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The art of lighting design for ballet

Lighting played a starring role in stage productions long before Thomas Edison patented his incandescent lightbulb in 1879, figuring into everything from ancient Greek tragedies to Shakespearean productions.

But today, modern lighting design and connected lighting technology are revolutionizing the theatrical world. This is true perhaps nowhere more than in ballet, where theatrical lighting affects the experience as much as the orchestra and the artists onstage. Together with music and choreography, lighting can be the difference between cheerful and light or dark and evil performances.  

“Audiences are far more likely to remember the music and the choreography than the lighting,” said Kristi Boone Stappas, a former soloist with American Ballet Theatre who performed on stages from New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to the Parthenon in Greece before retiring in 2015. “But whether we realize it or not, the lighting deeply influences how a ballet makes us feel. And if we want to connect with the piece on an emotional level, smart lighting design is critical.” 

Lighting can also be the difference between a star nailing her set or stumbling to a subpar night.

“Bad lighting can throw off a dancer’s balance or shine in her eyes, making it as hurtful as a bad orchestra or a bad dress rehearsal,” Stappas said. “Particularly for a ballerina en pointe, bad lighting interrupts a dancer’s equilibrium, making poise and grace almost impossible. 

“Imagine trying to lift your leg while riding the subway with your eyes closed,” she said. “Piercing halogen lights and poorly timed spotlights can have the same effect.”

Breathing light into age-old stories

Humans have told stories since the beginning of time. And today, lighting designers use both conventional and innovative techniques to enhance stories as they unfold onstage. From the seductive bedroom and tragic death scenes of “Romeo and Juliet” to the eerie gravesite landscape of “Giselle,” renowned performances are shaped by imaginative and meticulous lighting design.

“When lighting suddenly takes on a darker, more mysterious tone, that serves as a signal to the audience that a dramatic event is about to take place,” Stappas said. “In the famous potion scene of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ a spotlight illuminates Juliet in her bed as the rest of the stage goes dark. The lighting pinpoints Juliet’s emotion and the enormity of the moment.”

“Giselle” begins on a lovely early morning in the countryside, and the lights fade up beautifully. “The lighting goes hand in hand with the music and steps of this ballet so that the audience feels everything with the performer,” Stappas said. By the opening of the second act, the title character has already died, and the production transports the audience to Giselle’s gravesite. “When I performed in ‘Giselle,’ the bottom portion of the stage was lit and enveloped in fog effects from dry ice,” Stappas said. “It gave the whole scene an eerie glow.”  

Lighting performances without a plot: abstract ballet 

While many performances reimagine age-old stories, abstract ballet strips the artistic form of the detailed narrative and heavy theatrical setting that help shape productions like “Romeo and Juliet” or “Giselle.”

Stappas played the lead role of the Siren in “The Prodigal Son,” a powerful story of sin and redemption choreographed by George Balanchine and first performed by the Parisian ballet company Ballets Russes in 1929.

Mysterious lighting adds to the glamorous but cold nature and snakelike sensuality of the sensational Siren, the only female in the ballet’s central scene. “I’ve been privileged to be part of ballets that have been around for so many years, companies have perfected every aspect of the performance,” she said. “When I played the Siren, the lighting was simply fantastic.”

In abstract ballet, choreography partners equally with music and lighting design. “These performances may not tell a traditional story, but they must still establish a certain mood,” Stappas said. “The choreography, music and lighting must work together to create dramatic shifts, and if the blend isn’t seamless, it can ruin the experience for the performers and their audience." 

Combining dance lighting and choreography to form the perfect pas de deux

Specific lighting effects are often invisible to the untrained eye, but sometimes the lighting designer and choreographer have to be in perfect lockstep. 

“I remember one piece in which a male soloist controlled strobe lights with a handheld switch,” Stappas said. “Most of the stage was dark, but he hit the switch at the top of his jumps to create the illusion that he was air-bound.

“The result was spectacular, but if the lights weren’t perfectly timed with the dancer’s jumps, it would have been ruined.” 

Using lighting for logistical reasons

Sometimes, even the most artistic ballets rely on lighting to meet simple logistical needs. For example, lighting helps performers quickly change costumes and stage crews seamlessly switch scenes.

“If all of this extra action is happening on stage left, it’s important that the audience train its attention on stage right,” Stappas said. “The responsibility ultimately falls on the performer assigned to create a distraction, but the lighting obviously plays a crucial role.” 

Dancing in the light of the sun 

Stappas has performed under the lights in revered theaters around the world. But today, the retired soloist is building a studio for private lessons in her home, an experience that has transported her back to the art form’s ancient beginnings and her own roots as a dancer. 

“Natural light is great for the soul,” Stappas said. “Luckily, my family’s home was designed with lots of windows for natural light.

“Designing my own studio reminded me that good lighting is as important as good mirrors, floors and barres. And there’s nothing quite like dancing in the light of the sun.”