The master builder behind the scenes
Born: November 1972 in Jutland, Denmark
Family: Husband and nine yearold son, plus two grown up step children and a dog
Profession: Freelance multi awardwinning set, production and costume designer, book illustrator
Clients: The Royal Opera House, The Danish Royal Ballet, Opera and Theater, The Dutch National Ballet, M&M Produktion, DR Television
Assorted productions: The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, Adam’s Apples, Swan Lake, Giselle, Eugene Onegin, Manon, Arvingerne (The Legacy) TV series (all three seasons)
A juggler of different worlds, Mia Stensgaard’s talents as both a set and costume designer are well known in the theater, film and TV industries. So much so that these days, she is in high demand at some of the world’s leading theaters and studios.
“There’s so much in my head right now,” Stensgaard says when we meet in the lobby of a quiet Bloomsbury hotel tucked away behind London’s Russell Square.
“This morning, I was in Copenhagen and had a meeting with the The Legacy team about the third season we’re filming (referring to the Danish TV show Arvingerne). After this, I went straight to the costume rehearsal for the Giselle performance at the Danish Royal Ballet. Then I chased down a taxi to the airport for a flight to London to attend a meeting at London’s Royal Opera House tomorrow morning.”
The Copenhagen-based creative admits that she has a love-hate relationship with freelance life. But despite her frenetic schedule, she exudes a Zen-like calm. Cocooned in a roomy denim coat over a grey crewneck jumper, even the dress code of this fresh-faced Dane is relaxed.
She is going to London’s Royal Opera House to discuss Wagner’s classic opera The Master-Singers of Nuremberg, which opens in March 2017. It is the second production that Stensgaard has worked on for what is regarded as one of the world’s premier stages. She is designing the set for the Wagner opera with the aim of giving the work a modern twist.
“In the original, a pretty woman is offered as the prize for whoever wins a male singing competition. Say that to a Scandinavian and they’ll gasp,” she laughs. “Though we remained faithful to Wagner’s storyline, there will be a few surprises when the opera opens in March.”
The sculptural set she’s designed for The Master-Singers of Nuremberg brings to mind a cubist dreamscape, intricately pieced together and engineered to rock from side to side when things are stirring in the story.
“When I’d finally got it right after making countless models, I learned that the set will tour to Melbourne and Beijing in a van, meaning it has to be constructed in a way that it can be quickly dismantled and be enduring,” she explains. “So my job is not all about boundless creativity – keeping to budgets and ensuring that everything works on a practical level is a big part of it.”
Stensgaard is rather a traditionalist when it comes to her set design processes. She works with 1/25-scale models, initially playing around with cardboard before moving on to craft her designs in wood.
“You can achieve quite a lot digitally, but you get a much better idea of how things will turn out in reality by experimenting with physical models,” she observes. “But maybe it’s just me. I’m not part of the digital generation. When I arrive at a meeting with a bunch of drawings and models, I’m often met by a sentimental chorus of ‘Oh, how nostalgic!’”
Stensgaard grew up in Jutland, Denmark. She discovered her vocation early on and credits her dance teacher Lisbeth Bjørn Eriksen for having pushed her in the right direction.
“I was a terrible dancer but Lisbeth opened up my eyes to how set and costume can create magic on stage,” she says. “As soon as I learned you could make a living this way, getting to work behind the scenes with fellow creatives, I set my heart to it.”
The 44-year-old humbly admits that she was lucky to have started her career before the financial crash in 2008. Before that, there was “enough gold in the pot” to invest in young talent.
She spent the first few years of her career working mainly on theater productions at the Royal Danish Theater. She then landed her first major ballet gig (also at the Royal Danish Theatre) at the age of 29.
“Lady Macmillan gave me free reign on Sir Kenneth Macmillan’s three-act ballet Manon,” she says. “That was my break into really big productions.”
Stensgaard describes the feeling of joining the upper echelons of the performing arts industry, especially at such a young age, as jumping atop “much too big a horse.” Some fifteen years later, she has fully mastered that beast, though she still never rests on her laurels. For the past five years, she’s lent her creativity to primetime TV as production designer for the Danish hit show The Legacy.
“ When I was approached in 2011, I thought – me working on a dishwasher drama? No! I create mythical Shakespearian worlds and fairy tales.”
As it transpired, it was this very signature that the show’s creators wanted to harness. The story of The Legacy centers on the tangled inheritance of a famous artist. So Stensgaard dreamed up hundreds of artwork objects for the show – some more surreal than the others.
A particularly dramatic scene in the first series saw one of the central characters, played by Trine Dyrholm, wrestle with a huge inflatable figure that was both comical and nightmarish at the same time.
“The art is used to symbolize the mother and the characters react to it in a way that reveals their feelings towards her,” says Stensgaard.
Although best known internationally for her innovative sets, Stensgaard is an equally confident manipulator of cloth. Her most recent work in costume design has been for the Royal Danish Ballet’s Giselle production.
“I wanted to portray the classic story about the heartbroken peasant girl in an abstract way, conveying the feelings of the characters as opposed to anything too naturalistic,” she says.
To get under the skin of the ballet’s fragile heroine, Stensgaard used a gossamer-thin jersey for the bodice of the dress, thus departing from the structured corsets frequently used in classical ballet.
“The soft, delicate garment made Giselle look almost translucent on stage – you could almost see her heart beat,” she adds.
Stensgaard’s talent clearly lies in her ability to dig beneath the surface and stir up emotions – whether it’s through designing intricate sets for royal opera houses or using a needle and thread.
Text: Emma Holmqvist Deacon