Lighting for dance has become a field of expertise and artistry in itself. Lise Smith casts an eye over its background and speaks to some of its leading lights.

Photo: J Louis Fernandez

As any physics student will tell you, a beam of light is invisible until it hits something to illuminate. In a similar way, the people who sit up in the technical booth and control the rhythm and direction of their beams of light onstage have, until recently, tended to be invisible to those who watch their work. We know there’s somebody up there – there’s a name in the programme and a gesture by the performers at the end of a show – but for many years the figure of the lighting designer him or herself rarely received much public attention.

Now that is changing, and the ability of lighting designers to transform and elevate a piece of dance is increasingly acknowledged. In addition to industry plaudits such as the Knights of Illumination awards, lighting designers for dance are receiving recognition for their collaborations with choreographers. In April 2014, designer Michael Hulls received an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance, indicating a growing appreciation for lighting as a vital part of the creative process itself and not a supplementary layer added towards the end. A generation ago there were no technical courses aimed at producing professional lighting designers for the theatre; now there are dozens, including three-year honours courses at Central School of Speech and Drama and RADA.


Lighting design as we know it today is very much a development of the mid-20th century, arriving in Britain from the US at around the same time as touring dance companies such as Martha Graham’s were bringing a new modern aesthetic to British dance theatre. Stage lighting existed prior to this, of course, but was usually the preserve of the theatre’s chief electrician rather than the work of a professional lighting designer. The lighting itself was accordingly less sophisticated – classical ballet tended to find itself lit by washes of yellow (for outdoors), blue (for moonlight) and pink (for romance), with a broad swathe of colour across the stage for large scenes and a follow-spot for solos.

This approach, in which the whole set is illuminated and with a focus on the faces of the performers, was common across lighting for dramatic theatre, opera and dance at the time. As veteran lighting designer Peter Mumford says, “In a play, people will say ‘you can’t hear the words if you can’t see the face.’” While this may be a good rule of thumb for lighting drama or a story ballet, with the advent of postmodern dance in the 1960s and 1970s, the moving body became a focus of choreographic interest in its own right rather than a conduit for a narrative. Choreographers such as Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston developed a vocabulary of movement that focused as much on intimate, pedestrian gestures as on movements that broadcast to the back of the auditorium. Correspondingly, the lighting created by designers like Mumford helped bring the audience’s attention to these details – sculpting bodies in sidelights, partially silhouetting them in backlight, and picking out limbs in single beams rather than lighting everything from the front.

“The key difference with lighting for dance is what’s required visually,” continues Mumford. “The emphasis has to be on the body, on what the bodies are doing; a physical visualisation has got to be at the front end of it.”

The field of lighting design for dance was defined, developed and professionalised in the US by designers including
Jean Rosenthal, who worked with Martha Graham and New York City Ballet, and Jennifer Tipton, who has designed for American Ballet Theatre, Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. These pioneers developed principles and practices of dance lighting that still underpin the work of today’s designers.

One of today’s leading lights is Lucy Carter, who has worked closely with choreographers Wayne McGregor and Shobana Jeyasingh and will be lighting pieces by McGregor and Le Patin Libre in Dance Umbrella 2014. With dance, she explains, “you’ve got to reveal the body, the physical shape of the dancer’s body. Sometimes you want to obscure it or show it in a different way, so you use your light to texture the body, to colour the body.” Often this means using sidelights – lamps rigged on booms in the wings of the theatre, rather than over the top of the stage. Rather than casting a flat light onto the face and body from the front, sidelight hits the body (as the name suggests) from the sides, creating greater contrast than frontlighting and giving the body a more defined look.

Shadow, and the direction in which it falls, can be as important in framing the body as light itself – a strongly-lit body casting a long, looming shadow creates a very different visual impression to a gently-lit body with a soft shadow; and a body with the face visible will look very different to one where the features are obscured by shade. A toplight will naturally create a small shadow under the dancer, whereas a lamp rigged low on the forestage will throw dramatic shadows onto the back cloth – an effect beautifully exploited by Michael Hulls in his award-winning lighting for Russell Maliphant’s 1996 solo Shift, in which shadow dancers seemed mysteriously to enter and exit the stage, becoming part of the choreography itself.


As well as defining the body with light and shadow, lighting for dance productions often visually defines the space in which a performance takes place, expanding or contracting the space by illuminating selected portions of the stage. The majority of contemporary dance productions take place on a bare stage, meaning lighting often takes on some of the tasks of a theatre set. “Light can completely and utterly change the appearance of the space,” says Carter. “You can change the shape of that space, you can sculpt the air, you can colour the air.”

“At its most fundamental, lighting creates the space, it manipulates space” says Hulls. “In my work with Russell and with other people, usually we’re in a blank void until we turn some light on, and then we start to create the space and the time in which the dance can unfold.” A spot or pool of light on one area of the stage limits what the eye can see and frames the action like a close-up; a wider spill of light invites us to take a wider view. “There are fundamental ways that we respond to light: the eye will always be drawn to the brightest light.” So, in other words, if you want your audience to watch the exciting variation upstage instead of the bloke sitting downstage, better turn your upstage lights on.

Designer Guy Hoare, who has worked extensively with choreographers including Mark Bruce, Shobana Jeyasingh and Henri Oguike, gives an example: Passing Strange and Wonderful, made by Ben Wright in 2010. “The idea was to constrain the space to a quite small box, about 2.5 metres by 1 metre, and that was created by nine separate slithers of light – so if they’re all in it’s a rectangle, if there are four it’s a square, if you drop out the middle four it’s a zebra crossing,” he explains. “The piece happened either in that space or just outside it, and anyone just outside the light would bounce light onto anyone in it. There’s something beautiful about framing a miniature onstage, and you can do more detailed work if you close the space down.”

Lighting also plays a vital role in helping the audience interpret a piece of dance visually. “What lighting is doing within any piece is showing you what to look at first of all,” says Mumford, “and secondly showing you what to feel about what you’re looking at.” The intensity, colour and shape of the light thrown onto the stage all have a role to play in guiding the audience’s emotional response, as well as what we are physically able to see. “Light is psychotropic, it affects our mood,” explains Hulls. There are well-known conventions for connecting colour and mood: red tends to signify anger or passion, yellow evokes sunny joy and blue calm reflection. Deployed ingeniously, lamps and coloured gels can frame the action on stage and create a context for the piece – suggesting a literal place on earth, or a less tangible location.

Passing Strange and Wonderful. Photo: Matthew Andrews

Fabiana Piccioli, lighting designer and technical manager for several of Akram Khan’s productions, won a prestigious Knights of Illumination award in 2013 for Khan’s iTMOi. The choreography was conceived as being set within the mind of composer Igor Stravinsky, and Piccioli recalls that “I thought the mind is made of electricity, or fibres.” Rather than creating a literal location in the real world, Piccioli’s challenge was to create “a place of the mind”, subtly suggesting neural connections.

Inspired by the idea of beams distorted by broken glass Piccioli rigged a series of lamps at different angles to create a wash that would fall on the dancers in different ways as they moved through the beams. “When the dancers move through the space, they’re lit sideways, backlights, sometimes frontlights. So as they take a step in any direction the way they’re lit changes, and this helped keep the image interesting throughout this long section.”

Guy Hoare’s lighting design for Mayuri Boonham’s Ex Nihilo at the Linbury Studio last year also started with the idea of a location. “Mayuri knew that she wanted the piece to be about creating and the origins of the universe and the cosmos, so the first question was, ‘How do we want to do the universe?’” he explains. Hoare decided against video, as video projection requires a pale surface at odds with the black void suggested at the start of the piece. “So I said, ‘I think we ought to be thinking about a black, empty space devoid of masking, and let’s create a constellation with light bulbs’. The detail about what the cloud of bulbs was going to be that evolved over 3 to 4 months, but in terms of the idea it was there from the early days of the piece.”

Where lighting for dance theatre can differ greatly from lighting for dramatic theatre or opera is in the length of time available to create the design, and the degree of collaboration that goes into the work. “The lighting designer has become a very important part of the creative team, and therefore has the responsibility of bringing something to that as a creative artist,” says Peter Mumford. Lucy Carter agrees: “Always in dance, in my experience, the lighting designer is on board at the beginning. You’d be there at the first briefing from the choreographer, where they would outline their idea for the piece and their themes.”

Michael Hulls is perhaps best known for his long-term collaboration with Russell Maliphant, in which the two work together in the studio from the beginning of a project to create lighting and dance that are intimately bound together. “With Russell the idea is that we start together, because you have to work with lights in the studio in order to make something that is interdependent,” says Hulls. “The ideal is that we’re in the space where you’re starting the project, starting dancing and starting lighting all together, and hopefully through trial and error we discover something.”

Afterlight. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

An example Hulls gives of his creative process with Maliphant involves Afterlight, the solo made for Daniel Proietto in 2009. The lighting was inspired in this case by a domestic lamp in the designer’s own home. “It shone up on the ceiling with a dark hole in the middle, which was the shadow of the lamp holder,” says Hulls. “And it was a very soft, diffuse, organic swirling light, and I’d been looking at this for some time thinking ‘how could you do that on stage?’” Hulls’ solution was to ask animator Jan Urbanowski to create a video with a swirling cloud similar to a cyclone, and to cast this swirling cloud onto the dancer using an overhead projector.


“We asked Daniel to revolve at the same time as the light was; his feet were in his own shadow, so you couldn’t see his feet moving and it looked like he was on a turntable,” says Hulls. “That’s what we discovered and it was very exciting; so that’s an example where you can make something because you’re starting in the studio with light and dance together.”

So lighting designers for dance frequently work in much closer collaboration with choreographers than they would with theatre directors, where they are guided primarily by a text and might not venture into the rehearsal room much before production week; or opera directors, where the time available to light a show can be as little as one day. What do the designers themselves view as the purpose of this collaboration – what, in short, does lighting for dance aim to do?


“First and foremost it’s to illuminate the dance, literally, so you can see it, otherwise it’s radio,” laughs Peter Mumford. “But within that, it’s also to inform the narrative, to create chemistry between the dance and the audience, so that they are seeing what lies beneath the movement, and are able to have a kind of emotional reaction to it.” Lighting for the theatre adds information; in dramatic theatre, this might be fairly literal, such as location or time of day in a piece of dramatic theatre. In dance, it’s more likely to be thematic, emotive or conceptual. “You’re creating an environment that’s layered with information,” says Lucy Carter, “rather than trying to portray something that the audience absolutely needs to read.”

Mumford and Hoare both compare the work of a lighting designer to that of a cinematographer in film-making – a key member of the creative team who doesn’t direct the action, but who frames what the viewer can see. “Ultimately it comes down to deciding what you want to see and what you don’t,” says Hoare. “That can be the detail of how a shadow falls on a face, or choosing which dancers you want to see, or deciding you want to see the floors or the walls or the space.” Lighting makes visible what the choreographer and the director together decide they want the audience to see – in purely physical terms, and from there in interpretive terms. If the work of the choreographer is to create the dance material, the way we see the piece in the theatre is to a great extent a result of the way in which lighting reveals it.


Fabiana Piccioli feels that good lighting design can elevate a work and let the audience partake in the willing suspension of disbelief that is the particular pleasure of the theatre. “You create another dimension that allows the audience to believe in what they’re seeing and agree to that illusion, and get there and be somewhere else for those 70 minutes,” she says. A good piece of choreography enraptures us as viewers; a skilled lighting designer can help the choreographer transport the audience to another level of wonder.

“For me it’s kind of poetic rather than lyrical,” says Michael Hulls. “How it works should be an indivisible part of the whole experience – it takes you somewhere psychologically, emotionally, conceptually, that only a combination of seeing, hearing and viscerally connecting can do. And that’s what dance is about.”

Lise Smith is a freelance dance manager, teacher and writer, contributing regularly to a range of arts, travel and technology publications.