Lighting Dance in the Digital Age

Most everyone I know would agree that the ideal way to light a work for live performance is to see at least one run through prior to hitting the stage. Even under very short schedules and tense conditions this one rule of thumb is typically met. Every so often you encounter a situation where, despite everyone’s best intentions, it is not possible for the lighting designer to see a live run prior to tech.

I am now in the midst of just such a situation.

Next week, I am lighting a dance festival. Due to a combination of scheduling issues I will be unable to see the pieces live before tech. Ten, even five, years ago this would have been a bit of a problem. I’ve done it, so I know it’s not impossible, but it sure is not easy. Fortunately, there have been a handful of technology advances which make this current situation, while less than optimal, not even approaching a disaster.

Let’s look at the old model first to see how this would have been done just a few years ago.

The pieces average around 10 or 15 minutes each with 45 minutes of tech per dance. This gives time to run each piece twice with notes in between runs. Prior to the run, I would have written a handful of placeholder cues ahead of the rehearsal. Then, when time came for the tech of a particular piece, we would have run it while I modify the placeholder cues as the dance happens. During the notes we would discuss my lighting approach and I would make any desired changes, give cue placements to the stage manager and run the piece a second time, further refining the cues.

Cueing of this model is unfortunately common in the dance world. While it is far from perfect, it works.

These days we have all manner of technology at our disposal to bring us closer to an ideal situation. In this case, each of the six companies will video a rehearsal of their piece, upload those videos to Youtube, and send me the URL. I will see the pieces, though small and digital, before we hit the stage.

While I will not be able to see the pieces live before the show, there are some discrete advantages to this model. By having the piece on video I can pause, rewind, and restart the piece. Thus instead of trusting my notes from a single pass, I can get more detailed information about the choreography.

This in no way should be a default substitute for seeing a piece live. While a good addition, and a fantastic solution to my current conundrum, there is nothing like seeing a live body move through space. Video, certainly rehearsal video, is incapable of capturing the nuance of relationship between dancers or the connection of a performer to their audience. What video is very good at is capturing the shape of a choreography.

It would be a shame if video became the default means of lighting dance or other live performances. Video, however, is an invaluable tool when schedules collide and disallow a lighting designer from seeing the work he is soon to light.

I once heard the line “Anybody can light a dance they’ve seen. The real trick is to light one you’ve never seen.” attributed to lighting designer Sara Linnie Slocum. It is with all thanks due to modern technology that I will not be putting that line to the test next week.

Be Sociable, Share!