NEW YORK CITY LANDMARKS INSPIRE TWO VERY DIFFERENT SITE-SPECIFIC WORKS
A character in a recent film declared that "talking about love is like dancing about architecture." If that's true, then site-specific performance is worth a thousand words. Earlier this year two different interactive works were created at New York City landmarks: Night Light, in which performers recreated historical photographs on their original street sites; and The Amber Room, which took place at a Gothic Revival-style synagogue.
Choreographer Ann Carlson and lighting designer Linnaea Tillett turned the streets of Chelsea into a performance venue to create Night Light, an installation that brought to life archival photographs taken throughout this historic New York City neighborhood. Produced by The Kitchen and Dancing in the Streets (two non-profit arts organizations), the evening was conceived as a guided tour for small groups of people who came upon the stationary tableaux as they walked through the neighborhood.
Tillett is the perfect LD for such an event. An architectural lighting designer with roots in the theatre, she has a strong interest in the visual quality of public spaces and the impact lighting can have in creating the nightscape of a city. "There were two main elements we were striving for," says Tillett. "The first was fidelity to the photographs in terms of costumes and staging. We wanted to get as close as we could, although some were more stylized than others."
The second element was the lighting of the tableaux. Tillett wanted to avoid the use of large lighting instruments and the look of a film set. "It is pretty straightforward to recreate the lighting in a photograph by looking at the shadows and the angles," she says. But her goal was to make the lighting as unobtrusive as possible. "I wanted it to be low-key, discreet, and hidden."
To do this, Tillett turned toward lightweight, portable equipment such as small Kino Flo fluorescent fixtures and Arri Pocket PARs used on stands. She worked with Available Light, a rental house in Long Island City, NY, to get the fixtures she needed. "They are a young company and were extremely helpful," Tillett points out, noting the need to be able to pack up the equipment and get in and out of the various sites quickly.
One of the other challenges was that all of the lighting equipment had to be battery operated since they were unable to plug into any existing electricity, and cable runs from The Kitchen, which is located in Chelsea, would have been impossible. "I went into this not knowing much about the use of batteries," admits Tillett. "I learned a lot, especially about how to time light to save the batteries." As a result, she was more interested in lightness, portability, and ease than in the equipment per se.
Other variables were the weather (due to rain during the performance week several of the tours were canceled) and the lack of technical rehearsal time. "We couldn't do the kind of rehearsals you could indoors," Tillett points out. To compensate, she and Carlson not only talked things through a great deal, but Tillett had her lighting students at the Parsons School of Design create model boxes with different options for the lighting. "We did just a few street tests to see how things might look."
One of the most dramatic of the tableaux was a group of men framed in the doorway of the General Theological Seminary on 22nd Street. Set back from the street, the building opens into beautiful gardens, which provided distance between the "image" and the viewers. The original photograph, staged for a seminary brochure in 1955, was shot in broad daylight, so Tillett used banks of Kino Flos to create the look of the midday sun, albeit at night. This was also one of the spots where she was able to most effectively hide the lighting instruments.
Another outstanding image, "10th Avenue Cowboys," (1929, photographer unknown) is of two horses with riders, from when city ordinances required horse escorts to preceed the Hudson Railroad line up Tenth Avenue. To light the recreation of this shot, lights were placed 30' behind the horses on lightweight poles. The effect here was more mysterious or romantic, with an old-fashioned sepia look. "We only had the horses once to rehearse," says Tillett, who was unsure how they would behave each evening.
An unsettling photograph entitled "Thief Dressed as a Woman," (WeeGee, 1943) shows a man in a dress in the back of a paddy wagon. Tillett set the scene like a police bust with a white police beacon providing movement in the light. "All of the light we used was white," she says, noting that the diffusion and color temperatures varied. "Some were softer, while some had sharper angles."
Other images ranged from women at a fruit stand on Seventh Avenue (from the Byron Collection, 1903), with an ellipsoidal placed on top of a truck to get the correct angle and Pocket PARs on short stands to exaggerate the shadows, to a photograph by Alice Austin taken in 1895 of a women selling papers near a newsstand. "We had the most rehearsal with this one, and worked hard to get the right quality of light," Tillett says. "It is unusual to see a photograph of working-class women of that era, and we were able to recreate it almost in the exact site it was taken on 23rd Street."
Sets and costumes for the tableaux were created by Larue Designs. "The costumes were exquisite," notes Tillett, who was impressed by the workmanship and detail. "They were so inventive and detail-oriented. The costumes had to work from many vantage points, and people could walk up and touch them."
In creating the lighting for Night Light, Tillett experimented with some ideas that didn't pan out. At one point, she scanned the photographs into the computer and projected them onto the dancers. "This was an interesting concept, as the audience would have walked through the images, but the projector had to be front and center and it detracted from the effect," she says.
She also experimented with adding street lighting along the route but found it was more effective to concentrate on the tableaux themselves. There were also various construction projects that continually changed the look of the streets. "It was like the opposite of traditional theatre," Tillett says. "We couldn't control the environment or the angle at which the tableaux were seen. This put interesting demands on us."
All of the groups touring on a given evening gathered at The Kitchen for refreshments. LD Tony Giovanetti created the mood lighting in the second floor space where live video images by Mary Ellen Strom featuring the audience sitting at round cafe tables added an almost surreal element to the scene. Waiters and waitresses, dressed in black, did a little performance art of their own and the dancers, still in costume, mingled with the crowd.
"I feel as if I have a whole different relationship with Chelsea now," concludes Tillett. "Ann [Carlson] allowed people to see things in a new way. It certainly changed the way I saw things."
Another site-specific performance brought the old and new worlds together when New York City's oldest surviving synagogue structure served as the site for Zvi Gotheiner & Dancers' The Amber Room, a series of dances exploring the creation and ownership of art. Now known as the Angel Orensanz Foundation Center, the edifice was built in the mid-19th century in Gothic Revival style.
Gotheiner felt the building's faded elegance was an architectural metaphor for his choreographic ideas, and wanted both dancers and audience to explore the mysterious space. The evening-length dance work was inspired by the story of the Amber Room, a chamber in a Russian palace with elaborate wall panels of carved and inlaid amber: The priceless panels and other art treasures were stolen by the Nazis during WWII and never recovered.
Lighting for The Amber Room was by designer Mark London and associate Dale Knoth. "Zvi wanted to do a piece with a sense of history to it," London says. "He felt strongly that he wanted to do a site-specific piece, that the space meant something to him personally. We walked through the space together, and he wanted to use the entire building, the basement as well as the sanctuary. We met with the composer in the space, just to walk through and share ideas. I tried to keep [the design concept] very loose as long as possible, because I know that Zvi doesn't like to have the piece set too far in advance, it gels in the studio very late. We decided to have a very simple approach, to let the dancers manipulate the lights in the basement.
"Given that Zvi didn't really decide how to use that space until dress rehearsal," London continues, "there was no way for us to do any sort of detailed planning down there, it was about getting the space lit, and then sitting down there together during the dress and creating the looks as he decided how he was going to use the space. He was severely hampered by not being able to afford rehearsal time in the space. I had to have a lighting scheme that was very simple, very flexible, and able to adapt to whatever he wanted to do down there."
"The first section of the piece, in the basement, Zvi said was going to feel improvisational and much like a `happening,' " explains Knoth, "and we moved the audience around, so they were right there in front of the dancers, and you could almost touch them. After talking to Zvi and Mark, we determined that it was all about exposing the space, it was very raw, whereas part two, the section upstairs, was more formal."
All the lighting used in the basement was no-color tungsten, a variety of Mini-10s with barndoors, two rolling stands with Source Four PARs, and some PAR-56s. Short solos, duets, and trios were performed in small areas formed by structural details such as columns, railings, and archways. "Those were developed in those walk-throughs that Zvi and I had," says London. One solo was a long series of movements undulating against a column that slowly wound its way back to the beginning and was repeated from a different angle. The woman was lit with one fresnel from a drastic side angle, almost a backlight. "With one source of light coming from one angle, it's extremely dramatic," agrees Knoth. "That was also fun for Zvi and Mark and I as well because, with the rolling stand, we moved the light around the column for probably 10 minutes saying maybe over here, maybe we should make it higher or lower on the stand."
The basement portion of The Amber Room brought the separate worlds of audience and performers into contact. The spartan lighting threw the dancers into stark relief against the bare stone walls and dark wood floor. Each short dance was lit with just two or three instruments, usually from sharp angles, accentuating the mysterious feeling of the architecture.
A trio of women danced around a trio of slender white columns, like caryatids come to life. "That was two Source Four floor mounts, they were on at 50% or 60%, no color, done," says Knoth. "We were very economical, and Zvi has a very strong say when we're cueing. He likes to sit with you and say let's try this, let's try that, or what do you want to do, and you show him and he will search with it. He doesn't tell you exactly which lights to bring up, but he speaks in metaphor."
The second half of the performance took place upstairs in the sanctuary, with a more formal configuration of seated audience and performers up front on a stage. "For me," says Knoth, "it related to the idea of the Amber Room in that it seemed to me that somehow the corps de ballet was taken from somewhere and plopped in this space, and it became like a purgatory for them, they were sort of kidnapped and put in this space, and they were performing this piece in perpetuity. I took my cues from the architecture; it's wonderful in that it's very beautiful but it's also decrepit."
The neo-Gothic structure is also gothic in the sense that it is haunting and somewhat crumbling. "It's very much like how Zvi choreographs," continues Knoth. "His work is always, on the surface, very dynamic and jovial, but underneath, thematically, it is extremely dark, and for me the room was a wonderful metaphor for Zvi's work."
"We felt that there's no escaping the character of that room," says London, "but it wasn't going to be a piece about architectural lighting. He made a very conscious decision not to dance on the altar, which is a natural stage in any house of worship, so that informed me about how he was thinking about the room - he wasn't trying to turn a synagogue into a theatre, he was dancing in the middle celebrating the room in its entirety." The basic plot consisted of mostly overhead instruments, either no color or in pale pink, with uplights on columns and altar details.
"Those massive architectural tie rods that run across the top are solid metal, and those are the hanging positions," London explains. "We brought in some floor mounts and a couple of boom stands up in the gallery, but we kept it as simple as possible. It wasn't about trying to turn that space into something it isn't. There wasn't a need to introduce a lot of elements into the lighting, because the visuals spoke for themselves. We lit the ceiling, which had this beautiful faded aqua color, and we put a similar color up on it, and had some highlights on the architecture from below. It became a balancing act, to keep the visual focus on the dancers, and then allow the architecture come into play when the music and the dancing called for it, as the piece expanded and contracted choreographically."
Knoth elaborates, "The progression or the goal of that section, in light, was to make the room appear beautiful and magnificent, and then take it away, then bring it back, then take it away. Again, that's sort of the idea of purgatory. I usually take my cues from the space, what can I do to carve out volumes inside it and manipulate light so as to make the dancers look beautiful and make the space look beautiful. The dancers were set inside the space, whereas downstairs they were part of the space, so it was raw versus formal. In the end it became all about just white light, intensity, and angle versus color or saturation."
London has been designing for Zvi Gotheiner & Dancers for 15 years, and Knoth has assisted him for the past few years, but for this project Knoth took on more responsibility, as London was leaving a seven-year tenure at BAM for a position at Lighting Design Group as director of production operations. "I had this job change just before we loaded in," London says, "and Dale had assisted me on Zvi the previous two seasons, so he knew the company, and I felt that I needed him to step up, and instead of being an assistant, really be an associate designer. I left the majority of the light plot to him to figure out how to make the ideas work in the space, the placement and positions in the basement were almost entirely his. I did the initial cueing and he took it through opening." Knoth adds, "Mark is very casual and laid-back and it's a great working relationship, but because he was changing jobs he wanted me to interface with Zvi on a conceptual level and really design the piece as opposed to just focusing it or taking care of details."
"It was an exciting project," London concludes. "It's always a stretch, technically and artistically: It's a great risk for a great reward. It's good to challenge yourself this way, it can get too comfortable working in [well-equipped theatres]. The unfortunate part is that it became more of a budget exercise as opposed to an artistic one, and that's unfortunate because it's the smaller companies that are willing to take those risks."