As resident lighting designer at the New York City Ballet (NYCB) since 1986, you have lit and supervised the lighting for hundreds of ballets. What is the biggest challenge in this job?
In the beginning, it was learning the Balanchine repertory, its impact on the aesthetics of the company, and handling the daily demands of such a large repertory. It was a huge learning curve, coming into such an established tradition and, at the same time, trying to integrate new design ideas and perspectives. As I became more familiar with the needs of the company, my focus shifted to creating designs that brought a unique perspective to each ballet, all within the parameters of a 20-minute intermission changeover. As a true rotating rep company, every ballet had to be able to perform in any program order with any other ballet. That meant developing a lighting plot, paperwork system, and crew structure that would allow for the greatest flexibility. Now that I've designed nearly 200 ballets for the company, the challenge is to keep fresh, with both design ideas and the new technology that can expand those possibilities.
How do you design the rep plot each season and keep the ballets looking fresh and new? What units are the workhorses?
I created the current rep plot for the company in 1988, prior to the American Music Festival of 25 world premieres in five weeks. The idea was to have a plot that supported the existing rep but provided for the future demands of the next generation of choreography. The basic plot has remained intact since then with changes, such as the addition of scrollers, [ETC] Source Fours, and just this season, Vari-Lites. The real workhorses of the plot are the crew and the production staff, who bring an amazing amount of support, energy, and commitment to the design process. The equipment workhorses are the Source Four sidelight units from about 28' high on the booms/ladders down to the floor. These are where the Wybron Colorams and the dimmer-per-circuit part of the plot exist. We recolor and refocus almost every intermission — sometimes upwards of 50 to 70 sidelights — both manually and with scrollers. Keeping the company and designs fresh requires an enormous attention to detail and continual exposure to new ideas. I have been fortunate to have both a resident and freelance career. Each side feeds the other. Also, the fact that NYCB produces more new work than any other company in the world means that no two seasons have the same challenges.
They say that the annual production of The Nutcracker is the brightest ballet in the repertory. Is that true?
I've never measured the footcandles, but it's bright. In the repertory, I think Agon would win that award. It's almost the entire rep plot on at full. But Nutcracker Act 2 is up there. The scenery is all white, and it requires that much light to stay crisp and to carry the intensity of the dance to a large audience. One of the unique qualities of the NYCB lighting is how electric the air can become because of the enormous amount of sidelight in the plot. Nutcracker is one of the shows that benefits from this.
How do you decide what new technology to add to the rep plot?
It's threefold: what will give me the tools to create different and unique designs for all the new choreography without taking anything away from the existing repertory, all the while improving the logistics of how the production staff works during the day and the performance. There is a lot of technology out there that would be fun to play with that just isn't right for our situation.
What do you tell young designers just starting out?
See as much as you can. Talk to as many designers as you can. Go to museums and concerts and read the newspaper. My students at Boston University are tired of hearing me say it: “The broader the base, the higher the pyramid.” The lighting profession has changed so much in the last 20 years, and there is no one path to a design career. You need to cast a wide net.