Yolanda Sonnabend Archive


Designer and painter Yolanda Sonnabend (1935 - 2015) made her Royal Ballet debut in 1963, creating set and costume designs for Kenneth MacMillan’s Symphony. Her work with MacMillan spanned more than 30 years, including such works as Rituals, Valley of Shadows, Requiem, My Brother, My Sisters and Playground. Other designs for The Royal Ballet included for Anthony Dowell’s production of Swan Lake, Natalia Makarova’s production of La Bayadère and Michael Corder’s L’Invitation au voyage. She has also worked regularly with Dowell, other collaborations including on his productions of The Nutcracker (Strasbourg) and Cinderella (Lisbon) and his Five Rückert Songs (Rambert Dance Company).

Sonnabend was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art 1955-60 under Nicholas Georgiadis, just as MacMillan, who had a powerful visual sense, was demanding new approaches to ballet design. Thanks to Georgiadis’s influence, she designed her first ballet in 1957, Peter Wright’s A Blue Rose for Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. Following acclaimed designs for the New Opera Company and the Oxford Playhouse Oresteia in 1961, she did her first work with MacMillan, Symphony (1963), described by one critic as “soft floating backcloths (with) gorgeous splashes of colour”. Theatre credits included Camino Real and Antony and Cleopatra with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The 1970s and 1980s were Yolanda Sonnabend’s peak years, designing for MacMillan the Japanese-themed Rituals (1975), Requiem (1976), My Brother, My Sisters (1978), Playground (1979), and his television ballet The Seven Deadly Sins (1984). That year the two had a rare falling out over his Different Drummer when, five days before the premiere, MacMillan decided that Yolanda Sonnabend’s set no longer suited his much-altered concept for the ballet, though he kept her costumes. The designer was bitterly upset.

In 1979 she designed Derek Jarman’s idiosyncratic film The Tempest, setting it in a decaying mansion. Many of her sketches are collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum, including her gold-leaf costumes for Michael Corder’s 1982 creation for the Royal Ballet L’Invitation au voyage. She created further major classical designs for K Ballet, Tokyo (run by the former Royal Ballet star Tetsuya Kumakawa), such as The Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet.

Yolanda Sonnabend taught design at the Slade School of Fine Art, Wimbledon School of Art and Camberwell School of Art. “Design is not decoration – decoration is just added on,” she told an interviewer. “Design is visualisation of emotion … Always start at the end and work backwards. The last vision is the most important, because it’s what the public take away with them.”

Yolanda Sonnabend was also a sought-after portraitist, with nine of her portraits collected by the National Portrait Gallery, including Kenneth MacMillan, Steven Berkoff and the young physicist Stephen Hawking – two more of her portraits of him are in the Science Museum and at Oxford University. She was herself the subject of three NPG portraits. In 2000 she was awarded the Garrick/Milne Prize for theatrical portraiture.

What the collection holds

The archive of theatre/ballet designer and painter Yolanda Sonnabend (1935 - 2015). Includes designs, set model pieces, portfolios, sketch books containing sketches, notes, reference material, photographs, some with loose correspondence and production papers, press cuttings etc.

The online catalogue for this collection can be viewed here:  
YS - Yolanda Sonnabend Archive

It is currently uncatalogued so please contact us for further information regarding its contents and access.

Further information

Yolanda's brother Joseph cared for her in her later years. He is a physician, scientist and HIV/AIDS researcher, notable for pioneering community-based research. They were the subjects of a documentary called "Some Kind of Love" (2015), directed by Thomas Burstyn.

Yolanda Sonnabend at the National Portrait Gallery.
Yolanda Sonnabend's obituaries at The Royal Opera House, and The Guardian

Yolanda Sonnabend c.1960s
Yolanda Sonnabend c.1960s
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