In recent years, the somewhat traditional world of ballet has been increasingly making use of cutting-edge technology to attract new, younger audiences. John McFall, artistic director of Atlanta Ballet, is a choreographer who is very much aware of theatrical presentation; he completely revamped his Nutcracker a few years ago, with an updated libretto, all-new choreography, and lavish stage production, including strobes and pyro. When McFall asked David Grill to light Spring Fever, a program of three very different ballets, the LD knew he had the formula for a Vari*Lite project.
"I've been working with Vari*Lites for years, doing industrial trade shows and things," Grill explains. "Once, when I was talking to Loren Haas [executive vice president of Vari-Lite Production Services], he said, 'If you're ever doing some art,' as he put it, 'and you think there is a place for our equipment, give me a call; don't write us off, we can talk about it.' And then this project came up. John creates a lot of 'neighborhoods' or 'geography' onstage, and it would be wonderful to have the layering ability of the Vari*Lites. So, I educated John about the product and what it could do for us, and he embraced the idea; he's always been open to new technology. I had a chat with Loren at Vari-Lite, then he went to his parties, and I went to the Ballet, and then we all sat down together."
The Spring Fever program was comprised of the classical Swan Lake Act II; Precipice, a world-premiere modern-style ballet work; and Juke, a nostalgic revue of 1940s standards. With a painted backdrop for Swan Lake, a rear-projection cyc and various theatrical props for Juke, and a wraparound, "swimming pool"-like set for Precipice, these dance pieces entailed very different lighting approaches. Swan Lake was about creating a mysterious atmosphere and accenting the evil figure of Rothbart, Juke needed a different look for each song, and Precipice was a journey from emotional chaos to hope and harmony.
To give him the widest possible palette of looks, Grill chose VL4s(TM), VL5Arcs(TM), and VL6s(TM) for very specific, and even quirky, reasons. "I went with the VL6 because of its compact size, and it's very quiet," he explains. "I picked the VL5Arc because I like the nature of the light: It's a very even, flat field, to create beautiful washes. It will also give me a strong, compact light source, since it is an arc. And the VL4s I picked basically because it's a light that I'm really familiar with: Inherently with the VL4 as you dim it, because it's a mechanical dimmer, it creates a honeycomb look. It seems to refract the light, in a way. I know people that don't like it, but I also know many people that consider it one of the real positive aspects of the light." Also, he says, the VL6 can "morph." "If you put a gobo in the VL6, and run the focus on it, you can make the gobo slowly appear or disappear. It makes for some real interesting looks."
Most of the Vari*Lites were hung overhead for wall and floor effects and backlight, and a few served as low sidelight. Conventional equipment included Altman 360Qs, ETC Source Fours, and Great American Market TwinSpins, which were used for mid-high sidelight toward the end of Precipice. There was also a pipe hung with Strand Century fresnels fitted with household bulbs that was lowered down into the performance space for the opening scene of Juke to give a backstage look.
The LD had lit both Juke and Swan Lake before, with all conventional instruments. This time, he took advantage of the Vari*Lites' ability to "really finesse the color" rather than pick one gel to cover several jobs. "The big thing about Juke is, at the beginning it's a dusty old theatrical setting, and as the ballet begins and the characters come to life, it takes on a more magical tone, so rather than having to crossfade lights, you have the ability to slowly, gently roll in a color.
"Juke is a nostalgia piece," the LD continues. "The beginning has a dank and dusty look, with dancers pulling out different pieces of scenery. 'Dream,' is a deep, iridescent blue, as if the characters are floating in the clouds," with a white template overlay from the Rosco animation disks. " 'Moonlight Serenade' is a deep blue stage picture with moonlight coming across to illuminate the characters. That was a warm, light blue-lavender--that was the motivational key for that scene. 'Bugle Call Rag' is big, colorful, and happy, so it has a bright, crisp feeling. 'We're in the Money,' has stripes of silver lame upstage, so we treated that scene in a very golden tone, with a green background. 'Puttin' on the Ritz' becomes very elegant--champagne and bubbly--with a blue background and a brilliant shimmer on the stage. 'Begin the Beguine' takes place on a ship deck, and there's a woman in an old-fashioned bathing suit, and butlers and waiters are following her around, so it was meant to be funny, with a cartoon sunset. For 'Rum and Coca-Cola,' the dancers come out in Carmen Miranda-type costumes, so that becomes really rich, with vibrant lavenders and warm ambers and reds, and the background goes from sunset to the beginning of night. And the last thing is 'In the Mood,' which was treated like a 1940s dance hall. I played with a mirror ball effect for that, but it came out a little too romantic. So instead, I picked a breakup pattern that I thought could create that idea in the audience's head without being quite that literal."
Lighting Swan Lake entailed more subtlety, with a base of steel blue deepening into "moodier" blues, with color-corrected templates from the Vari*Lites accenting the floor, which at the beginning of the piece is veiled in fog. He also heightened the scenery with tree branch-like templates. As the evil wizard Rothbart enters, Grill says, "I used the Vari*Lites to do etched specials with gobos, in a cold lavender, as if he were a mystical character appearing out of the rocks." Grill enjoyed being able to lay down a medium-bright base with conventionals, and use the more powerful source of the Vari*Lites to "highlight different activities without having large, blaring lights to create that effect."
The theme of Precipice is the individual's struggle to control and overcome internal and external forces. To construct a unique world for this piece, the LD wanted to "create focal points for the audience, highlight specific things and change the colors and the mood." With a "cornucopia of color" and "multiples of templates," Grill followed the emotional flow of the score. The beginning is "sharp and staccato," so he used "stark and shafty" gobos, w ith barely-warm colors playing against deep, icy blues created by the Vari*Lites' arc sources. In the middle of the piece, the lead dancer is stripped of his red costume down to white briefs, symbolizing the character's triumph over his demons, and a heavenly figure descends on a silver ladder for a final pas de deux. Grill transformed the stage into a "magical sea of beams, and suddenly there's harmony. Everything that was once harsh is now bathing and soothing." He achieved this not only by shifting to warm pastels but also by changing the layering from vertical to horizontal. "Whereas the beginning of the ballet was overhead and stark and confining," Grill explains, "the second half was low-angle sidelight, lifting." The mid-high Great American Market TwinSpins in the wings came up "at an almost imperceptible speed and level, to create a quality reminiscent of water, to give it a sense of floating and movement."
Grill is enthusiastic about the future of automated lighting in dance. "It opens up possibilities for touring; it could be a real viable option. Also, John has had discussions with me about doing a ballet in an alternate space with only Vari*Lites, and choreograph that into the piece. It certainly is a real interesting idea."
While he takes advantage of the flexibility that intelligent lights give a designer, he also cautions that "when you work with an automated lighting system, you have to know what you want to get out of it. Otherwise, there are so many options, it can become time-consuming." He especially enjoys collaborating with choreographers and other designers on a project, because "it opens you up to a process that is pretty darn wonderful; it stimulates all of us to a higher level."
In true painterly fashion, the LD concludes that "there are really no bad ideas, because you never know what good might come out. You can look at the way something happens and say, 'We can use that in cue 402. Remember what you just did.' That's the beauty of it. You almost have to wonder, how many times did Rembrandt spill the paint, and when he picked it up said, that's a great color."
The LD dedicated his work on Spring Fever to his mentor, Bill Mintzer, who was one of his first lighting teachers at SUNY Purchase. Since Mintzer passed away, Grill has been teaching third year lighting, splitting the duty with other former Mintzer students Kenneth Posner, David Finley, and Brian MacDevitt. One of the assignments Grill gave this semester was Swan Lake Act II.
LIGHTING DESIGNER David Grill
VARI*LITE PROGRAMMER Victor Fable
VARI*LITE TECHNICIAN Han Henze
OBSESSION PROGRAMMER Scott Kepley
TECHNICAL DIRECTOR David Tatu
HEAD ELECTRICIAN Jennifer Jack
STAGE MANAGER Marla Kirkland
EQUIPMENT LIST (54) Altman 360Q 575W 6x9s (56) Altman 360Q 575W 6x12s (3) Altman 360Q 575W 6x16s (3) Altman 360Q 1kW 6x22s (12) ETC Source Four 36-degree ellipsoidals (24) ETC Source Four 26-degree ellipsoidals (42) ETC Source Four 19-degree ellipsoidals (6) ETC Source Four 10-degree ellipsoidals (1) ETC Source Four 5-degree ellipsoidal with drop-in iris (2) Lighting & Electronics Capsylite 75W NFL PAR-16s (12) 1kW MFL PAR-64s (24) 1kW NSP PAR-64s (2) 150W 3" fresnels (6) Strand Century old-style 6" fresnel props with 100W A-19 lamps (12) Ianiro 1kW Iris 2LTs (21) 2'5" 650W T-3s (2) 500W mini-tens with barndoors (2) Strong xenon 1,600W Super Troupers (13) Vari*Lite VL4s with tophats and noise baffles (24) Vari*Lite VL5Arcs with spill rings (8) Vari*Lite VL5Arcs with City Theatrical147 short spill rings (8) Vari*Lite VL6s with medium lens (32) Vari*Lite VL6s with standard lens (2) Rosco 1500 smoke machines (12) Great American Market TwinSpins (1) MDG Atmosphere fog machine (2) Rosco 2 RPM animation disks with radial disk (1) moon box (1) ETC Obsession 600 (1) Vari*Lite Artisan(R) Plus (192) ETC Sensor 2.4kW dimmers (24) ETC L86 2.4kW dimmers