As a continuation of our profile on Robert Wierzel in the magazine, I talked with him about his philosophy of dance lighting, especially in relation to his work with choreographer Bill T. Jones. Recently the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presented an evening of new works with the Orion String Quartet and members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center playing live onstage and not just anonymously down in the orchestra pit.
It was an interesting program of three diverse dances set to very different styles of chamber music pieces. All three dances had set elements designed by Bjorn Amelan and costumes by Liz Prince. The first piece, "Verbum," set to Beethoven's Quartet for Strings in F major, had silver panne velvet costumes, and the dancers wove in and out of silvery metal portals with squiggly outlines.
The second work, "World Without/In," set to Kurtag's String Quartet Op. 1 and Op. 13, had a pyramidal set of steps upstage, which the dancers used extensively, running up and down them and posing on them. Characters--some clad in robes that seemed Grecian or medieval, one dressed as a sort of ninja--mysteriously appeared and disappeared from the upstage black curtain. There was also a fashionable and well-dressed young woman who paraded across the stage with a parasol made of dollar bills.
The program ended with "Black Suzanne," which was very athletic, set to Shostakovich's Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet. At one point, dancers would hurl themselves through the air at the other dancers who had formed a sort of wall. The piece began with dancers laying down flat red foam squares to form a kind of wrestling mat. The costumes were also red, and were like singlets with small foam pads around their waists, almost like a superhero's utility belt.
Through all this varied activity, Wierzel illuminated the action with subtle dimming and brightening here and there for accent, but the music and choreography were the real focus of the evening.
ALS: In general, how do you work with the choreographer on lighting a new piece? Do you attend many rehearsals? Does he give you specific ideas?
RW: I've known Bill for about 15 years. There's a definite trust between us, which I think has a lot to do with how we work. We have a shared aesthetic, and actually, my aesthetic has been shaped by his. He's a very literate man, he's extremely knowledgable of the art world, the music world, the literary world. Many times he would mention something and I'd have to go and find out who or what he's talking about. Which is always exciting for me.
What I ask him is, "Bill, what is this piece about, what is your starting image?" And he'll usually say, "Do you know this music?" Bill has always had a very raw theatricality as part of his aesthetic tempered by a clean, classical sense of structure. He knows the art world and how refined and structured the art world is and yet how chaotic the theatre world is. He kind of puts those two together, kind of high art and low art, if you will. There's always a tension or dynamic that's happening.
ALS: The three new pieces, "Verbum," "World Without/In," and "Black Suzanne," were very different musically and stylistically. How did this inform your lighting choices?
RW: I think the artist and theatre person that's in Bill looks at the evening and wants the pieces to look different even though they're being made by the same person. They're not all the same, they all have very distinct qualities and they're all very different.
What Bill said to me about "Verbum" was he wanted it to feel contemporary. When I first looked at it, I understood the structuring as a classic structure. Bill's very keen on structure, as I am. In my theatre work I try to analyze what structure is today and how we can use that in our work. So I started with an idea for the first movement, then a transition, an idea of light for the second movement, and as we went through the notes, he said, "It sounds fine, but it seems like we've seen it before." And we have. It was an obvious take on the structure. He said, "I really want it to feel more contemporary," and I thought about that, and the next day I came up with what you ended up seeing, which was still using the structure but in a much more refined way.
To me, I took "contemporary" to mean complete, objective. What does objective light mean? For me it meant clean, sparkling, iridescent, silvery, because those strange little portals that Bjorn designed, they were beautiful, but what do they mean? You [the viewer] have to come up with some answer. They work with the dance, because the dance is very organic in its beautiful dance structure. It's not rigid and sharp and clean-lined, it has a kind of organic energy about it. So that's how I took that structure and looked at it again with a completely different lens.
RW: I think the most challenging was "World Without/In." My response was that it should have no color, and I was trying to figure out why it shouldn't have color. We had this beautiful set, again by Bjorn, trying to transform the dance space, the dance volume that we all know and love and have used for generations. How can it work differently? I think Bill wanted to see how can dancers interact with the space and not just come in from the wings. That's how that developed.
Like that opening image of Toshiko floating on that top step with those two sort of Goddess women--or religious Virgins, or however you want to interpret them--floating, you think, "This is going to be something else." I said we need to really make this a statement right at the beginning, we have to have an opening image. Because he thought we should just start from black and the piece should fade up, and I said no, we need to start with a very strong image and then move on. Some people may be thrown off-balance, but that might be good.
Then it all became about white light, colorless light, but highly contrasted, quite strong from one direction and not from another so that it wasn't complete and clean like "Verbum," but slightly harsher. Then we used the stairs.
ALS: There was lighting built into the steps, right?
RW: Yes, it was this new technology called flat light. They weren't light boxes. It's literally paper-thin, it's like cardboard thickness. You can bend it and cut it.
ALS: Is it electroluminescent?
RW: Yes, that's exactly what it is. The technology has improved to such a degree, and architects use it a lot for interiors. Our technical staff was concerned about how we were going to tour light boxes, with dancers jumping around on it--it's a lot of wear and tear and maintenance. When this option came up we researched it, and we thought it would work, it would be bright enough, it's almost no weight, all of that. The only real problem with it from a logistical point of view is that doesn't really dim out, so we couldn't do a clean blackout like we wanted, but we didn't know that at the time.
RW: "Black Suzanne" was an interesting piece. I think Bill wanted, as best as Bill can, a lighter piece, so we had this kind of strangely idiosyncratic backdrop. It was funny but weird. A big graphic flower, almost cartoony or Pop Arty, then with these smiling teeth that had a threatening... It was very strange, like a Bugs Bunny cartoon where they're funny but threatening. I don't know if Bjorn had that in mind, because he had to come up with that before the dance was really finished.
So, I thought if any piece is going to have color, maybe this piece should. And talking to Bill he said no, it should be more like a wrestling match, like that big, severe light that just focuses on the dance. Once I had that conversation with Bill I began to understand where his head was for this group of work. He's maturing: The work is complex and has a lot of depth to it; it's unlike work we've done. So I totally went there, but instead of being so cold and white, like silvery in the first piece and harsh in the second, this should be slightly warmer or slightly more natural or slightly more grounded. It became basically no color, just clear light, but a lot of it. I wanted to lay down a thickness to it.
ALS: How many rehearsals did you attend? What is the pre-production process like?
RW: When we have a new work, especially the full-evening pieces, we usually rent a theatre, at Purchase generally, sometimes Aaron Davis Hall, and we set up for a week or two, so that we can really work on them. Bill is not interested in throwing it together in an afternoon and calling it good. We set up there, we rehearse every day. With pieces like this we'll do one piece for two days, then the next piece for two days, then we'll put together all three. It usually takes about two weeks, and it gives me time to make adjustments, add lights, take lights away, it's fantastic. Of course, that's the way we all know it should be put together, but now we're in a position to do that all the time. It makes a complete difference in the work.
ALS: I believe Alice Tully Hall is primarily a classical music venue. What did you have to do to convert it into a dance space?
RW: It is a classical concert stage, but it's really a multi-use space. They have a repertory plot, as it were, for the most part. You can basically make three overhead electrics. They have line sets that come in. It's interesting. It's like the beginning of a really good idea but they didn't quite do it all the way. The walls pivot; they perspective in. For a dance company that's not such a good thing because that makes upstage smaller than downstage. So the walls pivot and they cover them with blacks. There's lights behind them, and we added low booms. We had to add some lights, but not much, a lot of it was there. Basically adapt our rep plot to that space because we didn't have enough time. We took all the ideas we'd been developing in rehearsal and I reworked them for Alice Tully. If you see the piece on the road it would be slightly different, although I have to admit it was not as much of a difference as I thought it was going to be. It translated rather well, I guess because I knew it was coming, so I kept it simple. I cringe every time I have to add a light because it's more that the staff has to maintain. Although "World Without/In" ended up having I think 10 lights I added, which is a lot for one piece.
ALS: It's more of a theatre piece. It struck me as being a strange combination of early Greek theatre and Japanese Kabuki or Noh theatre.
RW: You do have to really think about it. For me, as a lighting designer, not only do I analyze the musical structure, I try to look at the dance structure, the choreographic structure, like, why is he repeating that phrase from the beginning? These are questions I may not even ask him, these are just questions for me. I try to be as objective as I can, because I think that's invaluable as a lighting designer with a choreographer. You say, "This is what I'm responding to. Is this what you mean?" And then take that and process it through my mind as a lighting designer and say, "Maybe that idea of light should return here; maybe there's something about the structure Bill's thinking about." So I'll think about that and see if there's any value in that.
I've done a few theatre pieces with Bill, too, and he has a wonderful theatrical understanding. He understands how we create myths and how you communicate, and I think he's bringing that with the vocabulary of dance and choreography. I think that's what that piece is trying to reconcile, trying to meld the two.