For three weeks each year, from late February to early March, the city of Perth in Western Australia enjoys more than just the heat and endless sunshine of a glorious summer. Residents and numerous visitors revel in one of the biggest arts events on the Australian calendar, the Festival of Perth.
This year marked the 47th in its history, and also the swan song of its director David Blenkinsop, who departed after 23 years at the helm. Irishman Sean Doran, responsible for steering the festival into the new millennium, comes highly qualified for the job after running a similar event in Belfast under the auspices of Queens University.
The festival's program features music (both contemporary and classical), theatre, visual arts, film, and dance, and offers such a diverse program there is usually something to appeal to everyone's taste and budget. Dance was a main course at the festival this year, with French and Australian contemporary companies receiving star billing.
Burswood Theatre, a former casino showroom that was recently revamped, hosted the festival dance program, which gave the venue a high-profile opportunity to launch its new "theatre" format. All three visiting French companies performed there, and its wide proscenium arch stage, huge wing space, and the most comfortable seats in town made it an ideal dance venue.
Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu opened the dance season with Paradis, an extraordinary work that uses video inventively, with live dancers interacting with their video doubles, creating images that amuse and confound. The style of dance embraced everything from hip hop to classical, funk, African, and street dance. Working with video has been a priority for the company for the last eight years, and it has created an amazing visual universe with the use of it in Paradis.
This presents some serious lighting challenges in the endless struggle to balance light levels to suit the onstage dancers, the audience, and video. The company's technical director, Yves Favier, is a cool operator who takes it all in stride, believing that nothing is impossible if you've got the time, money, and creativity. "All of our productions are works in progress, with small details being refined and reworked all the time. What we do with video is not difficult, it just requires a lot of precise planning."
The production was performed on an empty stage in front of a plastic cyclorama/projection screen that had invisible slits in it, allowing the dancers to make surreptitious entrances and exits that melded with the projected video action. The lighting was overseen by Favier, who described the basic design concept as being "blue, blue, and more blue in a monochromatic way. Jose Montalvo, the choreographer, is experiencing a Picasso-like 'blue' period at the moment."
The design calls for double Rosco 79 --which most people would agree is a pretty serious dose of blue--as well as Rosco 119 and Lee 120. The fresnels with the double R79 also used a heat shield to stop the gel from burning at a rapid rate. "It's been very expensive for us in the past to use such saturated colors and watch them not even last a performance, but the heat shield gives us good value for money by expanding the life of the gel," Favier says.
The lighting rig was focused to keep the light off the cyclorama but there were a number of sequences where the onstage dancers worked very close to it when interacting with their video doubles; tightly focused ERS profiles were the obvious luminaire for this area. Favier had to compromise on his preference for plano-convex (PC) spots for the color washes by using fresnels, when he realized that Australian theatres don't carry the same level of stock of PCs as found in France. He prefers the beam texture of PCs to fresnels and feels they work better for this production.
It is always interesting to observe the relationship between video and lighting and see which wins the struggle for domination, but in Paradis the marriage is a successful one and the visual balance is just right. This is a tight show with a lot of wit and style, and Favier says the calling of the video, sound, and lighting cues is so precise it's like being on headsets during a NASA countdown.
Olivier Tessier is the lighting designer for Centre Choreographique National de Nantes, the second French company featured this year. His lighting for Humains, Dites-Vous! (Humans, Tell Us About Them!) is influenced by 16th-century paintings from masters such as Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, and Titian. With its haunting tableaux, the choreography by Claude Brumachon is inspired by the misery, intrigue, tension, and darkness of the religious wars that pervaded this period in France's history.
Tessier's philosophy is that the LD is there to service the production and not seek attention for the lighting unless it is warranted. "I enjoy painting the body and assisting the choreographer to sculpt the form. In the first half of Humains I was greatly influenced by the costumes and how restrictive they were for the dancers."
This restriction is reflected in his dark, moody, and very tight lighting states. This was not a design based on washes but on confined areas out of which eerie tableaux emerged. Such was the control of the movement and the stillness of the light, there were moments when one could believe that the tableaux truly were paintings from the old masters.
Scenes were sculpted with multidirectional light angled from above, sides, or simply from the back, with Tessier's use of gobos carving even more texture out of the light. Humains was performed in a black box with a minimal set, with dirt spread all over the stage floor. The dancers' movements caused dust to rise and be caught in the beams, further enhancing the texture of the light.
Tessier loves working in dance because he finds it a challenge to light the human form. "I like to use hot colors, not primary colors, just rich, intense ones, as they always look so great on bare flesh. You can do so much with the naked body and light, but I like the light to be soft."
Across town, Australian LD Mark Howett was immersed in lighting a futuristic world for local dance company Skadada's production, Electronic Big Top, which featured aerial work, bungee dancing, and blacklight theatre. Howett worked closely with set designer Andrew Carter to devise a visual style for the production.
"Andrew and I spent a whole day together in his studio in the hills outside of Perth with phones switched off and no distractions. Choreographer Jon Burtt had originally said to us that he was interested in a visual style that reflected influences of the movies Blade Runner and Delicatessen, but Andrew and I decided that since we didn't have a lot of money we would devise a more intangible concept that we knew we could pull off without an enormous budget."
The pair's concept was to have all the visual elements on the vertical rather than the horizontal. Howett was conscious that even a horizontal lighting bar would destroy the visual impact so he looked for other solutions once he saw the shape of the scenic elements. "Andrew had created a series of large suspended cones made from transparent sailing cloth that took the light brilliantly. We filled them with dry ice and it was amazing to watch the fog squeeze out through small holes in the bottom of the cones and fill the space without reaching the floor. Usually you worry about dry ice distributing evenly over the space but we were interested in the random nature of the dispersion, which worked really well."
The performance was divided between the aerial and earthbound worlds, and one of the challenges for Howett was creating a lighting environment that was safe for the aerialists yet still looked stunning. "Initially I had problems with the aerialists who weren't used to working with the kind of lighting states I was creating, but once I took them out into the auditorium to look at the stage they understood what I was trying to achieve and they were fine about it."
The primary light sources were the side booms, although only 10-20 luminaires in the rig were actually focused on the dancers--the rest were focused on the cones or slashing across the space to create texture. Howett also used eight High End Systems Trackspots(R) controlled from a Jands Hog 250 desk to add some flexibility to the rig and achieve shifting angles. "I really hate performers exiting awkwardly and there were a lot of entrances and exits in this show, so I'd sweep the Trackspots at the end of a dance phrase to take the attention away from the performers moving offstage."
The only colors Howett used was Lee color correction (both blue and orange), as he was after a clean, unsaturated look that worked well with the costumes and the space. "There was a lot of black on black in this show and I found that the muted colors I chose were great for slicing bodies out of the space."
Back at the Burswood Theatre, the final dance production for the festival, Almanach Bruitax (Almanac of Noises) from Compagnie Castafiore, was intriguing audiences with its quirky and surreal visuals. Spanish lighting director Begonia Garcia-Navas found herself in a difficult situation when she rejoined the company. "I work with this company and another dance company in France, moving between the two. I actually hadn't done this show for a year, and when I looked at the lighting plan I realized that many changes had been made since I last rigged it. Some of them I didn't agree with, so I had to try and put them right in a tight time frame."
Garcia-Navas enjoys touring and adding her own stamp to the lighting even when she is not originally responsible for the design. "I find that working with dance companies is a collaboration, so even though I may not be credited as the lighting designer I still have input, since it's up to me to make it work on the road in a multitude of venues with a whole range of equipment." Garcia-Nevas loved working at Burswood, being one of the few touring LDs to come through who could actually operate the Avab Viking desk, the only one in Australia. "I've used the Viking in Europe, so it wasn't a problem for me, and the crew was really helpful: very friendly and professional."
After three weeks of stimulation and excitement, the event is over and the touring productions move on, leaving Perth to enjoy the tail end of yet another perfect summer, made even more so by the international delights of the Festival.
Jacqueline Molloy is an Australia-based freelance writer with a background in lighting and production management.