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Oliver Smith (1918–1994)

By Lynn Matluck Brooks

Oliver Smith was a scenic designer for Broadway, Hollywood, opera, and dance. In an unusual move for a designer, he became co-director of American Ballet Theatre (1945–1980 and 1990–92) while also designing many of its productions and bringing in a remarkable range of scenic, lighting, and costume designers including Jo Mielziner, Ming Cho Lee, Rouben Ter-Artunian, Jean Rosenthal, and Freddy Wittop. Initially, Smith co-directed the company with founder Lucia Chase, while in the latter period of his leadership, as director emeritus, he co-directed with Jane Hermann. During the pause between his ABT directorships, Mikhail Baryshnikov was at the company’s helm.

Born in Waupun, Wisconsin, Smith grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, and Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. He came to stage design, in which he was “self-taught” (Pecktal 1975, 154) by way of architecture and fine arts, which he studied at Pennsylvania State University. He was a respected painter, whose work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago. For twenty-two years, Smith taught scenic design at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Smith’s first professional stage design was for the one-act Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production of Saratoga (chor. Léonide Massine, 1941). Reportedly, when Massine saw Smith’s early designs, the choreographer told the aspiring designer, “Picasso you are not” (Hanson and Smith 2009, 202). Smith made his Broadway scenic-design debut with the 1942 operetta Rosalinda, directed by Felix Brentano, choreographed by George Balanchine, and danced by such greats as Todd Bolender, William Dollar, and José Limón. Smith designed many dance-rich Broadway productions, including On the Town (dir. George Abbott, chor. Jerome Robbins, 1944), Brigadoon (dir. Robert Lewis, chor. Agnes de Mille, 1947), High Button Shoes (dir. Abbott, chor. Robbins, 1947), My Fair Lady (dir. Moss Hart, chor. Hanya Holm, 1956), West Side Story (dir. and chor. Robbins, 1957; Smith’s choice for his best work), Hello Dolly! (dir. and chor. Gower Champion, 1964), and Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (dir. and chor. Robbins, 1989). While he might be working on ten or twelve productions at a time, Smith remained, according to collaborator Jean Kerr, “an island of calm in a sea of temperament” (Hanson and Smith 2009, 204).

Smith’s ballet designs—all deeply respectful of the needs and material of the dance—were typically spare, elegant, spacious, and poetic, although—as in his 1973 Sleeping Beauty for ABT—his work could be lush and majestic when appropriate. He commented, “I think the best sets are often the simplest, least fussy, and least distracting. The purpose is to see the performance and not to be the star of the show” (Pecktal 1975, 156). He carefully considered the musical score, scenario, and choreography, always attuned to the space and visual focus that ballet demands. Smith felt that ballet was the perfect form for a designer to start in, “because it requires imagination, one does not have too much money, and one has to make up in talent what one lacks in the luxury of budget” (Pecktal 1975, 158). His design work was considered highly versatile, for which directors and choreographers were enormously grateful. As de Mille noted, “his scenery is delivered on time and it works. His best scenery makes theater history” (Hanson and Smith 2009, 202).

His watercolors for ballet designs reveal an architect’s understanding of space, while the delicacy and shimmer of his brushwork show his painterly side. With this combination of strengths, Smith was able to create both fine painted backgrounds and effective sculptural pieces, some of which—as in Fall River Legend (de Mille, 1948)—were functional parts of the choreography. Among his many dance commissions were Rodeo (de Mille, 1942; Smith considered this his first success in scenic design), Waltz Academy (Balanchine, 1944), Interplay (Robbins, 1945), The Gospel of Eve (Martha Graham, 1950), Les Noces (Robbins, 1965), Harbinger (Eliot Feld, 1967), The Catherine Wheel (Michael Smuin, 1967), Swan Lake (staging by David Blair, 1967), Giselle (staging by Blair, 1968),  Eccentrique (Feld, 1972), The Sleeping Beauty (staging by Blair, 1974), Contredances (Glen Tetley, 1979), and The Wild Boy (Sir Kenneth MacMillan, 1981).

In the preface to American Ballet Theatre: Thirty-Six Years of Scenic and Costume Design (1976), Smith wrote that the exhibition from which the published book was drawn aimed “to present the unique catholicity of ABT’s scenic and costume design. Just as we have always looked the world over for the finest choreographers and dancers, so have we engaged the finest scenic artists and costume designers available.” (Smith 1976, 2). In her “Essay” in that volume, critic Emily Genauer summed up Smith’s philosophy: “any design approach at all is valid so long as it works with and for choreography and music. He subscribes to one principle, simple, yet … radical. It is that design for a ballet is equally as important as choreography and music” (Smith 1976, 4).  Smith compared ABT to a museum in the sense that “the company’s directors, like museum directors, keep on top of the contemporary situation, are aware of the best work being done in both art and theatrical design, and ‘exhibit’ through performance the best of available talents” (restated by Genauer in Smith 1976, 6). This philosophy guided Smith’s leadership of ABT, where he was most influential in selecting designers and choreographers. A manifestation of his mission was his encouragement and support of the young Robbins, whose aim for a distinctly American ballet flavor and presentation resulted in his first choreography, Fancy Free, which Smith not only designed but also suggested that Robbins expand into the musical, On the Town. Smith’s designs for that show effectively bridged the narrative Broadway look and the ballet-opera-house aesthetic.

From 1946 to 1969, Smith was also a producer of Broadway dramatic and musical shows, including On the Town, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, No Exit, and Indians. In the course of his career, Smith designed over 250 productions and won eight Tony Awards. He was nominated for many more, as well as for an Academy Award for his 1955 design of the film Guys and Dolls (dir. Joseph Mankiewicz). He received the Sam S. Shubert Award in 1960 for his contributions to theater and, in 1975, he was honored with the Handel Medallion by the City of New York for his contributions to the arts. In 1981, Smith was doubly honored: he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and awarded NYU’s Great Teacher Award. His legacy to dance is two-fold: through his many students, his design vision persists in shaping ballet, musical theater, drama, and film; and ABT, which Smith ably steered for so long, continues to thrive as one of the world’s great ballet companies.

Lynn Matluck Brooks founded the Dance Program at Franklin & Marshall College in 1984. She holds degrees from University of Wisconsin and Temple University. A Certified Movement Analyst and dance historian, she has held grants from the Fulbright/Hayes Commission, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Brooks wrote reviews for Dance Magazine, edited Dance Research Journal and Dance Chronicle, and is author of several books and many articles. Currently, she is a participant in the Philadelphia-based "thINKing Dance" project, writing, editing, and pondering dance and dance writing


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Hanson, Laura and Robert Lewis Smith. “Oliver Smith” in Late and Great: American Designers 1960–2010, ed. Bobbi Owen. New York: USITT in cooperation with Broadway Press, 2009.

Mikotowicz, Tom. Oliver Smith: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Pecktal, Lynn. “A Conversation with Oliver Smith,” in Designing and Painting for the Theatre. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1975, 153–59.

Smith, Oliver, ed. American Ballet Theatre: Thirty-Six Years of Scenic and Costume Design, 1940–1976. New York: Ballet Theatre Foundation, 1976.

Online Resources

American Ballet Theatre, History: http://www.abt.org/insideabt/history.asp