In November 1986, lighting designer Mark W. Stanley embarked on what has become a long-term career as resident lighting designer for New York City Ballet (Peter Martins, artistic director). The ballet is based at Lincoln Center's New York State Theatre, where Stanley had worked for the prior six years with New York City Opera, so he more than knew his way around backstage and the in-house lighting system. He now splits his career almost 50% at the Ballet and 50% on freelance lighting projects, mostly for dance, and occasionally opera and theatre. He is also teaching lighting at Boston University this year. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux pushes aside the tutus and toe-shoes to see what goes on backstage at the ballet.
ELG: Can you describe the rep plot at NY City Ballet?
MWS: The NYCB rep plot has approximately 850 units. It is really conceived in two parts. The first part is what I call my “Balanchine washes” which are essentially L161, a version of lavender, and open white from every possible angle. These washes cover the entire stage from front, high side, back, and down. The idea is to provide the kind of light that was designed for the Balanchine rep in the years before I took over. Because of the New York State Theatre system, these are all run through 10kW dimmers and are broken up into smaller groups in a patch panel per ballet, as needed. The sidelight is from approximately 18' to 28' high. From 18' down are the units that provide the options for making each ballet more unique. They include all dimmer-per-circuit washes that can be re-soft patched per ballet. Six color scrollers per wing, plus additional specials, mean that we can change upwards of 200 colors, as well as focus all during intermission. These positions give me the variety and versatility necessary to light 40 to 50 ballets in an eight or nine-week season. This, plus specials, cyc lighting, four front spots, and four bridge spots are the real workhorses of the plot.
ELG: Did you establish this plot, and does it vary from year to year — if so, how and how much?
MWS: I designed this plot in 1988 for the American Music Festival when we produced 25 world premieres in five weeks. I had been with the company a little more than a year and had been basically using the plot I inherited from Ron Bates who had modified Jean Rosenthal's original plot. They were still using Fresnels as side light. I knew that I needed to rework the basic plot from the ground up to accommodate the needs I had as a designer and also be true to the work that was done before me, so I attempted to design a plot with maximum flexibility but that would maintain the essence of the previous designs. Since 1988, there have been minor changes, mostly adding more dimmers, ETC Source Fours®, and scrollers, but the basic concepts of the plot have remained the same.
ELG: How much freedom do outside designers have in adding specials or refocusing fixtures?
MWS: I design about 95% of the ballets for the company. Since I know the plot inside and out, there are many things that I can manipulate that are not as obvious to a guest designer. My associate, Penny Beasley, and I work very closely with guest designers to ensure that they get what they want. Adding equipment is hard because our rep is so large, and many line sets are devoted to scenery. However, we have found many unique ways to achieve what guests and I have wanted. The bottom line is that every ballet must be able to change over in a 20-minute intermission. We don't have fixed programs like many companies, so each ballet must be able to be focused and restored within that intermission. Sometimes, that means that guests can't always get exactly what they want, but we can usually find a solution that gets close.
ELG: How do you plan for such a large season — like last spring with 65 different ballets in rep?
MWS: Since most of the ballets already had existing designs, it was really a matter of logistics. We had to look at every program and every week to make sure that specials and modifications to the rep plot didn't overlap. Penny and I had to figure out sometimes how to fit three lights where there used to be two, how to refocus or re-plug differently between ballets, and how to ensure that the intermissions and pauses weren't too long. It was a real jigsaw puzzle. Additionally, we had three premieres, and we needed to accommodate new units and colors from those designs as the season went along. And, of course, during the prep period, we didn't know exactly what those would be.
ELG: Please talk a little about the four premieres you lit last spring.
MWS: Each was very unique. Eros Piano was choreographed by Peter Martins, who likes lighting that sets a mood but does not comment too heavily on the story or pull the audience away from the choreography. This is the next step in the Balanchine approach: he liked design that was very clean and didn't tip the feelings for the piece. Peter also has a very clean aesthetic yet likes an environment in which the dance can exist. In Eros Piano, there are three distinct worlds and a clear definition of space for the dancers who begin in three planes that combine as one as the dance progressed. The blue-green color palette in the light (R69, R72, Lee 161, Lee 165) is based on the turquoise and cyan in the costumes.
Shambards is the new Christopher Wheeldon piece that has an abstract backdrop with a vague hint of a forest that helps create a mood. Christopher is different from Peter in that he wants lighting that is bolder and comments on the choreography with drama and texture. The backdrop was painted at Joe Forbes' Scenic Arts Studio, and the scene painter came and saw how we were doing the lighting as the drop was translucent. We wanted to reflect the feeling of tension in the music.
In Chichester Psalms, set to music by Leonard Bernstein, Peter Martins wanted to highlight the religious ritual and pageantry, similar to Bernstein's Mass. There is a chorus of 70 on stage, and I had to light them as a backdrop. There is strong angular lighting that is very directional with beams of light shooting up behind the chorus. The lighting was tricky, as the chorus blocked a lot of the side light, and I had to create a mini-plot within my light plot, using 5kW Fresnels to light the dance area with strong, directional light. I also added very narrow PAR64s to add backlight onto the stage. There is an overall religious symbolic feeling.
Musagete, by Boris Eifman, is almost the antithesis of Balanchine. It is almost a story ballet with a central figure based on Balanchine and his relationship to his art and to three muses, based on three dancers with whom he had relationships. Boris is almost melodramatic in his storytelling. I had gone to St. Petersburg in Russia to work with him for a week on the lighting. The looks are based on the technical limitations of the Russian system. There is not as much variety there, and it looks more as if the piece were produced in Russia, although I added extra layers and textures once we were back at City Ballet, primarily to help the audience understand what was a flashback, what was imaginary or a dream state, and what was storytelling. There is a very different palette for each of those moments, and each is very moody and very selective. I used additional equipment to make it look more like what Boris was used to seeing in Russia, with single-dimmer PAR cans and a lot of very specific sources, although we have a lot of Source Fours where they would have used PAR cans in Russia.
ELG: How do you maintain so many ballets in terms of keeping the lighting “fresh”?
MWS: There are really two things I do. First, the plot needs to be meticulously maintained. Penny and the crew do a fantastic job keeping colors fresh and the focus exact. We spend four to six hours a week in plot maintenance and replace burned color on a daily or weekly basis. Our paperwork is extremely accurate, and we benefit from having our own theatre, mostly the same crew and staff season after season. Either Penny or I will watch the first, and sometimes the second and third performances, of every ballet to make sure that the design is correct. As far as work done by guest designers, it is as accurate now as it was when first designed or touched up by the designer.
For the Balanchine rep and my own work, it's also important to keep looking at these ballets through different eyes. Peter Martins and I spend a lot of time talking about whether or not some things need to be changed. I think it was Gil Wechsler, longtime designer at the Met who said, “The great thing about repertory is that you get to rework a piece when it comes back. The bad thing is that all your mistakes come back to haunt you.” At least with my original designs for the company, I am always evaluating what might improve something I did in the past.
ELG: How do you keep yourself “fresh” after all these years with the company?
MWS: I maintain a healthy freelance career. It is the constant back and forth that allows me to bring back a new energy to each season. It's also the programming that Peter Martins plans. We've done as many as 13 new works in four weeks. No two seasons are the same, and it really keeps it interesting.
For myself, I try to approach each ballet as if it were the first one I've ever designed on this plot. I have done over 150 new ballets on this plot, and it would be easy to fall into the same patterns of color and angle that I've used before. By looking at the essence of each ballet and deciding what it is that I can do to support the choreography in a visual way, I try to find the most direct set of visual symbols to create the design. The fact that I've gotten to work with so many different choreographers over the years also keeps it fresh.
ELG: How has the technology you use at the Ballet changed over the years? Is there new technology you wish you had or plan to add or have just added?
MWS: New dimmers, Source Fours, and scrollers are the main things that we've added over the years. For the Susan Stroman ballet, Double Feature, we had an entire moving light rig, which was a first for the ballet. Our schedule is incredibly demanding, and while a good argument can be made for moving lights, we've never been able to justify the initial expense or time commitment. Paul Sonneleitner, who programmed the show, did an amazing job under a difficult schedule. I could see us moving that way in the future, but we will need to do it at the right time.
ELG: Do you use paperwork software? If so, what?
MWS: The rep paperwork is on Vectorworks and File Maker Pro. The individual ballet paperwork is in a database called Fourth Dimension.
ELG: How large is your staff, and how do they function both in and out of “season?”
MWS: We have a full-time production stage manager and, seasonally, two stage managers, one lighting associate, one tech assistant, one Gilbert Hemsley Lighting Intern, and me. Everyone does a bit of everything with the stage manager — focusing, calling follow spots, and helping maintain the paperwork. Because every night is a different combination of ballets, it requires a great team effort to keep it all straight. We have a three-week prep period before each season to get everything ready.
ELG: What are your largest challenges in lighting dancers?
MWS: I think the biggest challenge is to create a unique environment for each ballet that gives the choreography and dancers a place to live. It has to support them in time and space and dimension. The stage is 40'×50' with trim heights at 38' to 40'. It's a lot of space to manipulate. Each ballet is unique, and finding that specific lighting design that contributes something to the audience's experience of that ballet is a challenge.
Lighting the dancers has certain technical challenges, (i.e. angles that affect their ability to turn, light levels that make it difficult to jump or partner). But as performers, they are inspiring in their dedication and beauty. I've often gone into a rehearsal with an idea in my head based on the music and changed it completely when I've seen how the dancer interprets that music. The challenge is to capture a part of that passion in my design and help bring it to a higher experience for the audience.
Performance during the premiere of Shambards
ETC Obsession® I Console
200 Kliegl 10kw Dimmers
240 LMI 2.4K Dimmers
Wybron Coloram® II Scrollers
2 Strong Lighting Super Troupers 1600W Xenon
2 Zenith (homemade) 1600W Xenon Followspots
4 Pani 600W Bridge Spots
(to be replaced this season with four 750W ETC Source Fours®)
ETC Source Four luminaires
Altman T-3 Gound Row
City Theatrical Custom T-3 Ground Row