Lighting and Dance

By Ruth E. Grauert

DURING THE FIRST HALF of the twentieth century stage lighting underwent a vital transition. Electric lighting instruments replaced gas and oil lamps, making possible a revolution of theatrical realism on stage. Light from a non-flammable source could come from overhead to focus downward realistically as from the sun or moon or stars. Designers hung their instruments in the grid (the "sky") and used them in conjunction with general lighting sources, such as footlights and striplights. By the forties Stanley McCandless of Yale University had analyzed and documented a technical approach to lighting and the McCandless light plot, his system of "warm and cool" overhead lighting for each acting area, together with his other schema was almost universally adopted by both legitimate and college stages.

      When Alwin Nikolais first came to the Henry Street Playhouse (New York City, 1948) he inherited the McCandless system in place there, complete with warm and cool areas, a two-color cyclorama, footlights and instruments on the balcony rail. But these did not satisfy his three-dimensional vision of motion, and gradually over the next several decades he expanded the aesthetic possibilities of dance theater lighting.

      Many of Nikolias' innovations had their roots in his understanding of mid 20th century scientific theorists (Einstein, et al.) led him to define an art product as a time-space organization, expressed directly in terms of energy. A painting is a time-space organization of color. The definition did not require the painter to produce a particular kind of organization, or to use a specific medium. The organization could represent marsh grass or miasma, or the medium could be buttons or whitewash. The definition did not demand that the artist picture objective or subjective reality. A work of art fulfilled the definition if it constructed images in such a way that it evoked an awareness of a time-space structure via the spectator's color sensing and, through that awareness, presented a “color meaning.”

      Similarly, a dance is an organization of motion. However, no demand need be placed upon the nature of its organization or medium: specifically, any time-space-motion construction that evokes a kinesthetic response is dance. Therefore, the definition requires no literary narrative, no use of specific movement patterns. A dance may present the birth, life, and death of impatience.

      The spectator (the gallery goer or the audience member) views the organization of color, motion, sound (music) or mass (sculpture) and brings to that organization his own particular history of being, not simply his knowledge, but all of his habits, the totality of his exposure to life, and the physical and psychological results of same. It is his unique history that gives to him by way of his directly sensing the energies involved, his unique insight into the content of the work of art, just as the artist's own unique sensorium and history constructed it.

      The communication of dance is “meta-kinetic,” that is, the content of dance comes to the spectator though his sensing of the motion. Motion is “seen” not simply by the eyes, but also by sensors located in the muscles and on the surface of the bones, which “tell” us what moves when and how. The sensors give us as sentient spectators the performer's pleasure or pain, not through some sort of symbolic, intellectual translation, but through direct, empathetic muscular stimulation. The spectator needs but allow his eyes to feed his kinesthetic sensors to know — to “experience” — the content of the motion.

      The eye, as the receptor organ for light, is directly concerned with brightness, color, and shape. We process this information, perceiving motion's texture, balance, duration, etc. But in viewing staged dance, we perceive so much more: we take in the total environment, even though our focus may be on structured motion. Each detail of the lighting contributes to the overtones of motion and to the statement of the dance by way of the lighting's own aesthetic impact; thus the careful structuring of light on the entire stage environment will augment the motional statement through its own aesthetic value.

      The medium, whose organization makes the product visible, is light — light in any form, from any source. Form, the shape and condition of the light energy, has meaning in and of itself. Light that floods the stage means to the viewer something different than an isolated circle of light on the stage floor. Similarly light becoming visible slowly makes a different statement than light that flashes on. Bright white light has a different impact than dim blue light.

      The lighting designer may use conventional stage lighting instruments, daylight, or even automotive headlights (a medium decision); he may elect simply to turn lights on to begin and to turn them of to end (a time decision); he may choose to provide a streak of light or to confine the light to the cyclorama (a space decision); he may elect an indeterminate number of lighting changes (a motion decision)—all without violating any precept. But if his focus has been on the structuring of light toward the aesthetic end to which the motion has projected, he has made a valid contribution to the production.

      When anything has no other purpose than its aesthetic value, the product is “art.” For example a flashing red lantern on a highway at night is placed as a warning. The light reaches us by way of our senses, and from our past experience of its being, we know it and avoid the hazard. But the same flashing red lanterns, carried by dancers on stage, do not warn us away, but rather creates for us a “light” meaning within the art structure.

      In an effort to make tangible the intangible, which is the root of all art, society has developed “rules” and methods to construct art products. Magnificent poetry is written, adhering to the discipline of the iambic pentameter and the haiku. Great music is composed with the tonic and diatonic scales. Magnificent ballets are choreographed with pas de chats and tours en l'air. Historically this is what we may expect. They are constructed with already tested vocabulary. However, we need not accept this as the only “way to go.” The aesthetic philosophy that defines an art product as originating in the sensorium of the artist and proceeding directly to the formulation of media makes such traditional processes unnecessary. They have been replaced with a sound basis from which to proceed: that of sensing, which provides the artist with motion, color, line, weight, time, structure, and direction. Art becomes an open discipline with no fixed vocabulary, no dictated forms, no goal other than itself, not even that of spectator approbation.

      The lighting designer's first function is to view the work with openness. Nikolais' work was unique in that the lighting and the motion were most frequently envisioned together. Not many of us have that luxury. However, in his theory of creativity wherein free improvisation was the core of creation we find the key to envisioning lighting design.

      The designer must see the work with no preconception to find a key on which to build the entire lighting structure. To view dance with innocence requires practiced diligence. Because our culture negates direct sensing, the designer needs to override the strictures our culture places on us. From childhood we are taught to deliberately ignore much of the structured energy in the world around us so that we may survive. We cannot allow all motion to move us, all matter to shape us, all intensities of light and color to sink deep into our being, all sounds to vibrate within our bellies. Should we try this, we soon become ill, disoriented, and we will not survive.

      However, art is intended to inhabit us. It requires us to permit our senses to take in all we perceive without our usual sensory protection. In order to “see” art, we wipe our senses clean, a process found more in Eastern philosophies than our Western traditions, but it is requisite for creating supportive lighting design.

      One vision of planes of light and shadow, interplay of colors, and movement of light through space can serve as the foundation for the light plot, regardless of where in the dance this occurs. This is a place to begin.

      Careful notes of the motional narrative, dynamic changes, entrances, exits, pertinent motional and non-motional content (changes in the sound score, introduction of properties, etc.), which require a lighting change, enable him to build his lighting design.

      The obvious next step is to translate these notes into a practical lighting plan—a layout of lighting instruments, taking into consideration the locale of the performance. Most stages are traditionally equipped to serve drama. If the instrumentation the stage provides cannot give the desired effect, the designer must modify his idea, or find or invent instrumentation that will give it to him. When Nikolais was engaged to do a work for the Guggenheim Museum music stage, which had no theatrical lighting and no way to install it, each dancer carried his own light (Somniloquy, February 1967).

      We have at our disposal a huge variety of light-producing contrivances with an equal variety of ways to shape, color, and control the light they produce. Aside from theatrical instruments, there are battery-powered items such as flashlights and lanterns and whatever innovative items that can be made from them (John Cage once used automotive lamps to light a Cunningham concert in the chapel at the University of Chicago, and a later production of Somniloquy used motorcycle lamps); there are Christmas tree lights, all kinds of projectors, shadow boxes, household and commercial fixtures; there are auxiliary materials such as mirrors, Lucite, plastics, foils, Mylar, kaleidoscopes. All of these devices have been used by Nikolais and others. Truly the limit is the lighting designer's ingenuity.

      A sound background in technical theatre enables the designer to “see” how his visions may be translated to the stage. Knowledge of the aesthetic impact of various lighting instruments—their placement; the intensity, color, and shape of their beams; and the interplay of changing lights—is critical. He must have a basic knowledge of drafting, electricity, stage lighting controls, and sources for lighting instruments and related supplies, as well as of stage crew protocol. Although crew protocol may vary with location and theater size, a good relationship with the house crew is often the designer's best ally.

      Practical notes are used to create both the light plot (used to specify the position of the instruments on stage) and the stage manager's lighting cue book (which tells what light changes take place when, duration of change, details of intensity, and location).

      Every stage has blueprints that detail its dimensions, location of light bridges and batons, circuitry, and drapery, as well as an inventory of instruments and equipment. The designer reviews this information, makes arrangements for addition material as needed, and drafts a lighting plot for that particular stage, locating each instrument, specifying its hookup to controls, and its color and focus.

      Practical knowledge of lighting stagecraft may be gained in a school for drama (such as Yale or Carnegie Tech), in the drama department of a liberal arts college, or through an apprenticeship.

      Much of the technical procedure is not negotiable. An ampere is an ampere and no creativity makes it other than that. Careless draftsmanship can result in misreading by supply houses or technical personnel and may not lend itself to remedy. The entire vision can be jeopardized by insufficient or incorrect technical in formation. The good designer is academically knowledgeable as well as aesthetically open; else many of his vision will not materialize.

      After drapery has been hung and the lights are all mounted and focused, the designer can then use light to paint on the three-dimensional canvas of the performance what in his mind's eye he saw. The angles and colors come and go, flash and creep, are loud or soft. The sentient spectator who became designer who became electrician who became draftsman is again the sentient spectator illuminating the dance.

© 2003 Ruth E. Grauert