Joseph Bingham has more than the audience and choreographer in mind when he lights a dance production. Aside from creating an architecture of light that enhances choreographed performances, his work is intended for the dancers themselves, not just to sculpt their physical forms, but nourish their spirit as well.
Going beyond its aesthetic effect, lighting is a source of support and inspiration for the dancer on stage, believes Bingham. A former dancer himself, he never loses sight of this important dynamic when creating designs. The Production Manager at the Cowles Center For Dance in Minneapolis, and Lighting Supervisor/Production Manager for TU Dance, Bingham has toured with numerous dance companies, including the Continental Ballet as its Lighting Designer/Director. He spoke to us about using light to create a connection with dance – and dancers.
Let’s start with an ambitious question. What makes lighting dance different from theatrical lighting?
“This is not the end-all-be-all answer, but often times, dance lighting is about sculpting the body and creating mood or feeling on a frequently blank canvas (i.e. a dance piece with black marley, black legs, or maybe a CYC), which is much different than a theatrical setting where you might have physical scenery to create someone’s apartment, or a castle or a forest and really need to illuminate the faces of the actors, so the audience can clearly see every emotion that each character is articulating.
“That being said, sometimes, especially with a full-scale story ballet, the worlds of theatrical and dance lighting merge. You get to light up or add texture to some magnificent backdrops, or some ornate set, but you still have to showcase the line and body of the dancers.”
Do different genres of dance require a different approach to lighting?
“I often find that in the full ballets or a Nutcracker, I cue the show more theatrically with buttons and timings that are different from how I might cue a contemporary dance performance. Then again, sometimes a contemporary choreographer might want me to throw everything and the kitchen sink at a piece. LED color changing, moving lights if available. It all depends on the piece and the choreographer.”
Given all that you’ve said about creating an architectural structure with light, you still have to light the dancers, so how do you balance lighting them with creating a structure?
“For me, it’s different in every situation and with every choreographer. Sometimes, color goes a long way towards both creating structure for the space and illuminating dancers. I personally love to use saturated colors when I can or when it’s appropriate, but some choreographer’s or company’s aesthetic sensibilities are really geared towards flesh tones and muted colors. Even then, depending on whether the light comes from a shin, a pipe end or a box boom might affect how much it just looks like body sculpting and how much the dancer is truly being illuminated.”
Does lighting contribute to the unfolding of a narrative in dance? Do you change your lighting as the dance program unfolds, building up to a climax?
“Again, that’s totally situational, but I like to think that my lighting is my way of dancing with the folks onstage. That might be contributing to the narrative, it might be just helping support a piece that involves some major cardio for the dancers and that crescendo in the music with a dramatic lighting change might help infuse some energy in the dancers and the audience alike. I used to be a dancer… so I know that every now and then you need all the help you can get. I think that also helps me be aware, almost from an internal sense, what a piece needs, and it certainly helps me speak to choreographers about their wants and needs.”
You have used moving fixtures to light dance. Is this becoming more common?
“I think overall, yes. It depends on what the venues are upgrading to. Many dance companies certainly can’t afford a moving light rig, but if there’s one available, I’ll use it. I always have to balance how many bells and whistles I put in a piece with how much and where that piece will tour. If the company performs once a year at a venue with really amazing lighting equipment but spends the rest of their touring season at smaller venues with a conventional lighting rig, I would do them an injustice by over-using equipment they just won’t have access to. That being said, it sometimes is just fun to go for broke!
“On another note, I would say non-moving LED color changers are more common these days in dance lighting than moving lights. Many venues are making that upgrade because it has become more affordable. Depending on programming, it can sometimes be easy to use different brands or models of color changing fixtures interchangeably, making it relatively easy to keep a piece’s lighting design consistent throughout the tour even if different venues have different equipment.”
How do you begin the process of designing for a dance? What do you look at first?
“For me, lighting a dance usually starts with a conversation with the choreographer. I ask big, broad level questions about the work (i.e. what are they trying to accomplish or show, is this work purely about the movement, things like that). Then, I’ll watch rehearsals or videos and write down the action I’m seeing and think about what feelings those actions evoked.
“Sometimes I’m able to sit next to the choreographer in those rehearsals and ask specific questions or they might share exactly what they were thinking a specific section might look like. After a couple rehearsals and watching video, I often have a rough visual picture in my head of what I want a piece to look like. With all of this info in mind, I can sit down to figure out if there are changes I need to make to a venue’s rep plot (i.e. color, hanging or refocusing specials for specific purposes – such as a highlighted moment in the piece or maybe creating a long diagonal path of light onstage). Sometimes its easy to work with a venue’s dance lighting plot. Sometimes I get to hang my own, which depending on the situation can be easier or harder than having to work within a rep.
“Once I’m familiar with the piece and the lights are hung, I really just need to see how the light looks on the bodies. I usually have a good idea and will try to pre-program looks using an empty stage, or light walkers, or dummies to rough in cues that I can show the choreographer. This seems to speed the tech process along. ‘Okay, the next cue I have is for the section where the three women go from stage right to stage left doing that movement with their arms stretching and contracting quickly’ – the choreographer says ‘okay’ and we look at that light cue.”
Do you ever start over once you finish a design?
“Sometimes I’ve guessed right and both the choreographer and I love the look. Other times I guessed wrong and the choreographer hates it. Sometimes we both hate it. Sometimes its fun starting over… other times I feel like I’m swimming against the current trying to keep my head above water. Either way though, I’m literally playing with turning light switches on and off like your parents told you not to do in the house…so it’s kind of a win-win.”
What is the most important element of dance lighting design? Is there an important element that is too often overlooked?
“I can’t think of anything that I specifically regard as the most important element. I think it’s overall wise to take a holistic approach and be collaborative. Yes, the design itself is my work, but the lights are just one part (even if very significant) of the whole piece and I ultimately want to create something that the choreographer, company, audience and I will enjoy watching.”