Lighting with Less
November 8, 2009

Thirteen years ago, when Olga Berest moved her school into a 150-year-old Dutch Colonial house, she didn’t anticipate making it into a performance venue. But the local Port Washington, New York, theater, where she now stages twice-yearly shows, was undergoing renovations. She created a makeshift stage by hanging a muslin curtain from the ceiling, and she rented four free-standing, professional-grade lighting fixtures and some color gels to create lighting effects with her bare hands.

“I just shut them off and on. The lights were plugged in on an extension,” Berest says. Each fixture, called a light tree, had different colors; two were filled with cool tones, like rose and blue, and the other two trees had warmer colors, like red and orange.

“It lit the dancers from the side and threw different colors on their costumes,” she says. Though simplistic, the setup worked, and Berest now uses her curtained room for performances of the Berest Dance Center’s youngest students.

Ideally, every dance group, large or small, would have access to a professional theater with a full, theatrical lighting rig and a lighting designer who specializes in dance. But sometimes you’re working with a high school technician who only knows how to run the light board. Or, you’re on a tight budget and find it necessary to convert a space, like a community center or your own studio. Whatever the situation, it is possible—with a little bit of lighting knowledge and some creativity —to achieve a wide range of sophisticated lighting effects.

What’s Your Angle?

Lighting is the final design component, the last element in a long creative process, that enhances the choreography, music and costumes. When thinking about lighting a space, the first thing to consider is the performance’s purpose. Kevin Bender, who runs Bender Performing Arts in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Meri, says that for many shows, “Parents are there to see their kids, so the lighting needs to help them do that.” Sherry Moray, owner and director of The Academy of Dance Arts in Downers Grove, Illinois, agrees. “If the lighting isn’t highlighting the costume and the dancer’s face, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is.”

In order to achieve this, choreographers and studio owners often think that more front light is needed. But, in fact, this can actually make it more difficult to see the dancers. Peter Jakubowski, assistant professor of production/design at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that the best way to brighten a dancer’s face is by using top or side light. “When you add more front light,” he says, “you’re not only making the dancer brighter, you’re also making the floor brighter.” Without a contrast between the dancer and her surroundings, she disappears.

To fully cover the stage in brightness, you need to have lights downstage, center stage and upstage. If you’re adding lights to a studio space, it’s best to hang three or four pipes horizontally at different depth points above the performance area. “Using four pipes gives you the most flexibility, the most even look,” says Jakubowski. “So often we’re really lighting things so we can get a good video. This setup gives you the ability to have an even wash.” When you hang top lights at all three points on the stage—down, center and up—Jakubowski says, “No matter where the dancers are, the lighting is equal.”

Side light is a favored angle for both choreographers and lighting designers. When Bender wants to create shadows and mood, particularly for a lyrical or contemporary piece, he will use side lights alone. At the Performing Arts Center in Van Nuys, California, Joseph Malone and his wife Nanci Hammond have a convertible studio that becomes a 175-seat performance space. Malone does most of the lighting. Side light, he says, “sculpts the body quite a bit.” And in a smaller room, Malone says, side lights add drama.

Most often, side lighting angle is achieved with light trees like those Berest rented for her studio. The low lights on a tree, often called shin-kickers or shin-dusters, can be very useful for tap pieces, when you want to draw the eyes down to the floor. Tony Waag, artistic director of the American Tap Dance Foundation, says, “If you can make the stage completely dark, you can then bring up a light in just one area so you have isolated action. You can make it more interesting because you can focus a light on one area of the floor.” With low-lighting placed at the front of the stage, you can create silhouettes against a backdrop. “You can get a really nice shadow depending on how close the person is to the light and how close the back wall is,” says Waag.

But take care, as trees can be dangerous for young students. Nestled in the wings, light trees get very hot and can be blinding, presenting a real hazard, especially for inexperienced dancers.

Debra Dumas, who teaches lighting design at Pace and Adelphi universities, suggests an alternative. If you want the benefits of side light without the danger of trees, and you’ve got someone on your team who is comfortable doing some structural work, “You could do a goal post arrangement on scaffolding,” she says, hanging lights off a cross beam supported by two standing pieces that are spaced like a doorway for students to exit and enter through, “as long as it’s secure.”

Roma Flowers, an assistant professor of Dance Lighting Design and Production at Texas Christian University, suggests forgoing trees altogether and using backlight to achieve a similar effect. Back light, she says, “creates an edge of light around dancers’ bodies.” Jakubowski says that blue light specifically “helps punch the body out of the background.”

Color Counts

If you’re working with older or more experienced dancers, your needs go beyond simply washing the stage in light. Color adds another layer, but how do you know which colors to choose? Most designers recommend having a red, blue and pale warm color, like Bastard Amber (which has a touch of red), which can be combined to create other hues.

Choreographers often describe color choices by mood or emotion because this is what color adds to the stage. While many people are familiar with the idea of lighting a “cool” or a “warm” piece—a somber lyrical number versus a punchy jazz piece—these two descriptions are not always specific enough when working with a less experienced designer or a lighting technician. Jakubowski suggests bringing in a photo or image that evokes the scene or feeling you’re imagining in your mind.

One of the most common places to use color is on the cyc, short for cyclorama, which is the vertical backdrop hung upstage. Jakubowski recommends lighting the cyc from both top and bottom if possible. “If you only light from the top, it becomes the hottest spot and the audience’s eyes can’t help but travel there,” he says. Dumas advises saturated hues for the cyc because a dancer won’t blend in. “If the cyc is light, the dancers have to be lighter,” she says, which can be difficult to achieve if you’re working with limited resources. In fact, says Dumas, sometimes it’s a good idea to leave the cyc black (if it works with the choreography) because the dancers will stand out against it.

Costume color should complement the choreography and the music. But think about brighter, lighter colors that will stand out when you have less light. Most lighting designers recommend fabrics with some reflective quality, especially in an unconventional space where light bouncing off the costumes will help maximize the light you have. White costumes will pick up whatever color you’re using, while “black can get kind of flat onstage,” says Jakubowski. And Dumas recommends staying away from yellow. “It’s the hardest color to light, especially if you need to have blue for a cool or evening piece. Yellow looks green under blue.”

Creating Texture

To add texture, designers often use gobos, or metal cutouts that sit in front of a light. If you’re looking for a specific graphic, like a lamppost or a boat, you might want to purchase a gobo. But if you simply need an abstract shape to break up the dance floor, you can make your own.

Dumas remembers lighting designer Craig Miller (who worked internation-ially with opera and ballet companies, and passed away in 1994) using a screwdriver to create holes in a pie tin, what he called the “punch and twist.” “You just punch the screwdriver through the pie tin,” Dumas says, “and twist it, which makes a little ‘V.’” For a more durable do-it-yourself gobo, Jakubowski suggests you visit a local newspaper and ask for a leftover printer’s tin, which can be cut using a utility knife.

Placing a gobo on a high side light, says Flowers, is a good angle if you’re using the pattern for more than one piece. Jakubowski agrees. “For texture, I like to do it from a high side position that criss-crosses the stage,” he says. “The point that the lights on stage left cross the lights from stage right is directly over the center. It creates almost a tepee shape and keeps the eye focused down and center.” Just make sure to focus the light so that the pattern is soft. “You don’t want it to be too descriptive,” says Flowers. “You just want a dabbling of light and dark.” DT

Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer in New York City.

DIY How-To

If you’re attempting to avoid theater rental fees altogether, you can do what studio directors Olga Berest and Joseph Malone have done and add lights to a studio space. But if you’re installing professional-strength lighting fixtures, make sure you have enough electricity. Peter Jakubowski of UNLV recommends 200 amps. “For every 20 amps that you have, you can have about three standard stage lights,” he says. “Two hundred amps really allows you to have some side light, a little bit of backlight, a little front light and a few specials (individual fixtures used to create single pools of light) which are the basic things you need to present something that looks professional,” he says.

But even hardware-store floodlights can provide a very inexpensive option for makeshift spaces. Curt Steinzor and Elaine Gardner, who run Pick of the Crop Dance company in Buffalo, New York, created a piece that was performed at various schools as part of an educational program. Steinzor, who is the musical director and de facto lighting designer, built wooden bases onto which he clamped floodlights. The dancers stood in front of the lights and a sheet hung in front of the dancers. “We got some pretty convincing shadows and silhouettes,” he says.

To create memorable stage pictures, you only need a few extra lights. Roma Flowers of TCU says that singular, visual moments onstage can have a strong impact. She gave this example: If a piece begins with a slow, meditative solo upstage right, put a separate light, or special, on that dancer. You could have it come up slowly, a gradual gain in intensity. Then the stage goes to full light and the audience sees the other dancers. At the end of the piece, the lights go back down to feature the soloist, who’s now down stage left, where you have the second special focused. A high contrast, intense image will set the mood for the piece. “Even if you use those two extra lights for only 9 to 10 seconds, you can make the beginning and the end look great and dramatic,” she says. “Go for that special moment that will define the whole mood for the audience.”

If you’re installing stage lighting, you might want to purchase a light board, but a household dimmer switch can also do the trick. “If you can get even a little control of light and dark, you’ve got a pretty basic setup,” says Flowers.

Another option to consider is light-emitting diodes, commonly known as LED lights, which use less electricity and can provide a wide range of colors on a single strip of lights. If you desire overall coverage, Flowers warns that LEDs don’t emit as much light. But they also don’t get as hot as traditional stage lights, making them a good alternative for side lights.

At Malone and Hammond’s Performing Arts Center, they usually cover the studio mirrors with parachute material that acts like a cyc. But sometimes, for less formal performances, they go without the material and let the lights reflect off the mirror. Experimenting with what you have can often create unexpected yet rewarding results.

Recently, Jakubowski worked with choreographer Martha Clarke on a piece staged at the Jeanne Ruddy Performance Garage, a former horse stable and automobile garage in Philadelphia that Ruddy has renovated and converted into a performance studio. Jakubowski says that initially Clarke was shocked by the space. But after only a few hours, “She remembered how you can create something really magical with nothing.” —KR

Make the Most of your Tech Rehearsal

If you’ve rented theater space, you might have to cram together your dress and technical rehearsals to save money. Prepare and organize before you arrive to use the time efficiently.

When working with the Long Island Dance Consortium’s annual concert, designer Debra Dumas had only half an hour with each company to set lighting cues. But even before the dancers stepped onstage, she had generated lighting ideas based on a form she sent to directors in advance asking for information like the mood and costume color of each piece.

Sherry Moray of Academy of Dance Arts in Illinois has her teachers prepare tech sheets for the tech team a week before performance dates. “They know whether the students are using props, whether they’re entering with or without music,” she says. “We’re all on the same page.”

Communication is key when working with a lighting designer. Peter Jakubowski, assistant professor at UNLV, advises choreographers and directors to be “specific and clear” about what they want. “Talk in terms of what’s in front of your face. ‘I need more highlight on the head and shoulders,’ or ‘I need this piece to have an edgier quality.’”

And most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask questions and assert yourself.

Additional Resources

“I think everyone in the dance world should have a copy of Magic of Light by Jean Rosenthal,” says Peter Jakubowski. But you might have to dig it up at a university book sale as it is out of print.

Other books more readily available include:
• Designing with Light by J. Michael Gillette
• Stage Lighting in the Boondocks: A Stage Lighting Manual for Simplified Stagecraft Systems by James Hull Miller
• Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life by Richard Pilbrow

• Jeffrey Salzberg, “Stage Lighting for Students” (written with Judy Kupferman)
• Larry Wild, “Lighting the Dance”
• Bill Williams, “Stage Lighting Design 101”

Photo by Brian Broderick, courtesy of Berest Dance Center

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