The Royal Ballet production of La Bayadère, with costumes styles by Yolanda Sonnabend, at the Royal Opera Home, Covent Backyard, London, in 2009. Photograph: Michael Garner/Royal Opera House
Yolanda Sonnabend’s skilled profession as a stage designer was blessed with achievement from the outset. She experienced her 1st design commission at the Royal Ballet even though still an undergraduate, in 1958. Then, via the 1960s, 70s and 80s, most often operating for the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, with whom she designed a special relationship, Yolanda, who has died aged eighty, created a string of functions, numerous at Covent Garden, but some also in Europe, that created her reputation.
Her most acclaimed ballet styles integrated Symphony (1963) My Brother, My Sisters (1978) L’Invitation au Voyage (1982), her own favorite Distinct Drummer (1984) and Swan Lake (1987). At the same time, she worked in opera (at Sadler’s Wells and in other places) and for the theatre (for productions from Genet to Othello to the Messiah).
Yolanda Sonnabend in November 1975. Photograph: Kenneth Saunders for the Guardian
All her drawings for the stage shown precocious gifts, a facility of touch and a palette of singing colours. This was paralleled in her job as portrait painter by a sensitive gift for likeness. Her placing depictions of MacMillan, Stephen Hawking and Patrick Wall hover in the memory from general public collections, but probably the strongest are people – like the picture of Steven Berkoff, 1983, in the Nationwide Portrait Gallery selection – in which likeness is edged by characterisation. She spoke entertainingly of her sitters – “dancers do specifically what you want … actors want to be like anything … captains of industry constantly sit the identical way, glancing sideways”. She contrasted style for ballet (“about the human body in movement, no voice”) and for theatre (“all character, and about what a director needs to do”).
Yolanda was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to extremely cultured German-Russian mother and father, Heinrich and Fira Sonnabend, who shared robust ethical instincts for social and racial justice. He was a sociologist, she was a household physician. Arriving in Europe from Rhodesia all around 1950, Yolanda analyzed art in Geneva, and then, in London, portray and phase design at the Slade (1955-sixty).
Yolanda’s memory of her childhood property was of a residence complete of artwork objects, very good style and music. This appeared to set a pattern for the studio (or houseful of studios) in which she afterwards lived and labored in north London, which was alive with objects, images, maquettes, masks, costumes, lay figures, colored drawings – a “potting shed” full of operate-in-progress and of memories of a life’s work.
Yolanda Sonnabend’s research for La Bayadère, Royal Ballet
One thing of this confirmed via, as well, in yet another, significantly less-known branch of her artwork, the typically large imaginative paintings that covered her studio partitions and had been much in evidence in a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery, east London, in 1975, and a vast retrospective at the Serpentine, 1985-86. These have been usually peopled less by figures than by things, such as architectural specifics, animated by the very same lifestyle she gave to people. Her contribution to a demonstrate I curated in Japan in the 90s referred to as The Magic formula Lifestyle of Clothing was a unforgettable installation, in which a row of stuffed men’s early morning suits was menaced by a roomful of supporter-blown women’s attire.
All Yolanda’s gifted digressions into various media had been just a portion of 1 artwork, to a degree that if not special is undoubtedly exceptional in an artist. She invested a life time inventing people, in two and a few proportions, and manipulating them within the room of her art’s phase.
Yolanda after informed me that she’d by no means had “the essential issues I’ve always desired: marriage, youngsters and a yellow Maserati”. She was vivaciously eye-catching and sociable, and drew about her a circle of devoted and generous close friends. But at instances she was inclined to technique them from positions of nearly whole self-absorption, which almost certainly contributed to a dearth of long-term companions in her lifestyle. Despite the fact that she did share her property with a male for 1 or two sustained intervals, it was in no way with really the same attachment as to her several Burmese cats.
Yolanda taught at Wimbledon and other London artwork colleges from the 60s onwards, and was appointed a lecturer at the Slade in 1990, and a fellow of University Higher education London in 2003. She was working and exhibiting at home and overseas until finally a handful of several years ago, but the temper in St John’s Wooden commenced to come to feel various when she started her retreat from the planet at big, with the onset of dementia, and lastly was taken into a care centre.
She is survived by her brother, Joseph, a doctor and distinguished pioneer in the discipline of treating HIV/Aids.
• Yolanda Pauline Tamara Sonnabend, artist and stage designer, born 26 March 1935 died nine November 2015