Bringers of Light

Donald Hutera illuminates some of the motives, methods and mysteries surrounding light and dance.


Donald Hutera

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Setting aside the relationship between music and motion, lighting seems the most obvious element of a live dance performance. Without it, how would we ever see what’s going on? Yet if that were all lighting was about, there’d be no need for anything more than glaring worklights to illuminate a stage.

In some cases lighting supports a work without calling attention to itself. Others prefer to treat it as a major creative element. Conjuring atmosphere out of the air, light can provide just the right  environment in which a performance exists by defining space, sculpting bodies and painting moods.

It may coincide with or contradict physical rhythms, and emphasise or downplay an onstage psychological relationship. Finnish designer Mikki Kunttu believes it can create three-dimensional illusions, by suggesting intimate proximity or unfathomable distance.

British dance artist Carol Brown sees it as a way to permeate the ‘seen’ with the ‘felt’, and to ‘expose and conceal.’ Crucially, in London-based designer Lucy Carter’s view, ‘Light is emotive and it directs the audience’s view.’ In the collaborations between dancer Russell Maliphant and designer Michael Hulls, it can even determine choreographic structure.

However it’s used, there’s no question that good lighting design influences the ways in which dance is made — and perceived — in the UK and abroad.

Cream of the Crop

Contemporary dance has its share of certified lighting geniuses. Among those at the pinnacle of the professsion is Jennifer Tipton, who began lighting Paul Taylor’s dances in the first decade of his long choreographic career. Tipton later forged a strong artistic relationship with Twyla Tharp, as well as working with Jerome Robbins, Mikhail Baryshnikov and many others.

Currently in Britain there’s a younger generation of designers, including Carter, Hulls, Guy Hoare and Michael ‘Mickie’ Mannion, all of whom have come to the fore during the past decade. Like Mikki Kunttu, they usually work on a smaller scale within the independent dance sector.

None of this quintet offers push-button theories or formulas for what they do. Rather, it’s their individual sensitivities and sensibilities that allow them to collectively raise the craft of lighting to an art form.

'Finnish Wizard' Mikki Kunttu

‘My lighting should not be valued too highly,’ says Mikki Kunttu, ‘because by itself it’s nothing.’ Such typically Finnish modesty, while admirable, can’t disguise the fact that Kunttu has rapidly become one of the best young lighting designers in the business.

His ‘big break’ was a harried, late-night telephone invitation from Tero Saarinen that required Kunttu to send, via fax to Sweden, a lighting plan that literally had to be made up overnight. It was his first professional design.

Although Kunttu has since worked for other dance-makers, the majority of his energies have been devoted to Saarinen’s work. The latter describes their partnership as ‘an open dialogue’. ‘There’s a channel for thoughts. The lighting is so integral’, he says, ‘it’s like Mikki’s dancing with us. It’s like doing t’ai-chi together.’

FRAIL LINE, choreography: Tero Saarinen

Frail Line, choreography Tero Saarinen

The clean whites, cool blues and glowing sunset oranges of  Kunttu’s design for Saarinen’s male trio Westward Ho! seem quintessentially Finnish. In the go-for-broke ensemble dance Kaze, his lighting, whether lambent or muted, shows the hand of a young master.

‘It’s so easy to get caught up in technique and forget about artistic expression,’ Kunttu remarks. ‘I usually think in terms of the big picture. Kaze is a big event. The light is kind of obvious. I wanted to create something three-dimensional, to make the stage bigger than it is.’

In a section of Kaze which Kunttu and Saarinen dub ‘the human tree’, a handful of dancers mutate like some hard-to-identify subconscious entity. Kunttu’s idea was ‘a lighthouse effect’ achieved by a revolving light that passes the group in and out of shadow. The result is at once disorienting, mesmerising and creepily seductive.

‘We’re doing our own thing,’ Kunttu sums up his and Saarinen’s body of work, ‘without any history or reference to anything else.’ That includes their own collaborations. ‘Every time we start a new creation we start from nothing. And the premiere is only one step. You never reach a point where you can say, ‘Okay, this is ready.’ The creation is on the way all the time.

'Breath of Light' Michael Hulls

Russell Maliphant’s take on Michael Hulls is plain and direct: ‘He’s the best. With Mike the architecture of the space is always changing, opening up or closing down. It’s like breathing.’

Lighting, rather than music, is often the starting point of their joint ventures. In the solo Shift, Hulls’ ingeniously simple yet mysterious lighting casts Maliphant’s shadow onto a triptych of panels behind him. ‘It dictated the type of movement that could be done,’ Maliphant explains. ‘Rather than thinking about the stage and where I want to be on it, it was where I must be because that’s where the effect is. It kind of choreographed itself.’

The process was more complicated with Sheer, for which Hulls, Maliphant, dancer Dana Fouras and composer Sarah Sarhandi received a Time Out Live Award for outstanding collaboration in dance.

Robert Maliphant

‘Sarah’s music is quite melodic and emotional in a way,’ Maliphant says. ‘Mike tried a few things. They were too glittery. If everything goes the same way it doesn’t add to the complexity. He decided to go for something harder and colder, so you’d see the light onstage — it wouldn’t be hidden.’ Maliphant’s artistic flexibility was put to the test. ‘There were ten to twelve lights on the back wall, leaving Dana and me in silhouette. I
liked it. We decided to throw away a lot of the movement we’d already made and go with the light.’

Who is the man who inspires such trust?  ‘I’ve always been a design-based life form,’ Hulls jokes. His father was an architect, and both parents were artists. Like Carter and  Hoare, he participated in youth theatre.

Hulls’ lighting career really kick-started when dance improviser Laurie Booth invited him to improvise with light. ‘It wasn’t scary because I didn’t know any better,’ Hulls recalls. ‘Because I didn’t have any ideas about it, there was a complete freedom.’ He soon became hooked by ‘the ephemeral nature of live performance. Light is the most extreme part of that. It’s so intangible. You can’t hold it. It’s hard to photograph or draw. It’s got the attributes of waves and particles at the same time.’

Asked what makes a good lighting designer, Hulls’ reply is tongue-in-cheek yet true. ‘The eyes of a painter, the hands of a sculptor and the soul of a poet. Technical stuff you can pick up. I’m a creature of intuition. I have no training, only experience. I’ve asked myself, ‘Where do good ideas come from and how do you recognise them?’ The strongest ones happen quite simply and quickly. The more head-scratching that goes on, the further away you get from what’s best.’

And what is Hulls’ ultimate advice about lighting in dance? ‘Use as little as possible, but use it absolutely well.’

‘Shared Visions’ Lucy Carter

Lucy Carter has worked regularly with a handful of top British dance-makers. What they want from her lighting varies greatly.

‘I like barely perceptible changes that happen over time,’ says Charles Linehan. Carter has lit a dozen of his pieces, as well as a string of dances by Shobana Jeyasingh. The gilded ‘snapshots’ of the chain of bodies in Jeyasingh’s Surface Tension, or the icy blue wing space in Phantasmaton, are prime examples of Carter’s collaborative touch.

Jeyasingh has, she herself says, ‘slowly and painfully’ taught herself ‘to work towards an ecology of lighting, so that it and the music and the dance don’t all peak at the same time. Each has to find its autonomy. It’s a case of, ‘Let’s see how this develops. Is there something coherent we can all say together?’

She feels lucky in her relationship with Carter because ‘Lucy’s not rigid. She understands why things change dramatically in live theatre. You can’t control it. It’s like holding the reins of a lot of horses. All these forces are pulling the piece along. You can’t ever say this one is going to lead.’

‘A knowledge of dance has contributed to my success,’ Carter admits. ‘I understand the choreographic process.’ Majoring in drama at London’s Roehampton Institute, she lit her own dance pieces well enough to prompt others to start asking her to do likewise for them. ‘It led me to what I was best at,’ she says, smiling.

Having received formal lighting training at Central School of Speech and Drama, Carter landed her first job at The Place Theatre. ‘I’ve never had to network because of all the contacts I made there,’ she says of this key London – and international – venue. She always tried to treat the vast number of dance companies she encountered personably. ‘Somebody being nice to you is so encouraging to younger companies. Even now a big part of my job is getting on with people and putting them at ease.’

Aside from fruitful assocations with Linehan and Jeyasingh, Wayne McGregor has been Carter’s  main collaborator. She’s lit more than twenty of his dances. ‘We work quite graphically,’ she says, ‘because his ideas are technology-led.’

How ironic, then, is Carter’s admission that she doesn’t keep abreast of all the latest technology. ‘I don’t see lighting as a technical thing,’ she explains. ‘I ignore that side until I have my ideas and concepts.’ Yet Carter claims to never go in with preconceived ideas because she’s there to serve the choreographer. ‘If they’ve got a lighting idea or vision, they should tell me.’

Still, as Carter points out, ‘Talking about light is pretty unsatisfactory. Until you actually see it, you don’t know what it’s going to be.’

‘In a Privileged Light ‘ Carol Brown

As I’ve moved into a more visual sense of performance,’ says Carol Brown, ‘lighting has increasingly become installed within the structural element of a piece.’ On that score she sings the praises of Michael Mannion, whose work with Brown includes Machine for Living and Nerve.

‘Mickie understands the concept of performance as an event which creates its own aesthetic rules,’ Brown elaborates. ‘He also has the ability to create a sensory world through lighting.’

Mannion’s engineering background led him to a surveying job in Australia. There he did theatre work in his spare time. He’d always had a leaning towards dance, even studying Martha Graham’s technique. Later, after being part of the technical team at London’s Laban Centre for five years, he founded a lighting design and production management consultancy company called Eye for Detail. He remains a senior partner, specialising in dance.

Lighting, Mannion says, ‘can ruin or help a dance. It can also take the choreography somewhere it couldn’t go alone. For some shows I think, ‘I’m gonna do everything I can to be noticed.’ On others I’m trying to convince a choreographer, ‘This’ll work.’

Talking to Mannion is like taking a crash course in what light can do. ‘Side lights increase height; with those you’re already projecting dancers into the air. I tend to stay away from front lights because it almost instantly flattens perspective – unless Javier (De Frutos, a frequent collaborator) says, ‘Let’s bring everything right in their faces.’ Two or three back lights pick the dancers out from the background, while two or three cross-washes deepen the stage and light the floor. They also give you shadows around eyes and chin, and massive shadows under the chest and stomach. Supplemented with sides and back lights, the torso completely stands out.’

Lack of sufficient time or money are complaints common to Mannion and his colleagues. ‘If you’re given just hours to rig, focus and plot,’ he says, ‘there’s a limit to the amount of artistic risks you and the choreographer are prepared to take.’ But he doesn’t want to give the wrong impression. ‘I love what I do. I feel privileged.’

‘Full Flow’ Guy Hoare

Guy Hoare began his lighting career by chance, working on small-scale fringe theatre shows while studying classics at Oxford. ‘I had no idea this’d be what I’d want to do as a profession,’ he confesses. ‘It never clicked that there was an industry I could go into.’

Since graduating in 1997 Hoare has been lighting full-time, working on loads of theatre and opera. He appreciates dance as ‘a far blanker canvas to work on, with greater scope for abstract ideas.’

Hoare’s  most consistent working relationship has been with dancer-choreographer Henri Oguike. The two like to veeer away from textbook rules, preferring instead to experiment with light and motion. Not that every collaboration is a radical departure from the norm. The happy-go-lucky Ile Aye, in which Oguike’s choreography rides the spirited rhythms of Brazilian music, would communicate easily even without the seaside blues and sun-baked oranges of Hoare’s lighting.

Shot Flow and In Broken Tendrils are a different matter. Hoare’s astute work gives these darker dances their identities. As he says of either one, ‘Strip away the lighting and the performance doesn’t make sense.The choreography is only taking place in whatever part of the body is in the light, or on the fringes of light, or in the shadows any body is casting.’

In the sinewy Shot Flow, a couple enact a sexy, almost cinematic abstraction of  tentative attraction and potential discord. Oguike set the movement in Hoare’s lights: two overhead, and four on the floor whose beams might just as easily hit the dancers’ legs or faces as their full bodies.

‘Each dancer is  revealing and concealing the other person,’ Hoare says, ‘literally shadowing them.’ This deceptively simple effect is also, as he puts it, ‘fantastically powerful. The lighting is calling attention to itself almost while doing nothing at all.’

In Tendrils, Oguike says, ‘We wanted to build on ideas, images and energies established with Shot Flow.‘ Again Hoare tries to make shadows constructive rather than destructive.

‘It’s very fragmented because we were looking at one light source at a time,’ he says. ‘For one section, Henri wanted to shove the light right off into the wings.’ Some of the dancers move restlessly out of sight before low light, inducing a mood of fluctuation and ambiguity.

In Hoare’s estimation, this use of light and shadow is a means of manufacturing the virtual performer without high technology. ‘It’s a simpler way of creating the image of the dancer in the dancer’s absence.’