Dreaming Up a Classic

Concept illustrator Carl Sprague leans on tradition for Moscow Ballet's The Nutcracker.

By Sydney Boyd October 27, 2015

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Image: Moscow Ballet

Since he was 8 years old, Carl Sprague describes his life as being surrounded by a visual Russian fairytale. His family, originally from Eastern Europe, owned an antique Czechoslovakian marionette theater, complete with 60 different puppets and several set designs that Sprague remembers as a vital part of his childhood. And today, Sprague’s work doesn’t stretch too far from his fairytale origins.

Sprague has paid homage to his roots and inspirational upbringing working as a set designer and concept illustrator for some of Hollywood’s top directors including Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg. He adds two new designs for Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker that stops in Houston on Friday, Nov. 6 at Houston Baptist University’s Dunham Theater.

The Nutcracker is a great big slice of cake,” Sprague says. “It is a magnificent opportunity to show off and make a spectacle, but more importantly there’s a reason why that story is so popular beyond Tchaikovsky’s incredible music.”

But the actual story of the famous holiday ballet is more vague than most of us like to admit—is it a Christmas story? A dream? What’s up with the Nutcracker prince, really?

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Image: Moscow Ballet

For Sprague, there are many vectors at work. It’s a story that moves from a young girl’s first taste of adulthood to an Alice-in-Wonderland dream-like situation, a journey through the seasons, and a tour around the world. Sprague is responsible for the “Party Scene” in the first act and the “Waltz of the Flowers” in the second. In these new sets for the production, Sprague aims to create the illusion of a three-dimensional space, “…to make the dream space that the ballet unrolls in visible to the audience.”

The design holds tightly onto the Russian cultural aspect of the original Tchaikovsky ballet. Mentioning the epic grandeur and scale of this Russian cultural project, Sprague notes the brightness and colorfulness—a natural graphic punch—associated with Russian style. Sprague has worked on other Nutcracker productions, but this one stands apart because of the company’s commitment to the Russian style. “They’re all different and sort of the same,” Sprague says, “But (Moscow Ballet) has a very clear vision of what they need.”

This has also been true in his work with notable Houston auteur Wes Anderson. In addition to the fantastical Grand Budapest Hotel, Sprague worked on Moonrise Kingdom and The Royal Tenenbaums. “Wes knows precisely what he wants,” Sprague says. “But there’s always creativity in the detail.”

Far from feeling artistically restrained, Sprague says it’s his job in such a collaborative medium to get at the heart of what a specific project is. “It could be very liberating having sort of what passes as total artistic freedom, where someone is just like ‘give us whatever you think is right,’” Sprague adds. “Sort of the best experiences are ones where someone has a very particular idea and just needs that to be articulated.”

Moscow Ballet presents The Nutcracker. Nov 6. 7. $68–88. Dunham Theater, Houston Baptist University. 7502 Fondren Rd.

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