“It seems like it's big, but that there aren't many lights,” said Adam Gabel, a young designer who glanced at my plot sitting on the counter at Ever Ready Blue Print in New York. I replied that the fact that there weren't many units was the big thing for me. We've all designed shows with less equipment than we might like. But this drawing actually looks empty.
Aeros is a hybrid modern dance/gymnastics show created by Daniel Ezralow, David Parsons, Moses Pendleton, Luke Cresswell, and Steve McNicholas (see photo, p. 46). It was sent on tour through the US in January of 2003, performed in Montréal as part of the “Juste Pour Rire/Just For Laughs” comedy festival over the summer, and begins an international tour in January 2004. The cast are all members of the Romanian National Gymnastics Federation. From a production standpoint, the tour is partly bus-and-truck and partly repertory dance company, relying on local equipment and support.
A modern dance company (with a few notable exceptions, like Alvin Ailey) generally tours with little or no equipment and a technical staff of one or two. The local venue provides most or all lighting and audio equipment, dance floor, soft goods, etc. The company often has to adjust its work to fit the venue. This kind of touring can certainly be complex to plan and execute successfully but requires minimal capital spending and carries a much lower operating expense than a full bus-and-truck tour. Travel need not make geographic sense, since the entire show (people and equipment) can fly from venue to venue. Many of us have taken a side trip to Michigan between a date in Northern California and one in Oregon. Aeros carries an enormous sprung dance floor and bulky gymnastics equipment; there isn't much room for a lighting package on the truck. Planning for the show's lighting, therefore has always begun with the assumption that a good deal of equipment will be provided by each venue.
Spatially, Aeros resembles a touring modern dance show, with four wings, black drapes, a cyc, and lots of empty space. Conventional lighting is all provided by the venue. Aeros takes place on a 50' × 30' sprung gymnastics floor, which is much softer than the dance version we have all used. Over the wooden decking which sits on 3” springs — springs! — is about 3” of foam rubber, topped by a black vinyl dance floor. There is no moving a ladder on top of this surface. The overhead plot, therefore, consists of just two and a half backlight washes, two template washes, one special, 12 Martin Mac 500 spot fixtures and two High End Systems Studio Colors. The plot must be focused before the floor goes down. The show uses scrims and drops to divide the space, and there are aerial illusions. Thus there are many crucial shutter cuts. All of the tricky conventional focus is on the booms, the theory being that they don't really have to be complete until the spacing rehearsal at 6PM. In fact, everything, other than the moving lights, that is truly essential to the show is on the booms. Two Macs are also on the floor for aerial work and CYA purposes.
Dance lighting eats up equipment quickly, since any single visual idea — one system — generally uses at least eight units. The inventory of many road houses can be stretched pretty thin by a show that doesn't make much use of the FOH, which is often where all the best units are. Aeros, now in its third incarnation with as many designers, has always relied heavily on very specific lighting. Originally, there were no moving lights. Venues were expected to provide an equipment inventory and control system which would cover the many overhead specials and washes. Everything had to be focussed before installing the sprung floor. My job, made explicit by the show's producers, was to come up with a light plot that could realistically be expected to be duplicated night after night on a tour of one-nighters. Needless to say, the show's creators expected just as much specific lighting as they had seen before, and also expected the miracles that are supposed to follow automatically upon the decision to rent moving lights.
For the US tour last winter, nine Macs took the place of approximately 24 specials and one 15-unit wash. I specified templates to replace the factory defaults, added the (rare) variable frost option in place of the effects prism, and used the wide angle (23Þ) lens. A “special” in dance is usually a down pool perhaps 9' in diameter, which, if you think about it, is bigger than what one often uses in either theatre or music. It can be tricky to get moving lights to fulfill this purpose, given their narrow beams. The wide lenses, combined with higher than normal trim heights, have been indispensable. Of course it would have been great to have a few wash fixtures, but truck space dictated that we keep the number of moving lights below 12, so 11 spot fixtures it was. Mac 500s might not have been my first choice, but I have found them to be bright enough, quiet, and precise.
In the current incarnation, the addition of a few more moving lights means that the overhead layout is a 4 × 3 grid, which is much more versatile than the previous version while still able to act as all the required specials. The ability to make a full-stage crosslight wash meant that another conventional system could be cut. It turns out that the factory-default effects prism is much more useful than the variable frost option, so the rig is now a little less customized than before. The addition of two color-mixing wash fixtures meant a more polished look to some parts of the show, and helped cover color changes in the Mac 500s, which use only a color wheel.
To make up for thinner-than-normal sidelight, I used Wybron CXI scrollers on the booms. These 14 scroller units actually drive the show more than anything else, and conceptually replace about 32 units worth of sidelight. I decided to keep all scrollers on the booms to help keep the overhead rig simple. The CXIs' ability to fade between colors has made them far more useful than regular scrollers would have been, for the simple reason that there are not enough units in the plot to accomplish the crossfade-to-something-else-change-color-and-come-back-up routine that characterizes using scrollers much of the time. I not only had to allow live scrolls, but to exploit them in as part of the shows' aesthetic. What follows is a bit of a love letter.
WORKING WITH THE CXI
The CXI scrollers use two gelstrings. One runs from full magenta, through clear, to full yellow, the other from full magenta, through clear, to full cyan. There is no need to have custom gelstrings built, which is much appreciated by producers. The scrollers can be set to simply emulate stock colors (index mode), which is useful if one is in a hurry and doesn't want to think about mixing. Their real power is in color mixing and fading. Wybron provides a wheel gadget that shows all the possible color combinations. The wheel, however, doesn't have anything to say about how a timed fade, from one set of colors to another, will look. In fact, in previous shows, I found the CXIs to be exactly the sort of cumbersome, all-things-to-all-people compromise solution that one might reasonably expect them to be. I have come to the conclusion that they are only disappointing when viewed as a less sophisticated tool than they really are. To make sense of the CXI's capabilities, I devised a chart representing the CXI's color space — overlaid with what are considered to be the stock color equivalents — which makes it easy to see how a fade will happen in time (see pg. 46). Moving the two gelstrings independently makes it fairly easy to shape the path of the fade so that, for example, the color does not pass through clear on its way from an amber to a blue. Simply delaying one string by a few counts will change the path dramatically. The fact that both strings have magenta actually is very useful, because the scroller can move within the double-magenta range without changing the output color very much. This is handy when trying to zip from a warm color to a cool without seeing a flare of white light mid-cue. Even without splitting the fade, the fact that one string probably has further to move than the other tends to feather away much of the staccato quality of live moves on a standard scroller.
It will surprise no one if I say that, in my opinion, CXI equivalents are not exactly the same as the stock colors they are meant to match. That having been said, I was quite impressed with the range of undertones that the mixed colors have. Put another way, some of the qualities of various colors do translate. The CXI equivalent of R80 (Primary Blue) has the green cast of R80, and the R83 (Medium Blue) is rather red and thick. The difference between these two colors and their effect on the rest of the palette can still be exploited, even though the endpoints of the color fade are not exactly the same as the stock colors themselves. Since addition of moving lights tends to obliterate the 3,200ÞK tungsten white point anyway, it is useful to be able to tweak colors a bit to resonate with the moving light sources. In practice, this often meant skewing colors a little more cyan in the case of medium blues, and a little less yellow in the case of ambers.
We first teched the show at UC Berkeley using a house ETC Obsession to control conventionals with moving lights and scrollers controlled by a High End Systems Wholehog II. The show would tour with the Wholehog alone. I wanted to use the Obsession for as long as possible in tech because it is so efficient when working with conventional units. It was my plan to transfer conventional cue information from the Obsession to the Hog late in the week of tech — by having the electricians spend a morning and part of an afternoon reading and typing cues. This did not seem like a good idea to the crew. When moving-light programmer Matthias Hinrichs told me the Hog could read DMX levels from the Obsession while preserving the soft patch (i.e. keeping the same channel numbers) and manually enter only timing information, I naturally assumed he was insane. However, the process worked well and having two boards, and two programmers, for the bulk of the tech process was well worth the few hours it took to move cues into the road board. Without sacrificing anything in tech, we were able to do away with the idea of having a second board linked by MIDI just to control the conventional units on the road.
We have come up with a pretty good model for touring a production that is bigger than a modern dance evening but smaller than a full-fledged road show. Although the local venue must accommodate a day of prehang, it takes a smaller crew to load in the show. From the producer's perspective, there is no need to pay to carry equipment that any decent roadhouse can provide. What the show does carry is fairly off-the-shelf, and the equipment is common enough to be easy to find worldwide. The show does not require quite as large a touring staff to be able to ensure a visually consistent evening. By sharing responsibility both the producer and local presenter save on lighting costs, which of course means that I have more to work with as the show continues to develop.
Burke Wilmore designs lighting for modern dance, musicals, and the occasional straight play or event. He lives in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org