The new queen of ballet is Cleopatra, choreographed by Houston Ballet's artistic director Ben Stevenson and co-produced by Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. It employs the same design team as Stevenson's Dracula a couple years ago: Thomas Boyd sets, Judanna Lynn costumes, and lighting by Timothy Hunter.
Lighting plays a crucial role in this ballet because many scenes move back and forth between Egypt and Rome, requiring set changes to take place behind an elaborately painted scrim while short transitional scenes are danced in front. The lighting must therefore envelop the audience, leading the viewer's eye to the dancing and away from stage business, and also set the scenes for different times of day, the personalities of the characters, and the moods of the scenes. Hunter accomplished all this fluidly and beautifully with his color and pattern choices, and by moving from soft stage washes to narrowing the focus on the action, in a cinematic fashion.
The story begins with a tableau of handmaidens fetching water for Cleopatra's bath. The corps is arrayed across the stage behind the painted scrim, as if the audience is peeking through a lattice in a palace corridor. As the dancers begin to move, the effect is of a tomb painting coming to life. The idea of the well is created with a slow-moving GAM TwinSpin down left in Lee 117 Steel Blue, and water ripples in the bath are made by a City Theatrical Tubular Ripple machine. As Cleopatra's bedchamber is revealed, with layers of swagged drapery, shafts of rainbow pastel light are added, giving the scene a dreamy, fairy-tale quality. "From the sides, very low, it starts out with the feeling of water," Hunter says, "and as you come toward the center of the room it has a feeling of gold, as if sunlight is passing through finely finished goldwork, picking up the color and carrying it into the room. There is an overlay of pattern and color to tell a story of opulence."
Scenes with the noble Cleopatra are contrasted with those of her scheming brother, Ptolemy, who plots to have her banished so he can rule Egypt. He takes over the throne room and desecrates it with a bacchanal, luridly lit with orange and purple. "I like the stress and tension, the diagonal pulling of those colors," Hunter explains. "The idea is that wealth and power and richness are there, but in conflict. It also is a trick to have a balance of being able to see the clothes, which are beautiful and intricately detailed. That's part of what I call the 'breathing' of the orgy: They all spread out and it is sort of dark, and when they all come together in a climax in the middle it gets a little hotter and brighter, as if that combined energy creates a hotter flame, and that was a way to see the clothes, and as they go down to the floor again it pulls back, so I let the scene breathe in that regard."
The voyeuristic feeling of the scene is enhanced with a front lattice overlay "done with gobos in 6x16s from a cove position," Hunter explains. "It's a nice focus of six units, three in one pattern and three in another, and fortunately that theater has such a long throw and the equipment is so fine that you can really get a good, even wash.
"In the sidelight," he continues, "each boom has six or seven patterns, from low to high. Some of them are cut off at the floor, so that, for instance, in the orgy, the idea is that people drop down out of the broken light into a solid 'ooze,' and as their passions rise they rise up into this broken, hotter light. I love the story that broken light tells. When telling a story with romance and tragedy and treachery, reality is going to be heightened, so I use patterns and, secondarily, color to support that storytelling quality."
Cleopatra's love scene with Caesar is painted with the same pastel rainbow as the opening scene, but deeper, ending with a dusky purple stage and a golden pool on the bed. "We're going back to her room, so we wanted it to have the same qualities," Hunter says, "but I wanted more passion. As you become more passionate about something, the things that are on the periphery slide away. I want the audience to see, through Cleopatra's eyes, her feelings, to see how focused on Caesar she is. It is high sensuality; the idea is to telegraph to the audience that her intention is to have him, and that was my message, to make sure nobody missed it, not to be lurid, but let it be a story of love."
The quality of light in the Roman scenes is very different from Egypt, as Hunter explains: "The exterior scene is chrome yellow cut with white, to put an acid edge on the politics of Rome. The people see it as warm, in a sense, but there's something caustic about that edge. The Senate is cool, but hard-edged also, and that is the heart of the cold Empire." Just about the only color in Rome is the scene of Calpurnia's vision of Caesar's murder: In her dream her husband is bathed in a shaft of blood-red light as a faceless assassin stabs him.
One spectacular highight of the show is the scene on Cleopatra's royal barge. It begins in silhouette behind the scrim, with Cleopatra sitting high on a throne and the rowers' oars moving. As the scrim flies out the sides of the barge are swung open to reveal beautiful teal and gold wings, like a ceremonial necklace. As Marc Antony falls under Cleopatra's spell, a languid sunset blooms on the cyc. "What's more romantic than sunset on the Nile?" Hunter asks. "We end with a golden orange highlight behind the throne, and a purple groundrow sunset with the lovely blue sky and clouds above. It was a lot of fun to do--it's one of those things that you don't get to do often because it's such a heightened realism that it becomes a Technicolor explosion of a sunset."
The final scene, in which Cleopatra kills herself as she sees her lover die and her homeland taken over by the Romans, is much quieter lighting-wise but no less thoughtfully done. The stage is washed in a smoky purple, giving a twilight-of-the-gods atmosphere. "Like the end of an era," Hunter agrees. "It's like the passion, there's still a lot of it there, but it's about to drain out of the room. This is the essence of her passion, so it comes down to one color, and it's this exotic, rich midnight blue. It's like the heart's blood, which is the dark, dark red blood, and that was what I wanted the feeling to be. Sometimes you need to be subtext, to get out of her way and let her finish the piece."
Since the front scrim plays such a lead role in the production, Hunter "tried to light it different ways: I use footlights on it; I use a front wash, which has to come from the sides so that it doesn't bleed upstage; I have a system that sheets down the front of it, in a light salmony pink to pop it out; and two systems of patterns, one focused diagonally across it, another of straight-on patterns that reflects the same texture as the painting itself, just to give it another look. Instead of coming back to the same old scrim light, it always looks different."
ETC Source Four PARs with Wybron CXI color-mixing scrollers are the workhorses of this design. "They work in every scene," Hunter says, "and twice do live color fades, which I was very impressed with. It was perfectly fluid, and it didn't go to green first. This was my first time using them, and I was amazed by them. It's basically two planes of windows of color, and you rotate the top one against the back one until you find the color you're looking for. And there's a chart that says 'if you're looking for Rosco 68, move to this,' and you'll find degrees of Rosco 68 on either side of the window. I love the GAM blues, which I can't find anyplace else, and I can mix to them in these devices. I could also mix to tints, and it wasn't an effort. If there was any experience that was frustrating, it was that there was so much I could do! Why use a scroller where I've got to choose the colors, when I can use a scroller where I can change my mind tomorrow? And the great thing is that you don't lose transmission. I felt like they were very strong, it was very punchy."
Hunter is enthusiastic about Houston Ballet and its lighting supervisor, Christina Giannelli. "Christina deserves a lot of credit. She's really built that system into something amazingly flexible, and she always figures out a way to get what you want. She's a fabulous designer herself, and has no ego about the fact that another designer is there. She completely invests in it and submerges herself in the work. She is a big part of what makes that place work so beautifully."
He also waxes philosophical about lighting for dance. "It is such a thrill to take the audience on a journey, and to see how the dancers respond to it. They'll come up and say, 'I feel like I'm there, it felt like night, then I felt the sun rise and I realized my energy needed to change.' If you get involved with the dancers and talk with them about their character, you inspire one another. They're not up there just doing a job, they're in the moment, and I need to be there with them,and by investing in that way and sometimes taking the risk of moving light and texture and color around, you're being one of the dancers. They're up there physically emoting it, and that travels out to the audience, but I get to put the quotation marks on it, and be the piece of paper that they're writing it on. I love being connected to that extent, to be painting their movement with them."
Lighting equipment (67) Strand 1kW 10x23s (6) Strand 1kW 8x13s (24) Strand 1kW 6x22s (79) Strand 1kW 6x16s (117) Strand 1kW 6x12s (23) ETC Source Four 19-degree (40) ETC Source Four 26-degree (44) ETC Source Four 36-degree (16) ETC Source Four PARs (6) Strand 750W 6" fresnels (26) Strand 1kW MFL PAR-64s (4) Strand 1kW NSP PAR-64s (38) Strand 500W Coda cyclights (16) Altman MFL PAR-56 striplights (4) Altman R40 striplights (4) Lighting & Electronics Mini-Strips (16) Mole-Richardson 1,500W Far Cycs (14) Strand 1kW Pallas (1) 300W marking light (1) LeMaitre G300 haze and fog machine (2) 75W birdies (2) 140W inkies (4) 150W inkies (16) Wybron CXI color-mixing scrollers (1) GAM Products TwinSpin (1) City Theatrical Tubular Ripple Effect (2) Target 50W fans