Lighting the Dance – At home and away
Plays share a lot in common with novels. They are character driven long-form storytelling. Designing for dance differs greatly from theatrical works. If theatre is like a novel, then dance is like a poem. In fact, the poetry of dance has led some people to speak of it as the the very quintessence of performance. Lighting dance is very much like composing a poem. One must be incredibly attuned to each and every choice as the slightest misstep will throw the whole thing off.
The first real modern theory of dance lighting was developed by Jean Rosenthal and then further advanced by Tom Skelton in his The Handbook for Dance Stagecraft. Numerous designers since have provided their own changes, elaborations or theories of their own to the world of dance lighting.
One of the central issues surrounding lighting dance is the tension between the home season and the tour. Most to all major dance companies make their money through national and international touring. They will have a “home season” in whatever city they are based in and then go on tour for several weeks to several months with a repertory of old and new pieces. The home season is often the time where new pieces are premiered before they go on the road.
One of the major challenges of dance lighting is dealing with the tour. One must construct a design that is simple and flexible enough that it can be recreated in any venue the company might encounter. At the same time, the design must be true to the uniqueness and individuality of the specific piece at hand.
Theatre and dance are both about storytelling. Both deal with the vicissitudes of human emotion. Both are art forms that take place live over time. Dance differs greatly from a play in one major, and I would hope obvious regard. While lighting a play is about dialogue, lighting dance is about movement. In a play an actor might stand down stage left and deliver a soliloquy only to be joined by another performer wherein the two meet midstage center to discuss various matters.
Dance on the other hand engages much more directly with space as a volumous object. The duet begins way upstage in stillness, they slowly begin to make their way downstage only to break off into wide sweeping movement around the very edges of the stage. Here, each movement phrase is like its own dialogue, its own soliloquy. Perhaps the stillness demands one kind of lighting while the sweeping runs demand another.
Lighting Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden demands a very different visual sensibility than lighting Victor Kabaniaev’s choreography in Dracul. Yet they both demand a poetic heart to render the lighting in a manner appropriate to the piece.
In no other performative medium is the tie between performer and designer so strong as in in dance. The clothes of an actor come close but do not exhibit so fully and completely a whole relationship as that of the dancer and their light. For the light of dance is not merely illumination, it is setting too. But far from it being divorced from the performer it is setting as psychological space, the internal world made manifest. As such the lighting in dance is as much costume as anything else. The relationship between dancer and light is perhaps equalled only by that of dancer and music. A desperately intimate relationship that calls the audience to watch in voyeuristic silence.
Dance is a direct expression of the human soul. As such, the lighting must be treated with the care and respect that such intimacy and vulnerability deserve. Remembering Jean Rosenthal’s words might get us close to this idea: “Dancers live in light, like fish live in water.”