Lighting Dance


I love my career in the performing arts. I especially love being involved with dance, dancers, choreographers, and artists working with dance — the musicians, composers, designers, and other artists. For me, dance is this perfect triangulation of visual art, sculpture, and music, yet is its own form. As a lighting designer, dance always makes me rethink what I mean by lighting design. As a production manager, I help choreographers realize their vision, even finding echoes of my own voice in their creations as we collaborate.

There are many sources and textbooks available to study the practical matters of lighting, what lights do what and the technologies available today. Here I will focus on the artistic intent behind the choices one will make when considering how a designer wants the stage, dancers, and the dance to be seen.

Moby Dick, Saiah-4.JPG

Saiah International’s Moby Dick #

People think of light as simply about visibility. This is true enough. There are many ways light affects visibility. Lighting designers — performance, architectural, and interior designers — take light sources into account while also considering the color of the objects being lit. By the choices we make with lighting—the color, the position, the intensity, the shape of the beam, the movement—we as artists affect how we see.

All lighting is relative to something. Contrast is an important tool in developing tension, whether choosing contrasting colors, intensities, angles, or contrasts between scenes. Tension and release/resolution is an important element in art. Contrast is one way we carve out the space and create an architecture, making it more interesting visually than a simple wash of light.

Red, Theatrical Outfit, Tom Key, Jimi Kocina.jpg

Theatrical Outfit’s Red, with Tom Key, Jimi Kocina; Photographer, Josh Lamkin #

In the theatrical production of Red at Theatrical Outfit, our scenography was largely realistic, the primary lighting was naturalistic while the interstitial moments between scenes pushed abstract expressionism. I used the scene shifts as opportunities to reflect on the expressive nature of Rothko’s art and life. However, within scenes, there were often times that we left the naturalistic world of Rothko’s studio to witness moments of introspection and focus. The contrast of the natural lighting (with occasional moments of exaggerated realism such as the shock of Rothko turning on the studio fluorescent lighting or exterior light streaming through the door) provides those moments greater affect as opposed to if the whole show were lit expressively.


Theatrical Outfit’s Red, with Tom Key, Jimi Kocina; Photographer, Josh Lamkin #

In terms of color, white is an essential reference to help any other color to have meaning. What color you use as white (whether no color or a tint of color) affects how you see the other colors. A cooler white will increase the presence of warmer colors, and vice versa. Contrast in intensity is also important. Movement through light and dark can accentuate the movement. This can suggest greater space between points. Strategically choosing where it is lit punctuates important moments in the movement.

2-Threshold, Lucky Penny.jpg

In the piece Threshold, the work contemplates home and the doorways and thresholds we cross as we create our concepts of home through life. An abstract, oversized fireplace composed of chairs often became my cyc, my main color reference to contrast the lighting on the performers and in the space. Moving through light and dark—using gobos, selective area lighting, and sharp shutter cuts and edges of the beam—made an important statement as analogy of thresholds both in life and scenographically, echoes of home lighting (recessed lighting effects in the pools of light), and accenting and defining the movement as the dancer passed through light and dark.

3-Threshold, Lucky Penny.jpg

“Anything can be dance, but not everything is”, William Forsythe #

For the dancer, every movement is a moment of truth. There is no lip synching. There is no pantomiming to a pre-recorded soundtrack, there is no opportunity to fix it in post. That movement of the arm, the leap, the fall… it is out there, right or wrong, good or bad. It has forever become part of the experience.

Dance is about the whole body in time and space. A dancing body needs a context, an environment within which to exist. Dance is a response to, within, or even against space and gravity. Remove what it is responding to and you remove its soul.

“Dancers live in light as fish live in water”, Jean Rosenthal #

This is the task of lighting dance; light provides the context, the visual cues, the placement in time and space for the material to exist. Light provides the lens for the audience and is part of the experience. This is true of lighting any form, really, not just dance. This is of greater responsibility for dance since there is often little or no additional scenery.

Light in the Piazza, Theatrical Outfit, Clara (Devon Hales) and Margaret (Christy Baggett).jpg

Theatrical Outfit’s Light in the Piazza, with Devon Hales, Christy Baggett; Photographer, Josh Lamkin #

For me as the designer, it is not enough to just reveal that moment of truth but to also help define that moment of truth, to be part of the revelation. Lighting is about what is both seen and unseen. Every choice is deliberate, whether I am using one light or a hundred lights; whether I am trying to create a realistic, impressionistic, or a stark, expressionistic statement. I am creating my own visual composition for the work to populate and breathe.

As a practical matter, that makes everything else the audience can see around the dancer to be a deliberate and deliberated decision. At the least, you are creating the frame of the painting, the borders that help focus the attention of the audience. From another perspective, the designer is molding the environment for the dance and dancers. In this sense, dance is always site-specific.

Additionally, the fewer resources you have available makes thinking about each light even more important, to come to a real decision about its use and purpose; what is that light’s reason for being part of the work, the relationship between the dancer and the light. What is the truth of the work?

“Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation”, James Turrell #

Lighting dance is not just about sculpting the body, revealing the form in space. Lighting dance is also about crafting the space within which the dancer moves, carving out the stage, creating the architecture the dance and dancers move through. Light is, itself, a revelation.

Some online resources for the practical matters of light (no intentional endorsements):

my own website: # #



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