We use comparisons to understand and explain things better. One might say, “It's as cold as a well digger's ass,” and we would conclude, indeed, it is a bit chilly outside; as warm as a mother's embrace, brief as boxers, mad as a hatter. You get the idea.
Ballet can be compared to classical music. It has its traditions and follows much the same treatments. Jazz dance can be compared to jazz music. Although today, some jazz dance might be compared to pop music or, sadly, a television jingle. Salsa dancing goes with salsa music. And modern dance can be compared to, well, lunch.
Lunch is many things and has all kinds of expectations. If a friend drops by, it's perfectly acceptable to improvise and throw some stuff together that's been sitting in the fridge, waiting to be used. Or perhaps you've invited some friends over for lunch. A little sinful dance is often welcome: banana daiquiris and nachos come to mind. When we go out to eat, we have the expectations of something with a little more presentation to it. We expect decent preparation, a menu of choices, and expertise in the product.
Lighting, to flavor this silly analogy, should be the spice we use, like a condiment. All too often, however, lighting is the ketchup on the stage, masking the flavor, ubiquitous in its use, comfortable in a childlike way. Sometimes, we need a dash of cayenne pepper to bring out the heat of a dance, a dollop of honey to sweeten the sensuality, a sprig of parsley to bring out the color of the fare. The focus should always be on the fare, not on the condiments (except in California, birthplace of that deplorable trend of dribbling chocolate over a perfectly wonderful slice of cheesecake).
Like any good lunch — be it a peanut butter sandwich, soup and salad, pizza, ice cream, garlic chicken, or vegan brownies — there is no single way to prepare the food. In fact, it's the variety that makes us enjoy it. Falling into a single method or approach of preparation ignores the wonderful possibilities of all our tools, our blenders, microwaves, ovens, salts and garlic, dishes and bowls. Declaring that one never uses front light in dance is ignoring one of the basic food groups. I don't want to eat a cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread everyday, even if that's what I'm best at doing. Falling into the habit of just improvising or spectacle or single-themed fare is limiting and boring. Certainly, now you can imagine leaving the theatre and remarking to your comrade, “Too many nachos and not enough daiquiris,” or, “All that meat and no potatoes.”
While biographical dance is waning as a trend, all too often I am reminded of a friend inviting me to lunch and being served vegan because that is all the person eats. I have no choice but to choke it down or leave. Often in the theatre, having paid my hard earned art dollars, I am reluctant to leave and, instead, sit choking down a story in which I have no interest or investment.
A good lunch, like good lighting, has substance, value, and contrast. Salty nuts are so good on ice cream because the salt contrasts the sweet — just enough to let us know how wonderfully sweet it is. It's contrast. A lovely woman wearing a red dress puts a single yellow sash around her waist, and now, that red looks really red. She doesn't have a two-paneled dress, right side red and left side yellow. The contrast is just a dash of spice. So too, one does not put all red light on one side of the stage and all yellow on the other. Nor does one just use all red. For the red to be red, one needs a single mincing of contrasting color.
As one's palette becomes more refined, we are less likely to be drawn, as our children are, to the bright red and blue boxes of cereal and cookies on the shelf. We look for packaging that is a little more tasteful. A bowl full of multi-colored cereal may look spectacular to a child but revolting to an adult — so too, may madly swinging lights. Color a-dazzle only brings oohs and aahs of the unsophisticated wannabe gourmet. One may have to acknowledge that, to a diner whose fare is psychedelic, an over-the-top light show is as satisfying as a box of Oreo cookies to the pot smoker — not exactly classy but satisfying nonetheless.
The unenlightened may be revolted at the idea of eating raw fish, drinking scotch whiskey, and (heavens!) eating snails. Lighting, too, is an acquired taste. To those who bother to learn — to actually see — the pieces all fit together like a nine course dinner. And we know that drinking a bottle of scotch is not the point nor is using every light in the hall. Those new to the experience may leave the theatre/restaurant with a mild feeling of unease, not realizing that it was a good show with bad lighting.
As often is the case, we have to educate our audiences. We have to tell them that barbecue chicken on a California pizza is good! And trendy! We have to tell them that they are seeing a good product. Some teachers teach their students that good lighting is not noticed. However, I enjoy a good set of dishes to eat my food upon. I like a nice glass tumbler from which to down my scotch. There is nothing wrong with noticing the lighting. We just don't want someone to pour ketchup all over our steak dinner.
Modern dance is getting a little generic for my taste buds. I can almost hear the designer ask, “Do you want fries with that?” Lee 201 fronts, break up gobos, perfect shins, even washes — it just looks like someone dumped a jar of spaghetti sauce on my noodles instead of letting it simmer with flavors and having the flavor come through the sauce. Sometimes, the sauce is the best part! It has to cook for a while, steam, simmer, and even boil sometimes. Just putting it on top is not enough. It's got to come from the piece. It's got to cry out, “I need garlic to be complete.”
Wash your hands, and use a napkin.
David “DK” Kroth is the technical director for the School of Dance at California Institute of the Arts.