby from his hilt, the sapphires from his eyes and the gold leaf covering his body to give to the poor, affected the artist/designer deeply.
“Every line has gravitas and as I went over and over it, it became more and more meaningful to me,” Carpenter says.
Turned into a ballet by himself, director Graeme Murphy and composer Christopher Gordon, the Australian Ballet’s production of “The Happy Prince” would have thrilled young people on our mainstages right about now, but after a short season in Brisbane during February, COVID-19 hit.
Believing that “today, as we go through the pandemic, what Wilde is saying about the disparity between the rich and the poor couldn’t be more relevant,” Carpenter has produced a suite of 26 watercolour paintings for an exhibition in Kings Cross and online, partly in tribute to Wilde, who was born on October 16, 1854, and partly to reflect the ballet we may never see.
Like most kids’ stories, Carpenter says Wilde’s tale is about survival.
Another version for his former company, Theatre of Image, toured Australia and Canada for 16 years from the early 1990s, but the new exhibition has nothing to do with that and everything to do with the ballet.
Carpenter relates how about five years ago he took a list of 10 possible stories to David McAllister and Nicolette Fraillon from the Australian Ballet and it was only when he got to number 10, “The Happy Prince”, that they showed interest and it became a deal.
Murphy, meantime, was already well into it and had done his research.
“David knew much more about the romantic potential for choreography which also embraced fantasy,” Carpenter says.
“The look of characters is different in ballet,” he explains.
“Live theatre is about strong characterisation, but ballet is the most pure visual theatre medium, conveying the story through music, image and dance… and this was a story ballet, not a text.”
Carpenter noticed that younger dancers weren’t experienced in character, but more seasoned artists like Adam Bull, the very first prince, were right into it and spoke to him about their interpretations, something rare for a designer.
He began his designs in 2016, but as it was over budget, they postponed it and scheduled it as the 2019 season opener.
Fate struck when Graeme Murphy became seriously ill in hospital then Carpenter was diagnosed with cancer.
“But we both overcame it, touch wood, we were lucky,” he reports.
So the show was on again and, after rehearsing in late 2019, it opened in Brisbane this year with plans to show at the Sydney Opera House and the Arts Centre, Melbourne. But with COVID-19, the company pulled the show.
Both Carpenter and Murphy weren’t optimistic when the second wave struck in Victoria and this time the ballet company suspended the production until further notice – Carpenter can’t see it happening any time soon.
But, he says, “I still had the imagery and the costumes in my mind. There is no limit to a painting… it exists within a piece of paper, that is the world, that is the atmosphere.”
So he got painting and secured a cancellation at the ARO Gallery in William Street, where he will hold a series of openings, since only 20 people at a time are allowed.
“I didn’t set out to tell a story,” he says.
“I started in the middle, but suddenly I realised it was forming a story and that’s how it’s being presented in terms of colour, all based on the ballet.”
Rose Mulready, publications editor of the Australian Ballet, tells him it would make a good book.
“She may well be right,” Carpenter says.
“The Happy Prince”, ARO Gallery, William St, Darlinghurst, until October 25. The paintings may be viewed at kimcarpenter.com.au/exhibition