Lighting Your Work

By Walter Holden

January 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“Lighting design is a collaborative profession in which the lighting designer collaborates with backgrounds, things, purposes and people. In the theatre the lighting designer’s collaboration is with all these at once. No one can say the light in a play ‘gave a good performance.” —The Magic of Light by Jean Rosenthal

Although there are many important aspects of lighting design, collaboration is the most important. As Rosenthal so eloquently points out, there is no lighting design without other artists. Because lighting interacts with all the visuals of a stage design it is crucial to have clear communication between the lighting designer, choreographer, and other collaborators.

Before a choreographer or dance company talks with a lighting designer (LD) they have to decide who they will hire. The first choice is whether to hire an outside designer or use the tech person provided by the theatre. If possible, hiring a LD for the production is always a good choice. This person will help create the visuals for your show by coming to rehearsals and dialoging with you about your concepts. Professional designers will adapt to the choreographer’s style of communication and offer ideas based on discussion about the piece. Ask other choreographers for recommendations when choosing a LD to help find one that fulfills the needs of the production.

A good LD will have questions to help the lighting process. Some to expect:

–What is your work about?

–What inspired it?

–Is it warm? Cool? Sharp and barren? Soft and fuzzy?

–What are the costumes?

–How many performers are in it?

–How important is the music to the feel of the work?

It is important to break down the piece the way you see it. Most often, time with your LD will be at a premium so the more information you can give about the work the more useful your time together. If you have an LD you know well, you may not need to share any of this information. But if you have specific ideas about the lighting then sharing them is a good idea regardless of the existing relationship. Some things to consider:

–Where are the transitions in the work? Should they be accented or blended?

–Is the piece a series of moments or one long thought? Are there movements repeated or accumulated?

–Should the lighting design make a strong statement or play a more subtle role?

Because lighting interacts with all the visuals of a stage design it is crucial to have clear communication between the lighting designer, choreographer, and other collaborators. This communication comes most easily through visual representation -drawings, photos, swatches, or video clips. By using a visual representation of the ideas, the artists reduce the chance for miscommunication about color, texture, and shadow. I.E. Does silhouette mean that the back drop is lit and the dancers are not, or does it mean that the dancer is back lit?

After you have had a discussion about the concepts of the piece, you may want to talk about specific lighting ideas.

Sidelight is the most commonly used lighting in dance and the most useful in revealing form. This is the light hung on the sides of the stage that many dancers have run into. Sidelight is the most important lighting to have in dance.

Backlight is used to give more depth to the dancers by pushing them out of the background. Backlight is hung upstage of the dancers and focused downstage toward the audience. Backlight is also often the light that colors the floor.

Front light is the least commonly used lighting in dance. It tends to flatten out the dancers and remove shadows thereby removing their dimensionality. This light comes from the front of the stage and is most often used to light the faces of dancers when they have speaking roles.

One of the most challenging aspects of lighting for many choreographers is the use of color. When working with lighting it is important to remember that light itself cannot be seen. Light only reveals the form that exists. Therefore, it also projects the color of the light onto the costumes and skin of the dancers, the floor and walls of the theater, and any scenery or props on stage. This means that the color of the light will change depending on the surface that it is shining on. The amber sidelight that looks great on a red costume will likely look less than appealing on a green costume. This is because there is little or no amber in the costume to reflect so the costume will appear dark and maybe even black. As a basic principle, use the least saturated color in the sidelight and more saturated color in the backlight. This will allow the dancers to be seen without changing the color of their skin tones or their costumes.

The final phase of the lighting design is writing lighting cues. Cues are what make the lighting live and breath. They will enhance the transitions in your piece and punctuate the accents. Well-placed lighting cues come from a thorough understanding of the dance piece. Just like the dance, cues take time to perfect. Which often translates to more technical rehearsal time. One thing to think about: the less technical rehearsal time you have—the less lighting cues overall.

Here are some other ways to improve the quality of lighting for a dance production:

–Consider including a backdrop or set design in your production. Having a background or scenic pieces to color and texture make an enormous difference in the design.

–Offer the LD more time for technical rehearsal. Nothing will improve production values more than additional technical rehearsal time. This can give the choreographer and lighting designer the opportunity to experiment with new ideas rather than playing it safe.

–Consider including lighting equipment in the budget–a few hundred dollars can make a big impact on stage. That money (or even less) could be the difference between getting the special color wash for that critical moment or settling for the same lighting in the rest of the work.

In the end, a lighting designers most important job is visibility. It doesn’t matter how pretty the colors are or how perfectly timed the cues are if no one can see the dance. Great lighting will give you great visuals effects, and working with a good lighting designer will give all your hard work the light it needs to be more fully understood and appreciated.


Walter Holden designs lighting for many local choreographers including: Kate Mitchell, Randee Paufve, Maxine Moerman, Nina Haft, and Cathy Davalos. He also toured as Production Manager for local companies, Capacitor and AXIS Dance Company. Currently Walter designs lighting for all kinds of productions and teaches Lighting for Dance at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA.

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