The National Arts Centre (NAC) will fly its flags at half-staff in memory of legendary Canadian costume designer François Barbeau, who has died at the age of 80.
“François Barbeau was a good friend of the National Arts Centre,” said Peter Herrndorf, President and CEO of the National Arts Centre. “He worked here many times during his prolific career, creating memorable costumes and, even directing a play, The House of Bernarda Alba, in the 1980s. Our sympathies go out to his family and to all his colleagues in the performing arts community.”
François Barbeau began his professional life as an assistant to another iconic theatre designer, Robert Prévost in the late 1950’s. He acquired his first design experience creating costumes for Paul Buissonneau’s famous mobile theatre, La Roulotte, in Montréal’s city parks. Barbeau eventually evolved into the complete man of the theatre. Primarily known as a costume designer, he took on other roles in the creative process, including theatre director, film art director, teacher and designer of many projects in dance, circus and variety. His work was largely concentrated in Montréal theatre, but Barbeau has designed in English Canada for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, CanStage (Toronto), Theatre New Brunswick (Fredericton), the Stratford Festival (Stratford), Harkness Ballet (New York City), Batsheva Dance Theatre (in Israel) and in Paris when he designed Gorki’s Les Estivants for the famed French director, Jacques Lasalle, at the Comédie-Francaise in 1983.
Throughout the entire period from the 1960s to the 2000s, François Barbeau’s production was nothing less than staggering. He forged professional relationships with all of the important Montreal theatres: the Théâtre du Nouveau-Monde, la Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale, la Compagnie Jean Duceppe and the Centaur Theatre. He also designed for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and for many seasons was resident designer at the Theatre du Rideau vert. Many of these shows were in co-production with the NAC, and the NAC costume archive has a selection of original sketches and many of the actual costumes from them.
More recently François Barbeau has undertaken design projects for the circus. In 1998, he joined the team of designers behind the Cirque du Soleil’s world-touring show Dralion, with circus choreographer Guy Caron. The mega-production featured 36 Chineses acrobats and earned Barbeau an Emmy in 2001, awarded by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for “Outstanding Costumes for a Variety or Music Program”. Dralion was an opportunity for Barbeau to mine the rich lode of Chinese motif and styles in his costume designs.
He has also worked with Robert Lepage on projects destined for international audiences. Barbeau has often designed for feature films. He did the costumes and art direction for Claude Jutra’s Kamouraska (for which he won an Emmy Award for costume design). The film is a milestone in québécois cinema, and Barbeau’s visual account of a romantic rural Quebec in the early ninteenth century is definitive and unforgettable.