Clifton Taylor designed the lighting for A Dancer’s Dream: Two Works by Stravinsky (The Fairy’s Kissand Petrushka), an interesting production by the New York Philharmonic and Giants Are Small, starring New York City Ballet principal ballerina Sara Mearns, with choreography by Karole Armitage. The dancers performed in front of the orchestra, with puppets, projections, and cameramen on stage, creating a whimsical Russian-style evening, in which the orchestra and even conductor Alan Gilbert wore costumes at various moments. Cleverly conceived with miniatures props and live video, dancers stepping in and out of the scenery, and scenes with the puppets moving from the Swiss Alps to a Russian fair…. This Q&A with Clifton Taylor sheds light on A Dancer's Dream, which was seen at Avery Fisher Hall on June 27, 28 & 29, 2013:
What was the overall design brief for the lighting in terms of the production? Is it hard to light dancers in such a shallow space? Did you use primarily sidelight?
A Stravinsky orchestra for these pieces is over 60 people and they completely filled Avery Fisher Hall's stage! We had built a 16-foot extension in front of the space for the theatrical elements of the production—not a lot of space as you saw, especially for a star dancer like Sara Mearns who can easily fill the David H. Koch Theater's New York City Ballet stage. One challenge when doing theatrical productions with onstage orchestras is always that the stage light has to be very controlled so that it doesn't impact the player's ability to see their music or the conductor. That means that all the various angled light that we want for the production cannot intrude into the orchestra's space. Another challenge of this particular production was that there were Steadycam operators onstage along with the performers. The images from their cameras were projected over the playing space on a huge hi-def screen. So we had to find a balance between the light of the 'stage' space and the light on the orchestra for both the live audience and for the cameras doing image mag. And all these requirements happening while also trying to help tell the story of these two ballets! These events are really interesting to me because the story is so fragmented and, more than in other theater forms, everything happens in the viewer's imagination. The audience has to take a big leap and construct the theatrical event from all these different, and sometimes competing, elements.
Did you light the miniatures and how did you work with the film crew on that? What about lighting the orchestra itself especially for Petrushka?
As I mentioned, there were live cameras projecting the action of the dancers and puppeteers onstage. Each puppeteering moment had to be lit for the camera while taking into consideration the scene for the Lincoln Center audience. Mostly we worked very quickly and made lighting decisions during tech about the puppet lighting while looking at the projected images. The biggest challenge with the television aspect of the lighting was controlling the shadows from the cameramen in the stage lights. Normally in a film or television shoot, we sometimes spend hours getting each shot lit properly taking into consideration where the cameramen will be in relation to the lights. And for models this size, we can usually get the lights much closer to the objects being lit. In this case, because we were in the concert hall, we relied on lights that were sometimes 40 or 50 feet away from the objects! We were helped in a few cases by some roving onstage lights, which the puppeteers could place to light a particular object for the camera.
For Petrushka, we sent the cameramen into the orchestra for many shots of the musicians in Russian peasant costumes and little setups of comedic moments. In those cases we had special lights for each moment that couldn't impact the surrounding players. This was most challenging because of the schedule. We only had two full orchestra rehearsals with lighting and cameras and we certainly couldn't stop either of these to fix a light! Mostly we had stage managers running around spiking everything during the rehearsal so that we could go back afterwards and get the focus later (Thanks to the amazingly organized PSM Laine Goerner and her staff for getting us through it).
What did you add in terms of gear? The side lights (ladders?), moving lights? Festoons? If you brought in extra gear, who was the rental shop?
We brought everything in, as Avery Fisher is not set up with very much theatrical lighting capacity. Mike LoBue, the incredible production electrician, has done all of these events with us and he is a great collaborator and got us through a load-in and focus in one (long) day. We commandeered four house boxes and a few more seats further out in the balconies for lighting gear. I think we had something like 16 Philips Vari-Lite VL3500's, over 50 VL5B's and a dozen VL1k's and an additional 70 fixed lights and 40 CXI scrollers. PRG supplied all of the rental gear. Also we were able to use a bunch of the new Phillips PLC LED equipment, both the striplights and the cyc lights. Kara O'Grady from Philips Strand Lighting was able to lend us these pre-release luminaires and they were beautiful. Beautiful, bright colors and a very smooth dimming curve, we really loved them. The festoon lights were borrowed from the Washington Ballet where I just did a production based on Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" (Designed by Hugh Landwehr). At the Kennedy Center they set us in Pamplona, Spain, at Lincoln Center, they brought us to a Russian Village!
Colors? Ballyhoo? There a lot going on in Petrushka... did you use the in-house console, or bring one in.. which console was it, and who did the programming?
We brought in a grandMA and once again were able to get Paul Sonnleitner, the amazing programmer and theater artist, to come and program the show as he has done for our other productions for the orchestra.