By ROSLYN SULCAS NOV. 29, 2015
Yolanda Sonnabend worked in ballet and opera and had a career as a painter and portraitist.
LONDON — Yolanda Sonnabend, a theater designer and painter who had a strong influence on the work of the British choreographer and Royal Ballet director Kenneth MacMillan, died on Nov. 9 in London. She was 80.
Her brother, Dr. Joseph A. Sonnabend, said the cause was septic shock. Ms. Sonnabend had been treated for dementia.
Ms. Sonnabend, who was born in southern Africa, was still a student at the Slade School of Fine Art in London when she came to public attention with the first ballet she designed — “A Blue Rose,” by Peter Wright, in 1957.
Her first work with MacMillan and the Royal Ballet came in 1963, when she created sets and costumes for his “Symphony.” But it was only from 1975 that she began to collaborate closely with him, designing sets and costumes for 10 of his ballets over the next decade.
MacMillan used Ms. Sonnabend for his more abstract, one-act works, rather than for full-length narrative ballets, but she designed opulent versions of ballet classics for others, including Anthony Dowell’s productions of “Nutcracker,” “Cinderella” and a gothic, fantastical “Swan Lake,” which divided critics but remained in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire from 1987 until this year.
Ms. Sonnabend also designed opera and theater productions, including “Antony and Cleopatra” for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1999. Her “beguiling” staging for that production, the critic Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian, “effortlessly contains both Rome and Alexandria.”
Ms. Sonnabend also worked in television and film, notably on Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest,” a 1979 feature film set in a decaying mansion.
“Design is not decoration — decoration is just added on,” Ms. Sonnabend said in a 2006 interview with the dance critic Ismene Brown for the Royal Opera House magazine. “Design is visualization of emotion.”
That conception was well-matched to MacMillan’s intensely expressive, often disturbing pieces. Her settings for them included Japanese-influenced parchment screens (for his “Rituals”), translucent fiberglass panels (“Requiem”), a wire-fenced yard (“Playground”) and a luxurious garden alternating with a concentration camp (“Valley of Shadows”).
Yet she acknowledged in the Opera House interview that her work with MacMillan could make her hunger to create something less austere, as she did with the costumes for Natalia Makarova’s “La Bayadère.”
“It was a joy to turn from all MacMillan’s damaged children to something that could all just be pretty,” she said.
Yolanda Pauline Tamara Sonnabend was born on March 26, 1935, in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), to a German father and a Russian mother. She grew up in “a house full of art objects, good design and music,” The Guardian said in its obituary.
Ms. Sonnabend studied art in Geneva before enrolling at the Slade School, where she studied under the Greek-born designer Nicholas Georgiadis. (He first worked with MacMillan on “Danses Concertantes” in 1955 and had a highly successful career as a stage designer. He died in 2001.)
It was Mr. Georgiadis who recommended Ms. Sonnabend to Mr. Wright for “A Blue Rose,” which introduced her to the ballet world and more specifically MacMillan, who was seeking innovative designs for his expressionist, often psychologically fraught pieces.
Ms. Sonnabend went on to design most of his best-known works during a fertile period, 1975 to 1986, among them “Requiem,” “My Brother, My Sisters” and “Different Drummer.” (This last collaboration involved a rare falling-out, after MacMillan decided at the last minute to scrap her scenery designs, though he kept the costumes.)
Ms. Sonnabend developed a certain understanding with MacMillan in their working relationship.
He liked “to feel he’d generated the designs, though he didn’t tell you much in advance,” she was quoted as saying in Jann Parry’s biography of MacMillan, “Different Drummer” (2009).
She added: “I’d do lots and lots of sketches, listening to the music — and then do as my assistant told me: ‘Put the one you really like face down on the floor, so Kenneth will pick it up and think he found it.’ ”
In the Opera House interview she commented: “It’s a very strange and intimate thing a designer has with a choreographer. It’s like the portrait painter and the sitter — you give each other a kind of power. The choreographer uses you, because you have a different way of seeing.”
MacMillan, who was knighted by the British crown, died in 1992.
Ms. Sonnabend had a parallel career as a painter and portraitist; the physicist Stephen Hawking, the actor and theater director Steven Berkoff and MacMillan were among her subjects. Nine of her pieces are in the collection of London’s National Portrait Gallery, and a major retrospective of her work was held at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1985-86.
She also taught theatrical design at the Slade and at the Camberwell and Wimbledon art schools in England while maintaining a lively social life at her house in North London, which guests described as stuffed with cats, half-built sets, masks, fabrics, dolls and obscure objects.
Her brother, Joseph, a noted AIDS researcher, is her only immediate survivor.