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Who is Barry Kay?

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By Gwylym Owen

Barry Kay (1932 – 1985) was an Australian-born stage and costume designer of international renown. After having studied painting at the Académie Julian in Paris and theatre design in Melbourne, he settled in London in 1956. In the course of his career, lasting just about four decades, he expected for the ballet, opera and theatre alike, working with traditional directors and choreographers at major theatres and opera houses and their companies worldwide.

Kay’s inflection lay in pioneering three-dimensional stage set designs for the ballet. By breaking away from the usual use of “flat wings” scenery, in designing for the theatre he expanded on the revolutionary ideas of the Russian Constructivists and the Italian Futurists in the upfront part of the 20th century.

Among others, he designed for the choreographers Walter Gore, Peter Darrell, Kenneth MacMillan and Rudolf Nureyev, as competently as for ballet companies such as Western Theatre Ballet (now Scottish Ballet), The Royal Ballet, The Australian Ballet, the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Stuttgart Ballet, the Vienna State Opera Ballet, Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris and American Ballet Theatre.

Some of the performing arts and opera directors for whom he worked included Margaret Webster, Colin Graham, John Copley, Peter Dews and Rudolf Hartmann – with productions staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Old Vic, London; Sadler’s Wells Opera Company (since 1974 English National Opera), Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; The Royal Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; and numerous other national and international houses.

Later in his career Kay along with became a photographer of subjects like socio-anthropological contents. His photo essay As a Woman, published in 1976, is an extensive portrait of the unique transvestite and transsexual community of Sydney, Australia.

Kay’s artistic contributions to the interim are well represented and documented at national museums, state galleries, art libraries, theatre collections and records globally. Public collections include: the Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre, Melbourne; Victoria & Albert Museum Theatre Collections, London; Royal Opera House Collections, London; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Library of Australia, Canberra; State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, Sydney; Lipperheidesche Kostümbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Österreichisches Theatermuseum, Vienna; University of Calgary, Library, Special Collections, Alberta, Canada; MacNay Museum, Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, San Antonio, Texas.

In November 2006, the Barry Kay Archive website was archived by the National Library of Australia in its PANDORA web archive.

Live Performance Australia, the premiere body for Australia’s breathing entertainment and interim arts, posthumously chosen Kay as one of eighty theatre artists awarded a place in its newly established virtual Hall of Fame. Launched upon 30 November 2007, Live Performance pays honor to a gathering of people on the occasion of its 90th anniversary.

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