Ballet is a world of fairy tales in motion. But in these days of big-budget special effects entertainment, it seems it's not enough for a dance company to mount a straight production of Cinderella to attract audiences. Old stories are being reinterpreted and modernized, and artistic directors are looking further afield for appealing tales to bring to the stage, such as last year's Dracula from Houston Ballet. That production included stage flying and pyrotechnic effects. How does a choreographer follow up a lavish theatrical production like that? The same way Hollywood does: by calling on the biggest names in the business.
In a co-production with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Ben Stevenson of Houston Ballet has resurrected the bittersweet Russian folk tale The Snow Maiden. He choreographed a full-length classical ballet and commissioned composer/conductor John Lanchbery to arrange a score from Tchaikovsky works. He secured Bolshoi prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili to dance the title role for both ballet companies; award-winning designer Desmond Heeley created the sets and costumes. Duane Schuler's lighting brought it to life at the Wortham Center in Houston in March, and Houston Ballet lighting director Christina Giannelli adapted it for ABT's performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, in May and June.
The Snow Maiden is a seamless production. Tchaikovsky's music and Ananiashvili's portrayal melt into Heeley's ice forest, which scintillates under Schuler's delicately balanced lighting. Heeley's sets alone are a marvel of innovation and workmanship. "What's interesting about Desmond is he keeps pushing how he designs," says Schuler. "He keeps exploring new materials. He's using materials that didn't exist 20 years ago." The stage is framed by a proscenium of icicles, made from clear fluorescent tube sleeves filled with strips of crumpled silver Mylar, strung together with clear surgical tubing. Snow-laden trees and building facades are fabricated from clear, thin, rigid vinyl sheeting attached to 3/8" metal rod framework with clear packing tape. Architectural details are added to the Czar's palace in Act III with various household plasticware, such as CDs and deviled egg platters.
All scenery surfaces are translucent or reflective, interspersed with splotches of white, gray, and light blue paint, so the challenge for the LD was not how to make the set glitter, but how much to make it glitter. "Talking to Desmond about scenery, he talks about light. He puts in as many things as possible to catch light," Schuler explains. "The thing is to make sure that doesn't dominate too much, so that you lose focus on what you're supposed to be looking at." To get "sparkle without glare," Schuler talked with set builder Michael Hagen, who "has a wonderful sense of what catches light," during the construction "about what would be too much, and what would work."
The upstage backdrop is a scrim painted to look like frost patterns on a windowpane, behind which is another large vinyl flat with clear fluorescent tubes attached to the back of it in horizontal rows. In the first two acts, this set piece is lit from below by MR-16 striplights with Lee 202 half-correction, Lee 143 Pale Navy Blue, and Rosco 79 Bright Blue. "It gave more depth to the space beyond the scrim," says Schuler. "It filled the air between the scrim and the backdrop, as another piece of scenery that was almost transparent, but when light hit it, it took on a presence." Other scenery flats have a backing of bubble sheeting or horizontal rows of the clear plastic tubes, which catch and diffuse light at interesting angles.
Act I is a winter dawn in the ice forest. A tree cluster center stage contains a hidden spiral staircase. The Snow Maiden frolics with Father Frost, her Snowflake companions, and reindeer. The Snow Maiden and Snowflakes wear gowns of white and pale blue-gray tulle embroidered with silver stars, and small squares of white tissue paper float down from above for a snow effect. The stage is layered with a front and side breakup template wash, with light blue color-correction, to give the feeling of cool, dim light filtering through tree branches. The dappled light adds to the motion of the dancers, Schuler points out. Also, instead of cutting the crosslight off the sets, "some of the sidelight shutters are left open to catch the corners of the scenery, to make it sparkle."
When the peace of the forest is disrupted by a party of humans on a sleigh ride, the sidelight warms to a pale gold to accent their costumes of rose and crimson and draw a distinction between the two worlds. However, this warm light was carefully shuttered to fall only on the dancers and not on the pristine set. The Snow Maiden boldly steps out of the forest to meet one of the humans, although Father Frost has warned her not to. But she is especially intrigued by the handsome young nobleman, Misgir, and desires to dance with him the way she has seen him dance with his fiancee, Coupava. As the Snow Maiden and Misgir share a pas de deux, the light dims to a romantic twilight blue, with a faint dappling of the template wash. "The templates were often used on top of other things as well," says Schuler, "because it's always good to add texture to ballet. Often the templates are there, underneath the scenes, and as the scenes get brighter they get washed away."
The second act is a winter festival in a peasant village, with folk dancing to celebrate the upcoming wedding of Coupava and Misgir. The stage is still framed with icicles, but a log gatehouse (vacuformed from clear plastic sheeting) is added center stage. The costumes are a profusion of red, orange, green, and blue, and resemble traditional painted wooden Russian nesting dolls. The light grows brighter throughout the scene, as the townspeople become flushed from dancing and feasting, and the addition of golden color emphasizes the warmth and vitality of the human world. But as the day wears on and the Snow Maiden crashes the party, the lighting dims and cools back down to a deep icy blue for her melancholy solo.
Most dramatic is the Act III wedding scene at the Czar's palace. There are chandeliers, glittering thrones, and a city skyline of gilded onion domes. Costumes are sumptuous layers of crimson velvet, bronze brocade, and gold netting. The wedding takes place at dawn, and at the beginning of the scene, as the Czar, Czarina, and guests parade in, the lighting is a mix of cool bluish white with faint glints of pale gold. Coupava and Misgir perform solos and a pas de deux, but then the Snow Maiden enters, looking for Misgir. He realizes she is in love with him; feeling sorry for her, he dances with her. As the sun comes up, bathing the domes in fiery gold, the Snow Maiden, being a creature of ice, slowly melts away because of the sun and the warmth of love in her heart.
"There was almost no warm light at all until the dawn at the end," Schuler explains, "so that when that happened, you felt that it's the first time that warmth had hit this world. There was a progression to keep it cool and keep some of the potential sparkle of the set held back until the very end." What made the change even more dramatic is the realistic angle of the sunrise. All the other lighting throughout the piece was evenly distributed from mid and high sidelight, toplight, and backlight. But the final sunrise is sourced from 2k fresnels placed close to the floor in the upstage corners, angled downstage to shine through the layers of translucent scenery, "which changed the way the set caught the light, so that it took on an entirely different feel for those last few minutes."
In Houston, the sunrise illusion is aided by moving drops in addition to the diagonal fresnels, to make it look "as if the sun is coming up through a band of low clouds," says Giannelli. Behind the upstage painted scrim, a clear plastic flat of onion domes with rows of horizontal tubes across its back, similar to the one used in Acts I and II, is lit from a groundrow with Lee 179 Chrome Orange gel. This set piece and the blackout drop "move up and open as if the light is spreading up the sky," Giannelli explains, "so you have both a movement in the cue, going to a more intense orange, and you also have this movement of the backdrops, like a large shutter opening." But at the Met, she says, "because of the difference in the spacing upstage, we couldn't get the full black in a reasonable relationship to the groundrow. In Houston you had the impression of a soft line rising up, but it was so diffuse in New York that it just didn't work." ABT lighting supervisor Brad Fields explains that in New York the effect became much simpler, with only the blackout drop slowly flying out to reveal the golden horizon line.
The challenge for Schuler in designing and for Giannelli in adapting the lighting was to work within the two dance companies' respective rep plots, to avoid time-consuming changeovers with other repertory dance pieces. Both companies added a special electric upstage to backlight the extra horizon scenery behind the back scrim. Schuler also specified 2k fresnels on stands that could be repositioned between acts for different angles and effects on the scenery. Also, the Met has no footlights or balcony rail available, so Giannelli added 8" fresnels in the tormentor position, to make the front layer of icicles sparkle and cancel out any warm light that might bleed from the orchestra pit. The Houston balcony rail was used mainly to bring out the glitter sprinkled on the backdrop, especially to make it glow gold in Act III, but unfortunately no suitable position could be found at the Met to get quite the same effect.
As lighting director at Houston Ballet, Giannelli has worked with both Schuler and Heeley on several other full-length ballets. "In addition, I'd worked with Duane a lot at the Houston Grand Opera, so I feel like I have a pretty good feeling for his aesthetic," which she says has to do with his sense of scene composition and use of contrast.
Teamwork and advance preparation aided the adaptation. "What made a huge difference in the process," says Fields, "was ABT getting Duane and Christina the ABT rep light plot, so that when they were designing that production, and as soon as that production was open, they were able to sit down together and figure out how to make it work on our light plot. Duane was able to make choices with Christina, even though he wasn't able to come here, and that made a huge difference." "The day we were opening in Houston," Giannelli relates, "Duane and I sat down with the ABT paperwork and talked through changes we might have to make. And then Duane spoke with Desmond and I spoke with Desmond just to warn him of the differences, especially the lack of the balcony rail, because that made quite a bit of difference in the last act." She also discussed with Brad Fields what kinds of changes could be made to the ABT plot in the amount of time available. "They were able to use our system as closely as they possibly could," he says, "because it is a rep system and we can only change it so much between ballets, especially with our schedule. And she has so little tech time. There's basically two rehearsals, and very little time for level-setting without a rehearsal going on."
With the help of the Trackmaster computer program (developed by LDs Ken Smith and Clifton Taylor), Giannelli converted the Houston cues into paper levels for ABT to program into the lighting boards, which saved a lot of time in New York. The Houston equipment is based on 1,000W instruments while the ABT plot is mostly 750W, so the software "allowed me to adjust levels in advance," she explains. Otherwise, "I would have gone mad."
Giannelli was then able to finesse the cues with Desmond Heeley. "We were able to steal bits of time during some of the spacing rehearsals and during scene changes to talk through things and make some changes and additions that he wanted. We ended up adding a spot of warm light on the backdrop in Act II, which we didn't have in Houston. That was something that Desmond wanted to try, and it ended up looking very much like one of his renderings, so he was really pleased with that. I took notes about that so that next time we do it in Houston I can add that in there.
"The real challenge on the show," she continues, "was that there was a lot of deck equipment that refocused between acts--fresnels on rovers that focused up into the headers and borders to make them reflect and sparkle, and they were used in all three acts, in different colors for each act. It was very operatic in that way. That's something you find more in a rep opera situation than in ballet."
The Snow Maiden was Desmond Heeley's final ballet design; he is now retired, or, as he puts it, on "the most prolonged holiday." Everyone involved in the production expressed great enthusiasm for being able to work with him, "because he's very supportive and very willing to go the distance to make it work," says Schuler. "And you go the distance for him because he's worth it, and he's willing to explore. He's a great colleague."
"It's inspiring to work with him, because he's such a perfectionist," Giannelli concludes. "It was great to feel that I helped him be pleased with this final ballet."
Lighting Designer Duane Schuler
Lighting Director Christina Giannelli
Master Electrician P.D. Hulce
Assistant Electrician Bill Snyder
Equipment List (31) Strand 1kW 6x9s (169) Strand 1kW 6x12s (108) Strand 1kW 6x16s (2) Strand 100W 6x16s (22) Strand 1kW 6x22s (2) Strand 1kW 8x13s (50) Strand 1kW 10x23s (22) ETC Source Fours 26-degree (13) ETC Source Fours 36-degree (16) Strand 2kW 8" fresnels (71) Strand MFL PAR-64s (61) Strand 1kW NSP PAR-64s (8) Fisher low-voltage mini-strips (14) Altman R40 striplights (26) Strand Coda cyclights (3) Mole-Richardson cyclights (12) Strand Pallas groundrows (3) Strong Super Trouper 2kW xenon followspots
In contrast to a big-budget dance production with ample resources, lighting design sometimes has to be on the cheap. Low budgets, poor equipment, and dismal facilities can impede the dream of creating a wonderful environment for a piece to take place in. Over the years I have learned, figured out, and "borrowed" some ideas that can be pretty striking--yet very inexpensive. Here are some of the tricks of the trade, if you will, on how to make a big, bold stroke with very little money or resources.
Gobos are popular tools for the LD. Patterns can be a generic breakup, leaves, clouds, geometric shapes, or even words and symbols. Two of my favorite tricks are using materials found at home improvement centers and cutting them up to fit the slot at the gate of the instrument [pictured below]. It is easy to find sheet metal (intended for screen doors or fencing) that has been stamped with different shapes--fleur-de-lis, circles, squares, or triangles--a great solution when a piece needs an industrial edge. A 4'x4' piece, yielding 50-80 gobos, can be bought for the price of one commercial gobo--great for texturing a wash and hardy enough for that 30-year-old 6x9 in a storefront theatre. Similarly, one can find screening that can be cut up to soften the flatness of a frontlight wash. I've seen many designers who carry around their own pre-cut screens for every show they do. When you have to be specific with your effect, maybe it's best to go with a commercial gobo. But when you need that mondo industrial look, sheet metal is the way to go.
Many theatres have slide projectors, and there are several ways to manipulate a slide to get a distinct look. Two of my favorites are scratching and burning. Other methods involve bleach, colored markers, and so on. Black slides are easy to make by developing a roll of unexposed slide film. You can design a unique look by scratching the emulsion side of the slide. If scratched thoroughly it will have a white line, if scratched less, the line can take on a bluish tinge. A brief flash of a cigarette lighter can create a bubbly texture reminiscent of oil projections from the psychedelic 60s. Like snowflakes, each burn is unique. I usually project these slides on the cyc, but have shined them on performers also. When a dancer moves through a textured slide, the image seems to flow and wrap itself over the body, focusing the viewer's eye on the movement.
There are many other low-budget tricks designers use to get effects. Piecing together different colors of gel, wiggling fingers (flagging) in front of a leafy gobo for movement, waving the cyc, and pulling the lens from a fresnel to throw shadows are all different gags that can be used when a piece calls for it. When inspiration strikes you suddenly, you are a brilliant artist meeting a production's challenge. I believe there are many more tools in an LD's toolbox than a collection of ellipsoidals and fresnels. And, sometimes, better solutions than opening a catalog and buying a bunch of familiar effects. I hope you give some of these ideas a try. It's great fun to experiment with light, and I imagine that these ideas may spawn new and different ideas. How about scratching some old 16mm film and making "techno-rain' on the cyc? That sounds like fun!
David Kroth is technical director and lighting design instructor for the California Institute of the Arts School of Dance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lighting designer Duane Schuler
Associate lighting designer Christina Giannelli
Lighting supervisor Brad Fields
Head electrician Larry Holder
Production manager David Lansky
Assistant production manager James Whitehill
Partial equipment list (44) Altman 360Q 750W 6x9s (186) Altman 360Q 750W 6x12s (4) Altman 360Q 750W 6x16s (14) ETC Source Four 575W 36-degree (17) ETC Source Four 575W 26-degree (4) 1kW WFL PAR-64s (25) 1kW MFL PAR-64s (1) 1kW VNSP PAR-64 (12) Ianiro 2kW 6" fresnels (4) Altman 2kW 8" fresnels (9) MFL PAR-56 3-circuit striplights (67) 300W R40 3-circuit striplights (4) 75W 3-circuit striplights (12) 75W 4-circuit striplights (1) ETC Obsession 600 control board (1) ETC Reflection back-up board (3) 96x2.4kW dimmer racks (1) 192x1.2kW dimmer rack