New York City Ballet tackled an interesting challenge by presenting the world premieres of five new ballets with scenic elements (three with sculptures; two with painted drops) designed by Santiago Calatrava, one of the world’s leading modern architects, in a season based on the theme of “Architecture and Dance.” The new pieces also represent five leading contemporary choreographers: Melissa Barak, Mauro Bigonzetti, Peter Martins, Benjamin Millepied, and Christopher Wheeldon.
“Having sculpture on stage is a challenge in terms of logistics,” says New York City Ballet’s resident lighting designer, Mark Stanley, who lit all of the new pieces. “We have to make the sets work in repertory and the sculptures have to come and go at intermission in a very short amount of time.” Stanley also explains that the design process was unique: “It wasn’t like having conversations with a set designer who comes in with sketches. Calatrava designed the sets independently, in the abstract, not specifically for each ballet. We worked to unify them into each piece and respect his design. He was not involved in the tech process.”
In Luce Nascosta (Unseen Light), the new ballet by Mauro Bigonzetti, the Calatrava sculpture is a large, mobile hanging over the stage. At the top of the ballet, the sculpture is a single gold disk, glowing like the moon. As the ballet progresses, it expands via motors to a full 28’ in width, with four additional gold disks on either side.
Built of milky, translucent Plexiglas painted with metallic gold paint, the center “moon” is built like a light box, 8’ in diameter and lit from the interior using Brite Strip with clear, 24V, 10W incandescent festoon lamp in horizontal individual sockets parallel wired to flat power wire.
“The Brite Strip was brighter than any LED strip that fit in the limited 4” of depth,” explains Stanley. “This gave us more intensity and coverage, especially in the middle of the concave face of the disk which angles in toward the center.” The disks on either side are not light boxes but have very reflective painted surfaces: “At first I had lit them from extreme side angles, but from the side sections of the audience the lighting looked uneven,” says Stanley. “I refocused from straight on from the balcony rail with custom gobos in ETC Source Fours to mask the light as to not hit the central light box.”
There are a total of eight fixtures on the entire sculpture as it expands and contracts on a custom track and motor system built by Hudson Scenic. “The interesting challenge was chosing the speeds at which the sculpture opened and closed,” says Stanley, who echoed the shape of the disks in round pools of yellow light (R16) on stage from moving lights overhead, pulling from a rig of Philips Vari-Lite VL1000s and VL3500 spots and washes. He contrasted the pools of light with yellow squares, created using square gobos in 750W ETC Source Fours with City Theatrical spot yokes.
The dancers also seem to appear and disappear from the darkness upstage. “This is a trademark of the choreographer,” notes Stanley. The effect is achieved using a series of slit drapes upstage, which allow the dancers to move onto the stage without touching the fabric. Stanley also steps down the light to heighten the effect.
Peter Martin’s new ballet, Mirage, was in Stanley’s view, “spectacular, the most successful collaboration between the choreographer and the sculpture in terms of managing the two worlds.” The Calatrava sculpture in this case is a 3D, gold metallic frame with a series of stretched cords, almost like a harp. “It is a large circle that breaks in half, moves, and tilts toward the audience, traveling in space with the dancers moving under it,” Stanley points out.
To light this sculpture, the LD used an additional four VL3500 spots perched atop 10’ aluminum truss towers, with two towers in each of the side wings of the stage. “I need to light the sculpture as it came into view and track it as it moved,” notes Stanley, who used all white light until the last 30 seconds of the ballet, when he added multi-color overlapping patterns. “I needed the color from the high-powered moving lights,” he explains.
The first Calatrava collaboration of the season was Benjamin Millepied’s Why am I not where you are, with a large double arch—27’ tall by 44’ wide— with rows of reflective surgical tubing between the arches. Stanley morphed color slowly on the arch, using five Source Fours on either side in the wings for cross light with Wybron CXI color scrollers to slowly cross fade between colors. “The tubing shimmered unexpectedly when the dancers moved around it,” says Stanley. “I had to play with it and change the angle of the light.”
At the grand finale of the ballet, the arch tips to almost a 45° angle, at which time there is strong white backlight provided from VL3500 wash units on a pipe at the third wing upstage position (the house rig was augmented with additional moving lights for the plot this season). “It is very stark and harsh at the end,” notes Stanley.
“It was fun having something three-dimensional on stage to light in addition to the dancers,” says Stanley, who is busy getting ready for the Ballet’s upcoming summer season in Saratoga, NY. “I enjoyed creating a world with live, kinetic sculptures.”