For two nights in early September, Radio City Music Hall was transformed into a fiesta as the Gipsy Kings came to New York. From the front-row orchestra seats to the farthest rows in the top balconies, the multicultural audiences spent most of the shows on their feet, dancing in the aisles. From the back of the hall, LD Alexandre Parra lit the proceedings with a matching show of exuberance.
Even in such an imposing venue as Radio City, Parra's lighting design stood out as the curtain rose. The five lighting towers, loaded with High End Systems Cyberlights(R), Studio Color(R) automated luminaires, and PAR cans, formed a half circle around the band. "The stage manager, my friend, said he was a little afraid that my design this time was too technical--that there was too much aluminum for gypsies," Parra says. "But the gypsies live near the highways, and this design reflects that."
Parra says he has wanted to create a dramatically different design for some time now. "Three years ago I decided I didn't want to use the same box truss above them," Parra explains. "It's always a square--one year you use automatic lights, one year you don't, or you use another kind, but it's still a square at the top. One year I tilted the rig so it was more like a diamond, and one year I cut the square apart. So I like this design very much because it's quite a change."
Yet as much as he wanted a change, the LD took his time about implementing it for the Gipsy Kings. "A good idea unfolds after a period of time, it does not come to me spontaneously," Parra says. "When Pope John Paul II came to France two years ago is when the notion first came to me. I was working in religious theatre and the director asked me to light a 24x34m [79'x112'] area. It was a plain, flat area--a field where potatoes were grown. I designed my own scenario for the stage and physically marked the area with a stick. For that show, I got the idea of transforming the towers that supported the structure into lighting trusses.
"Since then, I have tried to come up with better ways for it to work--so they wouldn't have too much weight from the overhead lights," Parra continues. "Last year as I was going around a ring highway in Paris, I passed by a football stadium where the lights stick out from the top on towers. So I designed these towers in a similar style--to have the lights from those angles provided a lot of possibilities. Basically, I work with seven soloists, so I need to provide them all with dramatic light and that can sometimes be difficult. When there is a guitar solo, I have the one light come down from the trussing, to make it more intimate. The lighting should always convey the meaning of the show."
For the show at Radio City, Parra used a variety of backdrops, including a New York City skyline, a star curtain, and a white cyc, all from Radio City's stock. "I saw them hanging there and I asked if we could use them," Parra says. "I try to use anything I can at every theatre we go to. I feel like I am a painter of the air because the lighting is like painting. On a tour, I change my lighting focus very often because each place is a different canvas. I will change it all my life. It is more work, but it's important. I'm always searching for ideas--and I find them everywhere."
Over the years, the band members have become more involved with the show's design--at the LD's behest. "They have started to appreciate the lights; they are gypsies, so they are like children," Parra laughs. "Once you point it out to them, then they become interested. That's been very helpful because when I design the lighting I want to know what each song means in the minds of the Gipsies. I try to make the lights express what they are expressing from the stage. I respect them a lot because they are one of the last races that still keeps up their history through oral tradition, instead of just writing it down.
"They have an innocence about them because they stay together in one group," Parra continues. "We keep losing certain qualities--for example, they are very family-oriented. If one of the group decides to leave, the whole group gets worried about them. That's why I want to get them involved in the whole picture. I feel the show can make more of an impact if they are involved in the design."
Dallas Backup served as the tour's main lighting contractor on this last US tour. The LD has also had a good working relationship with High End Systems ever since programming director Tim Grivas taught him how to use the company's Intellabeams(R) years ago at the SIEL trade show in France. "I come from France and so I love the [Cameleon] Telescans--they are the workhorse of the moving lights, but they cost so much," Parra says. "The Intellabeam is also a workhorse, but the Cyberlight is much stronger and brighter. The Studio Colors are also very good and they never break down. I like the colors as well."
A native of Chile, and now a resident of Paris, Parra heard of the band 10 years ago, and says he had hoped that he would be able to work with them someday. "They live in the south of France, near Arles, and I live in Paris." Parra says. "I heard them on the radio, and I was very happy when finally I got to work with them. I did a video with them first. Sometimes work is just work, but I enjoy working with them so much that it is more than just work to me. They are very good singers and songwriters, and their talent has inspired me when I am lighting their shows. To me, light is like a presence. I have lived for lights since I was 18 years old. I traveled around the world with lights. Everything that I have is because one day I said, 'I will be a lighting designer.' "
Parra studied lighting at the university in Chile for two years, in the theatre department. "Everything there was really based on acting, but my direction was always on the light," Parra says. "I asked if it was possible to follow just light, but they said it was impossible. Then one teacher said to me, 'If you want to learn lights in this country, go work on a film. Don't wait until the union asks you. Just go try and make it.' So I became an electrician, but I still asked my teacher, Bernardo Truupen, for guidance as I progressed."
By age 21, Parra had decided to leave Chile. "Chile is a country full of mountains," Parra says. "It's like when you are in New York, in the middle of the buildings, it can feel like there are mountains everywhere. And the world for me was through the mountains."
Parra headed for Peru, where he started to work in theatre, with dance groups, and in architecture. After a year and a half, he then moved to Argentina, where he continued to learn more about lighting. "My big surprise was that two years after being in Argentina, I was at the top of lighting," Parra says. "People learned from me. It was very strange, because I started to work in rock and roll, which is what I always wanted to do. But I did about 10 different groups in rock and roll there and then I realized I had all the major groups; I was doing the lighting for all of them."
So Parra left Argentina with a band called Hilos, which later changed its name to La Jaiba, which means "crab." "Finally the group became just Jaibas--'Crabs,' " Parra says. "We decided to go to the United States, because our impression was that we would come back more famous. We played colleges and universities there, mainly. We were at the top of rock music in Argentina, but after three years, we finally realized that they weren't doing any real business away."
Parra says he discovered true professional lighting in France, where he met Jacques Rouveyrollis, who became his next mentor. "When I arrived in France and started to work in lighting, I did followspots, load-ins, drove the truck," Parra says. "My interest was in designing lighting, but for a Chilean to be in France and actually design, is very hard."
But Parra continued to work in lighting, and after helping out at a big party in a discotheque, he took over the club's lighting when the LD left for the night. "He had set it up on a continual chase, but he told me to try working with it if I wanted to," Parra says. "So I played all night long. I starting to work on it manually; but to me it was not working, it was a game. The manager of the company was there and he liked what I did, so the next day he hired me to do lighting."
Parra has now been working with the Gipsy Kings since 1992, and they tour every year, but are never out for more than a month at a time. "They are very family-oriented, so they will not stay away for long periods of time because they really need their family, their friends, their own life," Parra explains. "It's funny, because two months before I started with the Gipsy Kings, I had met their tour manager, and I said to my friend that I wanted to travel the world. And now I am! I consider myself lucky; I don't know if I'm a modern gypsy or a modern pirate. Most of the show business people are like this--we like to travel and work. But I am very critical of my work. It's hard for me to be happy after a concert, because it could always be better. Yet I still enjoy it every day."
Lighting designer/director Alexandre Parra
Set designer/production manager Gildas Hervouet
Production manager/US Robert "Sparky" Nielsen
Automated lighting programmer/crew chief Eric Wade
Lighting technicians John Bellar, Randy Smith, Michael Twilager
FOH Audio engineer Gilles Quentin
Monitor engineer Nicholas Judelewicz
Backline technicians Gilbert Correy, Robin Smagacz
Lighting supplier Dallas Backup
Audio supplier Clair Brothers Audio
Lighting equipment (16) High End Systems Studio Color automated luminaires (16) High End Systems Cyberlight automated luminaires (8) Thomas 8-lights (8) Wybron 8-light Color changers (30) Wybron Colorams (12) ETC Source Fours (2) Tomcat PAR-64 racks (2) High End Systems Nebula foggers (1) Celco Gold console (1) ETC Microvision console (1) Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console (2) ETC Sensor racks