A new book about Kristian Frederikson details the life of an Australian theatre designer with an international reputation

Kristian Fredrikson making adjustments to costumes for Royal New Zealand Ballets production of Cinderella, 1991. Picture: Ross Giblin, courtesy Stuff/The Evening Post Collection, New Zealand.
Kristian Fredrikson making adjustments to costumes for Royal New Zealand Ballets production of Cinderella, 1991. Picture: Ross Giblin, courtesy Stuff/The Evening Post Collection, New Zealand.
  • Kristian Frederikson: Designer, by Michelle Potter. Melbourne Books, $59.95.

Kristian Fredrikson (1940-2005) was an extraordinary theatre designer who had a profound impact on Australian design for dance, opera and drama. This new exemplary monograph by Michelle Potter convincingly argues the case for him to be recognised as a designer of international significance.

Born Frederick John Sams in 1940 in Wellington, New Zealand, Fredrikson, by about 1962, had transformed himself into the more exotic-sounding Kristian Adrian Fredrikson. No, there were no Viking roots in the family, but the name was more memorable and carried within it a greater sense of mystique. Potter disentangles the wilful fabrications by her subject and misleading media releases concerning Fredrikson's origins and family background and then, in considerable detail, traces his emergence as a designer for the stage.

In September 1963, Fredrikson arrived in Sydney and for much of the rest of his life his career blossomed in Australia, although he was always pleased to return "home". By 1975 he met and started to collaborate with the mercurial Graeme Murphy with an early culmination being his designs for Shéhérazade for the Sydney Dance Company. Murphy later recalled, "I love the adventure of starting a new project with Kristian. It's wonderful to throw ideas around together and then fly with the possibilities." Fredrikson collaborated with Murphy on at least 17 works for a range of companies that included the Sydney Dance Company, the Australian Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet and Opera Australia. The collaboration with Murphy saw Fredrikson progress from being a theatre designer to largely focusing on designs for dance. He also did design for film and the small screen.

What I found particularly rewarding about this book is not so much the forensic detail that we encounter with the discussion of the design of each particular costume as well as an account of its fabrication, but the analysis of the actual collaborative process. The sense of ideas bouncing between Fredrikson and Murphy, a real creative process where two brilliant minds combine into something greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Although in recent years there has been more than a trickle of books published on prominent designers, too often they are simply picture books with a snappy introduction, or a gossipy biography of the subject or a catalogue of works accompanied with poor quality illustrations. Potter produces a scholarly account that does not read like a bookish university thesis, the illustrations are generally of exceptional quality and directly relevant to the text, and she engages the reader on a journey of exploration where personally I had difficulty in putting the book down and was completely drawn into the narrative.

If there is a criticism, it is that this is definitely a book on Fredrikson the artist and not Fredrikson the man. By the end of the book, I was aware of what he had achieved as an artist and impressed by the breadth of his talent, his obsessive attention to detail and his standing as a risk-taking maverick artist. However, I did not feel that I had met the man himself and knew almost nothing about his private life and loves. There could be a good reason for depersonalising the artist, but this is never clearly spelt out.

Fredrikson was prolific and a workaholic and, as he predicted, he did design until he dropped, literally dying on the job while working on Stanton Welch's Swan Lake for the Houston Ballet. Although many of his works are mentioned, what Potter does effectively is isolate a number of key pieces. These become the focal point for a separate study, each with its own narrative and illustrations, an account of its creation, the challenges faced and the resolutions that were advanced.

Possibly the most engaging of these studies is the account of the creation and the staging of the ballet Nutcracker. The story of Clara 1992. Potter in some detail explores the history of this evergreen Christmas classic and narrates the radical revisions introduced by the Murphy/ Fredrikson collaboration. The shell of the original story by the Prussian author ETA Hoffmann is largely discarded, the inspirational score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is retained, and the fantastic personal story of the ballerina Clara is presented in the context of 1950s working-class Australia.

Fredrikson had the rare ability to catch the inspirational flame from the past and to make it contemporary and accessible to a broad audience. His designs were of their time, they were neither archaic resuscitations nor enigmatic inaccessible cerebral creations. Most of his creations breathe of a joy of creativity, whether they were tragic, sombre and dramatic or a hedonistic flight of fantasy.

This beautifully presented book makes the genius of Kristian Fredrikson for the first time accessible to a new generation of Australians interested in the arts.

This story A theatre designer extraordinaire first appeared on The Canberra Times.