Obituary: Oliver Smith
Friday 28 January 1994
'DISTINGUISHED'. The word represented Oliver Smith's standard of artistic judgement. It equally describes his own prolific and multifarious contributions to dance and theatre, as a scenic designer, as co-director of American Ballet Theater (originally Ballet Theater) and as a theatrical producer. 'Distinguished' applies to him personally as well: tall, slender, impeccably dressed, soft-spoken, he was a courtly presence, a man of taste and culture, 'an island of calm in a sea of temperament', as the American playwright Jean Kerr called him.
Some of Smith's best-known ballet designs set the scene for an American theme in a way that is eminently pithy and workable, creating a theatrical space that seamlessly suggests both outdoors and indoors. And they are distinguished, whatever their locale, in the elegant deployment of colour and forms in unexpected perspectives.
Such, for example, was his first success, Agnes de Mille's Rodeo (1942), originally made for Sergei Denham's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, for which Smith was chosen on the advice of the painter Pavel Tchelitchew. And such was Jerome Robbins's hit first ballet, Fancy Free (1944), evoking a New York street and bar with its wartime American sailors on an innocent spree, and de Mille's ballet of the Lizzie Borden story, Fall River Legend (1948), whose claustrophobic New England house whisked away in the final scene, leaving only a gallows.
These ballets became and remain staples of American Ballet Theater's repertoire, and they have contributed to the 'American' aspect of the company's profile in its London seasons beginning in 1946. Smith also designed Robbins's version of Les Noces (1965) with its monumental setting and Kenneth MacMillan's The Wild Boy (1981), choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Smith was designer (and sometimes producer) for endless numbers of Broadway musicals (and plays as well), summoning up varied New York worlds in Hello, Dolly], West Side Story (1957) and On the Town (which took the ballet Fancy Free as its point of departure), and the British locales of My Fair Lady, Camelot and Brigadoon. He designed Candide, Leonard Bernstein's succes d'estime, and received seven of Broadway theatre's Tony Awards. His unstoppable talent embraced Hollywood with Oklahoma] (1955) and Guys and Dolls (1955), among many other films. He designed productions for the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera.
Smith was for many years a stable influence behind the scenes at Ballet Theater, where he was asked to become co-director in 1945 with Lucia Chase, the strong personality who was also the company's primary financial support in the early days. The dance and theatre critic Clive Barnes described Smith as 'the conscience' of ballet theatre. He was a catalyst who knew how to draw the right talents together; it was he, for example, who chose the painter Marc Chagall as designer for the company's production of Michel Fokine's The Firebird (1945).
He and Chase jointly made the decision to expand the company's classical profile by bringing in the Royal Ballet danseur David Blair to mount a full production of Swan Lake in 1967 and Giselle in 1968, both of which Smith designed.
Although he and Chase retired as directors in 1980, when Mikhail Baryshnikov was brought in to lead the company, Smith returned as co- director of the company, with Jane Hermann, from 1990 to 1992, after which he was named director emeritus.
Smith was a graduate of Pennsylvania State Univerisity, where he studied architecture. He was also an accomplished painter, and an influential teacher of design at New York University for 22 years until his death. He was a member of the National Arts Council from 1965 to 1970. His last design credit was for the Joffrey Ballet's production of The Nutcracker (1987), which is set in 19th-century America.
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