Robert Wierzel Sculpts Light For Choreographer Bill T. Jones At Le Louvre
How many modern dancer/choreographers command the stage the way Bill T. Jones does? His powerful presence was seen last November, not on a traditional stage, but for a short run of just three performances in the sculpture galleries at Le Louvre in Paris, one of the world's most prestigious art museums. This unusual event was part of a new program at Le Louvre in which living artists curate interactive programs, in association with the annual Festival d'Automne, a contemporary performing arts festival that takes place in Paris each fall. The special guest for 2007 was French-based German artist, Anselm Kiefer, who is friends with Jones and invited him to create a piece for the museum.
The result is a 55-minute work entitled Walking The Line, performed in the space leading from Michelangelo's The Dying Slave, through a long gallery populated by classical Greek and Roman marble statues, to the foot of the staircase leading to the famous Winged Victory of Samothrace, with the audience sitting on the wide steps looking down into the galleries.
The historic sculpture collection created a dramatic environment as a showcase for Jones' sinewy body and for Tibetan singer, Yungchen Lhamo, and French percussionist, Florent Jodelet, who accompanied him. “Bill had worked with the singer before, and the acoustics are perfect in this great architecture,” says designer Robert Wierzel, lighting designer for the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. “Yungchen has a mesmerizing, transformative voice, and Florent added unique bells and interesting sounds that lingered in the space.
“We went to Paris last spring to check out a possible space,” Wierzel adds. “The first idea was to perform under I.M. Pei's glass pyramid, but it is a huge space that you can't really shape, and there wasn't any power that could be easily accessed,” he explains. “We also looked at a conference hall, but it was too small and too conventional. Bill wanted to involve the museum more.”
Eventually, it was the Denon wing, located to the right of the pyramid, that seduced Jones. “It is an amazing space, with three galleries that together measure more than 100 meters long,” notes Wierzel. Bjorn Amelan, a set designer and sculptor who frequently collaborates with Jones, added a Gerriets Vario dance floor in red, which punctuated the space like a ribbon of color cutting through the galleries. “Bill is like a living sculpture,” says Wierzel, whose challenges were to unify the three galleries for the performances and to work within the restricted conditions of a museum, and not just any museum.
“There was a small audience of 100 to 150 people, maximum,” continues Wierzel. “This was the first time Le Louvre did something like this, I was told.” That it was a first for the museum made some of the curators a little nervous for their centuries-old collections. “These sculpture galleries are usually lit by daylight, so there is very little artificial light available,” the LD notes. “I wanted to transform the space as we do in the theatre, discover how it would be revealed, and work with the limitations, not against them.”
One of the biggest challenges facing Wierzel was the fact that the lighting, once focused, could not remain in the gallery during the day when the museum was open to the public (the performances were Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during the week of November 20 to 24, 2007). “Everything had to be removed from inside the galleries,” says Wierzel. “They closed at 6pm, and the performance was at 8:30pm, so we had a two-and-a-half-hour window. It was much more like an installation than a theatre piece. That impacted the lighting in a major way.”
At first, Wierzel thought about using fluorescent fixtures on the floor in a sculptural manner, à la Dan Flavin, but opted for another idea. “In the Roman gallery, which is the longest one and the one closest to the seating area, there are big, beautiful arched windows that look out into a courtyard,” says Wierzel, who was allowed to leave any lighting instruments that were outside of the windows in place for the entire week. He opted for nine powerful 5kW ARRI Fresnels, one shining in through each window on a 30'-tall, ground-supported boom. “This idea bathed the marble and architecture in a beautiful, sensual, operatic quality of light and unified the space,” adds Wierzel.
A vestibule that serves as a transition to the galleries was a second space where the lighting could be left up, so Wierzel placed a series of eight truss booms, four on each side, to light the red dance floor, with each boom sporting three ETC Source Four ellipsoidals. “This provided very bright, specific lighting, with a different look from the large gallery,” he says.
In the farthest gallery from the audience — that of The Dying Slave — Wierzel used small PAR lamps and 12 High End Systems Studio Color wash units on the floor, focused on the vaulted white ceiling. “I used animation very sparingly,” he notes. As this was one space where the lighting had to be struck when the museum was open, the floor provided the simplest solution.
In the front of the large gallery, closest to the stairs where the audience was sitting, Wierzel had another four booms with Source Fours that had to come and go, as well. These lit what he refers to as the “front stage,” where the red dance floor ended. “I wanted all the color temperatures to match,” he says. “It was all very warm, with a natural light on the marble and on Bill's beautiful skin texture. Even the High End fixtures were color-corrected.”
Wierzel worked closely with the museum's in-house team, including Jöelle Cinq-Frais, who coordinated the event, and master electrician/board op, Didier Degros, who used a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 2 console (the gear was supplied by French rental house JF Pro). “Didier is on staff at Le Louvre, but he has done rock ‘n’ roll, so he totally understood what I wanted,” says Wierzel. “The cueing was very meditative, except for one section where the light became very aggressive, following the emotional arch of the dance.”
One Vari-Lite VL3500 fixture was also placed on the floor in front of The Dying Slave, pointing toward the audience and mostly used as a beacon. “This blinked like the soft blue landing lights at an airport, then morphed into a warm, effusive light. For me, it became a doorway of sorts, a point of transition,” Wierzel explains, adding that this light was used for Yungchen's and Jones' entrance. “You discovered the figure was there before the light was too bright.” Additional cues gave movement to the lights outside the windows in the main gallery, which followed Jones as he made his way through the space.
“This was a very moving piece of dance theatre, which revealed the space in a way rarely seen before,” says Wierzel. “Even the curators said they had never seen The Dying Slave look so beautiful from 100 meters away. Bill really filled the space, and you were really captivated by the movement. It was truly an exceptional event.”