As Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet celebrates its 10th anniversary—including its debut in the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 11-14—lighting designer Jim French marks his ninth season with the company. Working with its new artistic director, Alexandra Damiani, the company tours worldwide with a selection of works by various choreographers in its repertory.
“At first, it was all about doing things in our space or site-specific installations,” explains French. “Over the past five years Cedar Lake became more of a touring company, and are very big especially in Europe… we performed in 16 venues in 2010, and the company really exploded. There has always been a New York season—the last time was at The Joyce.”
French notes that in terms of the lighting, the choreographers who create pieces for Cedar Lake are “visually empowered, and informed by William Forsythe,” a choreographer who works in all the design elements in his work. At BAM, the company will perform five pieces, and French has lit four of those.
“Grace Engine is highly theatrical, with a super heightened sense of theatricality,” notes French. “It is all about trains, with the juxtaposition of a powerful engine that moves but is stuck on its rails.” French’s lighting evokes a train station with light coming through the skylights, like a glass roof train station and a row of fluorescent lights, like station platform lights, and train headlights coming right at the audience.
“Sixteen dancers are on stage in muted blue suits,” adds French. “There is a beautiful moment when they all take off their jackets and are seen in silhouette. The choreography by Crystal Pite takes movement from everyday gestures and activities that we recognize.”
Necessity, Again is the second piece that Norwegian choreographer Jo Strømgren has set on the company, mixing intellectualism & a reaction to music, or as French describes it “two modes of being.” A clothesline runs across the back of the stage with paper attached to it, and the dancers keep bringing more. French twists the light, adding a little green for a comically sad atmosphere on stage, and a pinker than pink look to create a comic and absurd effect with the light. “It’s warmer than warm, bluer than blue, as the paper keeps accumulating on stage until anarchy happens, and they jump rope with the clothesline. “It’s always the final piece on the program,” notes French, who shares the lighting credit with the choreographer.
Tuplet is lit by Amith A. Chandrashaker and choreographed by Alexander Ekman as “an ode to rhythm,” says French, who calls the piece a “MIDI extravaganza, gear geeks always want to know how we made this happen.” Each of six dancers on stage stand in a personal square of light from directly above onto a square of white dance floor. “The piece is very rhythmic and pulses, as lights on the squares pop on and off,” French explains. The lights in this case are ETC Source Fours with Lee 201, while the sound track is through QLab and linked to the company’s own ETC Ion console via MIDI.
“There are 120 cues in a 4.5 minute section,” French points out. “It is black and white and staccato in a seamless joining of light and music and dance, with humor. It could not be called by a human, so the MIDI is essential.”
Composer, Designer, Choreographer
Violet Kid is piece by Hofesh Shechter, a choreographer who is also composer, lighting designer, and costume designer. “He choreographs the entire experience,” says French. “We collaborated on the entire design. The lighting is very specific to the piece—very dark. Hofesh loves darkness, and the architecture of light on as big and black a stage space as possible, with lots of haze and a foreboding atmosphere. There are a lot of bump cues in the lighting, tied with MIDI to the music.”
In the evening-length piece, Orbo Novo, for sets of enormous steel lattice-work walls designed by Alexander Dodge were inspired by Jill Volpe Taylor’s talk about having a stroke. “The dancers move the walls, carve space and create obstacles with them. French describes his lighting as having “a square vocabulary that emphasize the walls to compositions that deemphasize them and highlight the space around them. There is a constant back and forth in this piece.”
French’s goal is “for every piece to be absolutely unique in terms of the lighting,” he says. “We don’t want people to say there is a single Cedar Lake style. We take a lot of pride in putting on the same version of the show every night, in every venue, we push very hard not to compromise. I like an edginess… we have lighting that breaks out of standard approaches to dance. Cedar Lake is where I get to go to do edgy work and come up with crazy ideas. Compared to everyplace else that I work, this is a risk-taking environment, and a willingness to take risks, means not all works are successful, some are revelations but there is also a scrap pile of works that were performed only once. But we are always out there performing at our best.”