Helen Pond and Herbert Senn

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, December 1996.)

Boston Ballet’s new Nutcracker sets are the work of a designing couple, Helen Pond and Herbert Senn, who live in Yarmouthport and have created hundreds of stage sets for everything from grand opera to Broadway shows to cruise ships to the Cape Playhouse in Dennis.

“Helen and Herbert are great model makers,” says Boston Ballet’s production designer Philip Jordan. “They also paint all their own scenery. Everything is hand-painted and hand-carved.” Indeed, the toy theater that the magician Drosselmayer brings as a gift to the Christmas party in the first act is the model for the enchanting theater in Fairyland in the second act, where Clara and the Nutcracker watch the dancers. (The dancer’s costumes in the second act are grown-up versions of the dolls under the Christmas tree.)

Helen and Herbert (their friends call them H&H) met while studying Dramatic Arts at Columbia University. “We were not ever easel artists,” says Herbert. “But we took the artists’ perogative and did it our own way. We feel it represents us. We build the model, we enlarge it, we paint it.”  They got involved with the ballet when they were designing sets for Sarah Caldwell at Boston Lyric Opera, and Virigina Williams, then the head of the Boston Ballet, was directing the dance section of a Rameau opera there.  “We did the scenery for her Rameau operas and we did a little Gisele for her, and finally the Nutcracker,” says Helen. “German Expressionism was all the rage, but Viriginia said: “Just make it pretty, for God’s sake!’” says Herbert, who had never seen the Nutcracker when they first began designing the sets. “I saw the City Ballet’s Nutcracker in the 50’s,” says Helen. “The tree went to pieces, that’s the only thing I remember. The tree short-shortcircuited; it was all made of Fuller brushes.”

Herbert and Helen’s first Nutcracker sets were made by refurbishing existing ballet sets, borrowing from other theatre companies, and hand-hemming hundreds of yards of cloth. Fifteen years later, one of the beautiful but well-worn curtains ripped during a performance. “Herbert and Helen were called in to do the repairs and Bruce Marks (artistic director of the Boston Ballet) got to know them, and a decision was made to completely redesign the Nutcracker’s sets,” says Philip Jordan. “We needed to capture the imagination of people who knew it and loved it, to enliven it and make it attractive in other ways. People bring more expectations into the theater now. Nutcracker is almost a Broadway show. We don’t have a state subsidy. This is the company that Nutcracker has built.”

Herbert is fascinated with Russian art,  especially the great sets designed by Leon Bakst for Diaghilev, and the Palekh art of painted lacquer boxes.  The ceilings of the new Nutcracker set all have Palekh clouds in the sky. Every set conveys a sense of exotic enchantment, and hidden delights. A domed mosque is in the background of the Arabic-inspired “Coffee” dances, and the gold leaf and black lacquer chinoiserie for the Asian-flavored “Tea.”

Helen and Herbert have an apartment “200 steps from the Gershwins’ Stage Door,” but they spend most of their time in Yarmouthport, in a Gothic house called Strawberry Hill –– a former Universalist church which they have fully restored with Gothic carving, painted ceilings and “lots and lots of quadrifoils,” says Herbert. “We designed the house and the Nutcracker at the same time. Nutcracker is my life.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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