“Dance is one of my first passions when it comes to lighting,” says Christopher Dennis. Luckily, Dennis has been able to parlay that passion into a career, first as lighting coordinator, then as resident lighting designer at the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, where he celebrates his tenth season this year. He also designs on a freelance basis when his schedule at the Ballet allows. The company performs in Toronto's Hummingbird Center with home seasons in November, February, and late April/early May.
“I started working with lighting designer Rob Thomson at the Shaw Festival,” recalls Dennis. “When I finished there, he asked me if I was interested in working with him at the Ballet, where he was resident designer at the time. We worked together as a team for about four or five years. When he left, I became a solo team, managing the lighting department and serving as resident lighting designer.” Dennis has progressed design-wise from lighting workshops to collaborating with guest choreographers and lighting new full-length works by the Ballet's artistic director James Kudelka.
Today, Dennis not only designs quite a few new works for the company but also remounts all of the existing ballets when they rotate through the repertory. Once the ballets for the season are announced, he creates a rep plot. “My goal is to retain the integrity of the original lighting design, whether the piece is 20 years old or just one year old,” he notes. On occasion, he will be called upon to redesign, rather than remount, an older piece. “The sets and costumes will stay the same, but a piece might need a new look as far as the lighting is concerned.”
Over the years, Dennis has worked with such guest designers as Kevin Lamotte, Jennifer Tipton, Ken Billington, and David Finn, who has designed some of the company's signature pieces. “I did one summer tour for the White Oak project when David Finn wasn't able to tour with them,” notes Dennis, who finds that his position at the Ballet brings him into contact with a wide range of designers and projects.
“My full-time contract at the Ballet allows me to choose the freelance projects that are interesting. The company supports my doing outside work.” He also serves on the board for the Associated Designers of Canada (ADC), an organization he says is like USA in the States, although not a union. “We have a contract that our members, who are sound, lighting, set, and costume designers, find useful when working with regional and independent theatres. I like to help nurture the association.”
Once the Ballet season's deadlines for lighting are set, Dennis looks for holes where his freelance projects will fit. “It is important for a designer not to get lost in a full-time position. There is often the misconception that I am not available or I am too expensive because I am with the National Ballet of Canada,” he says.
“When working with guest designers, I facilitate things for them and take care of the nitty-gritty part of the job, so they are free to just design,” Dennis explains. “I enjoy working with other designers, as it gives me the opportunity to see other people's work and keeps me on my toes.”
Last year, this was not the case, as Dennis lit the entire season, including Kudelka's new full-length Cinderella, with art deco sets by David Boechler. “Cinderella arrives at the ball in a flying pumpkin rather than a coach,” notes Dennis. To accent the pumpkin as it flies onstage, he lit the interior with MR16s with R16 (light amber) and the exterior with ETC Source Fours® on offstage booms with R21 (golden amber).
Dennis also designed Monument, a new piece by a hot Canadian choreographer, Matjash Mrozedski, whose work is both classical and contemporary. “The piece takes place in an abandoned theatre, and it is very dark in the beginning,” says Dennis. “The lead ballerina enters the space and turns on a ghost light on the stage. She pans it around like a searchlight, and you get a feeling of the space. It gets brighter, as if natural light was emanating through the cracked walls.”
To accent the piece, Dennis worked to create a sense of shadow, using soft pastel colors, rather than saturated tones, and textures on the walls. “It is not a story ballet,” he says, “but a personal journey of discovery. The lighting needs to be sensitive to the needs of the ballet. It is heavily lit from the side to help cut and shape the dancers in the space.”
Even though the Ballet lives at The Hummingbird Center, it is treated as a touring company, and as a result, the company travels with its own lighting rig. This includes a Strand 520 console, Strand CD80 dimmers, and a fixture inventory of primarily ETC Source Fours with Wybron scrollers.
“We have not yet used automated lighting,” Dennis points out. “We have talked about it, but since we are a rep company where things are constantly changing, there are issues about time and programming. I would look at moving lights if a new ballet called for it, but a piece might not come back for a few years.”
While interested in new lighting technology, Dennis is also somewhat cautious. “I want it if I think it's the right tool or good for an effect, not just because it's fancy,” he says. “I want the technology to support what I want to do, yet I want to know about new technology so I know what it does when I need it to achieve what I'm trying to do. Our budgets don't allow for a lot of new technology, and sometimes, I have to come up with my own solutions,” he says, describing his own combination of Source Four, scroller, I-Cue mirror, and gobo rotator for special effects.
On the other hand, when it comes to design software and paperwork, he's rather cutting-edge, using Lightwright 4 and Excel, which he finds he can manipulate to create his own focus charts and boom color charts. “I can customize Excel to how we work at the National Ballet,” he notes. He also used Vectorworks Spotlight 11 for his personal design work and likes the fact that it is compatible with Lightwright.
In 2006, The National Ballet of Canada will move into a new venue, the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, a facility that will be shared with the Canadian Opera Company. Perhaps that will give Dennis the opportunity to segue into new lighting options. “I am working with Mat Mrozedski on a new ballet that will premiere in the spring of 2006,” he says. “I started to broach the subject of projection through light, and we are in the talking stages right now. I think projection can add a whole new look to the world of dance. At the end of the day, the technology needs to support the work: the only limitation with any technology is your imagination.”