I was recently at an event where two women asked what I do as a dance lighting designer. I fumbled with my usual two- part response, which always includes: light can create an atmosphere or a context for a dance, and lighting design is created from four basic elements – color, angle, intensity and time.  The women listened politely and when I was done. One woman commented “Essentially you hope to reveal the intent of the dance.” Her friend added “ At best you can clarify how people experience the movement.”  Yes. Exactly.

The ‘hope to reveal the intent of the dance’ is what keeps lighting work interesting.  I prefer to work collaboratively, so my first job is to gather as much information as possible. When I watch a dance piece, I see the lighting design play out in my head fully realized like a movie. I then work backwards, deconstructing the movie in my head, while communicating to the choreographers and accommodating what can actually be done with the resources at hand. From past experiences I have learned to ask some really important, basic questions. How does the dance end? Are there any dogs, children, or fiery torches in this piece? Does anyone become naked or throw knives – especially at me?

‘At best you can clarify how people experience the movement’ is the inherent challenge to creating a lighting design for dance.  I was fortunate to come to lighting design with a degree in dance from Connecticut College and many years of art school. I think lighting can be understood like a well-constructed painting.  Good lighting can help guide the attention of an audience member to a specific space in a given moment, or toward the sense of relationship among the dancers.

In creating a design it is crucial to consider the space or theater where the dance will be presented.  I have been fortunate to create designs in theaters with lots of electricity and lighting instruments.  I have also lit dances in converted spaces, where we had to run around the building and turn off coffeepots in order to run the show.     Finding the magical elements of each space, and how they can be used to accentuate the dance, is the challenge.  I once lit a show in the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  The evening had gone perfectly and as the dancers stood for a second bow, one by one all the fuses in the dimmer packs failed. It was a beautiful effect, as each light slowly dimmed.  More than I would like to admit, much of my work is based on equals parts luck and prayer.

Cathy Elliot has won numerous awards for her light design in and out of Washington, D.C.

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