Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Future Possibilities: Creative Lighting

Lighting isn't the easiest element to incorporate into our street dance shows. Often, it's not a consideration at all since we might not have access to good lighting. If we're performing on the street, we're at the mercy of the environment. If we do a stage show, we're dependent upon the existing lighting system at the venue. So our tendency is often to not incorporate lighting design in our performance pieces. But what if we put more thought and effort into our lighting? What if we demanded better lighting access at our shows? Lighting could become an effective storytelling tool in our pieces. (Photo above is taken from a Google Images Search for Chicago the musical.)

Let's look at the cinematic film world for inspiration. Film lighting is a crucial part of telling a narrative story. It sets the tone, mood, and atmosphere for a scene. Whether we have stark lighting in a film noir or a more ambient, angelic feel in a romantic scene; a film director and cinematographer are conscious of how the lighting affects an audience's interpretation of a scene. Light is used to create three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface within the film frame. There can be many different sources of light whether it's outdoors from the sun, inside from candlelight, or from the single point of a flashlight. Director Steven Spielberg is known for incorporating strong back-lighting in several scenes during dramatic moments in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. In those scenes, we can see the windows almost being blown out by strong white light that filters into a room. Since we can't see anything outside the windows, our attention is drawn to the characters inside who are experiencing a dramatic event. Remember when the government men invade Elliot's home to capture a sick E.T? Who can forget the panic that this boy and his alien friend experienced as they felt trapped in their own home. So here, lighting is used to help tell the story.

On the theatrical stage, we see lighting used in effective ways as well. It can be manipulated to draw our attention to a specific area of the stage. Or lighting can be used to create a contrasting backdrop for the live performers. The Bob Fosse musical Chicago is a great example of how spotlights are used to create abstract performance space for the actors in a quasi-realistic setting. In Chicago, dueling divas Velma Kelly and Roxy Hart are given their time to shine individually with creative lighting that sets them apart from other characters. Their storylines are highlighted and we follow their progression through the course of the musical. In the recent George Balachine's Nutcracker Ballet as performed by the New York City Ballet, the transition from the real world to the magical world of the Nutcracker is effectively told through lighting changes as the stage gets darker and the giant Christmas tree mysteriously grows at Clara's feet. And in the Cirque du Soleil & Beatles' show Love, male and female dancers are revealed in different poses and couplings through the intermittent use of a stark spotlight during the Come Together piece. On a completely dark stage, we only see the dancers when they appear under the spotlight as the music determines when the light appears and disappears. This creative lighting builds anticipation and tension for the performance.

Can street dancers use creative lighting? Absolutely. Unfortunately, we often run into problems ranging from not having the budget for lights or being treated as the lowest rank of performers behind musicians at live shows. However, as more dance crews gain notoriety and creative control, we should demand for better lighting and stress to show producers that the lighting is an integral part of our performance. Lighting should be more than just helping the audience to see our moves better. It should tell the story. It should create drama. And it should be part of how we move the audience emotionally. Why not adopt some of the cinematic lighting techniques used in film and bring them onto a dance stage? We can create a scenario with a specific mood. Or how about using lighting to create story transitions from a real-world setting to an imaginary landscape like in Chicago?

And let's not forget that we can explore creative lighting on the dance stage in ways that film and musical theater cannot. Our stories are told through our moving bodies. Can we reveal only parts of our bodies through expressive lighting? Can images be projected on our bodies so that it creates a kaleidoscopic effect? Or how about attaching reflectors to our bodies and then moving on stage in a way that bends and reflects light as part of the show? The possibilities are endless if we dare to imagine. After all, the very nature of our being able to see dance is determined by the reflection of light back into our eyes. As visual artists, we should consider creative lighting as a factor in our performances.

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