courtesy of
Dance Magazine

first published
January 1956


     Lighting design is indeed a difficult subject to discuss.  Good lighting is often merely a personal preference, as is good dancing, and often the result of conditioning the stage lighting or the movies.  Although the “luck” element is responsible for much of the best lighting, it is a wise man who can spot a lucky mistake.  Tricky lighting effects are not difficult to create thanks to the limitless magic of color blending.  (I can never cease to be fascinated by the fact that red plus green equals yellow) and the dimmerboard’s ability to make light breathe.  The difficulty comes in knowing when not to be tricky.

     The technique of lighting is a combination of three factors: color, angle, and intensity.  Each of these factors warrants a separate discussion.


     Since realism is not dance lighting’s primary aim, colors can be used for mood values much more freely than in drama.  It is a definite mark of the amateur, however, to go wild with color for its own sake.  The human eye is very sensitive to color, and is subject to “color fatigue” so that a primary color like red on the sky drop behind the dancers will, within a very few seconds, make the whole stage throb and jump, and blue-green will appear every time the eyes are blinked.

     This appearance of the complimentary color is the eye’s natural attempt to counteract the strain of seeing color.  The shadows from a magenta spotlight appear to be definite green.  If you are in doubt of a color’s complementary you can use this phenomena to provide the answer: simply stare at a spot on a field of color for a few seconds, then shift your focus to a spot on a field of white, and the complementary of the original color will appear.  These “after-images” can be so distracting on the stage, however, that you cannot see the dancer in front of the red backdrop.  At times this is a desirable effect, but remember that it is only an effect, and must be used cautiously.

     If the entire stage, performer and all, is flooded with red footlights and borderlights, the redness will tone down to a pink after a few seconds because of “color fatigue,” and the color-judging ability of the eye will start to get very confused.  It follows, then, that color perception is a question of contrast.  A small red spot on a predominantly green and blue stage will appear bright red since it causes no color fatigue and profits from contrast.  A still-life artist often puts a thin green line around a red apple knowing that although the green line will not be perceptible, the apple will be redder.

     This contrast principle can be applied advantageously in many ways.  If, for example, you want the stage to appear very bright and warm, and sun-drenched when the curtain opens, use blue-green footlights on the curtain before it opens so that the color sense will be shocked by the contrast.  You may want to start another ballet with very dim blue lighting:  if you want the dimness to be shockingly apparent pour amber onto the unopened curtain; but if you want to start the ballet on a very low key and use the contrasts as an integral part of the choreography, dim the houselights very slowly and use either no footlights or dim blue footlights.

     At the very opening of a ballet a rich color can often set the mood of the entire ballet quicker than any other method.  Used in this way it can be of tremendous help to the choreography.  When I open with a rich mood color I usually prefer to start slowly feeding another color onto the stage to provide color-relief that I can control, before the audience’s eyes provide a relief that I cannot control.  At other times, however, it is useful to let the eyes take care of themselves:  for example, when using a steel blue “setup” the mood created is one of starkness and the skin tones are quite unnatural, but often it is not necessary to alleviate this starkness with another color since the eye itself will take care of this, and to introduce another color might produce an undesirable effect of softness.

     Warning:  colors that seemed right a lighting rehearsal may not seem right at the performance where they are seen with fresh eyes.  So rest your eyes occasionally at the lighting rehearsals.

     Every color carries a psychological connotation, but unfortunately each color usually carries different connotations to different people.  Green, the color of fertility and growing things, is also the color of death and mold.  Green light on the skin is completely unnatural, and is disastrous to makeup that is not prepared for it since it turns reds to black.  Although it is nature’s most common color, when it is used in light it is the least natural of colors and announces that something strange or evil or mysterious is going on.  Don’t count on colored light to mean the same thing as colored objects; the only light colors that are ever consistent with nature are the natural light sources:  yellow sun, red and orange fire, steel-blue moon and stars.

Color Mediums

     The most common method of producing colored light is to put a color filter in a frame mounted on the front of a spotlight.  “Gelatine,” “Cinemoid” glass, And cellophane are the most common filters.  Gelatine is produced by mixing a dye with gelatine and pouring it in thin sheets to dry.  You shouldn’t have to pay more than 25¢ for a sheet 20” by 24”, although many cities have only one theatrical equipment house which may charge as much as 75¢ a sheet if you appear innocent enough.  (I was innocent, once, so I know!)  Different batches of gelatine vary only slightly in color, but some colors fade quickly depending on the brand and the specific tint.  Broadway shows usually feel it is necessary to replace the gelatine every week, due to fading.  Gelatine is quite fragile, is ruined by excessive moisture, and must be stored at a dry constant temperature.  However, it is fireproof and inexpensive, and is the most practical filter if you are not doing many performances with the same colors.  “Cinemoid,” a plastic filter manufactured in England, costs under $1.25 a sheet, but it us very tough, fireproof, moisture resistant, and relatively non-fading.  It has a good color range except in the blues.  For a semi-permanent lighting setup it is the most practical since it will outlive gelatine approximately 8 to 1.  Glass color filters are very expensive and have limited color range, but if you find colors you can use, however, they are practical and will last a lifetime with proper care.  Cellophane is sometimes used because it is very cheap, but it is also very fragile, very inflammable, fades quickly, makes black marks on hot lenses it accidentally touches, and has a very limited color range.  You can get a fairly good color range by overlaying several sheets of different colors, but then it is no longer inexpensive.

Primary Colors

     Scientific experimentation has proven that red, blue, and green are the three colors in light which when mixed together in various combinations can produce every other color, and when all three are mixed in equal proportions the result is white.  Since only these three colors cannot be created by mixing other colors of light, they are called the primaries.

     The primary colors can be very usefully employed in the footlights and borderlights, thanks to the flat wash-angle they provide, but they are best used to give only a color tonality to the entire stage area, and to pick up whatever colors may have been neglected with the dance area lighting, rather than for illumination.

     A primary color’s reaction on pigments tends to negate form.  Red light, for example, will turn the dancer’s skin, eyes, and teeth, to red; a purple costume becomes dark red; the brown floor becomes dark red-black; and the green drapery becomes muddy-black – a formless study in red and black.  A pink light (pink is 2 parts red, 1 part blue and 1 part green) on the other hand, will give us white eyes and teeth, pink skin, a purple costume, a brown floor, and green draperies – all of the colors are slightly pinker than natural, but the natural color is not destroyed.  The green draperies will be grayed a little, but there is enough green in pink light to permit us to see that the drapery is a shade of green.

     With a limited supply of equipment it is not practical to use primary colors where intensity of illumination is required.  The efficiency or brightness of the spotlight is greatly reduced since a primary colored filter permits only a small amount of white light to pass through it.  Red and Green transmit only 10% more or less, and Blue only 3%.  Much greater illumination efficiency is obtained with tints:  Flesh Pink transmits 65%, and Bastard Amber gives us 70%, and Steel Blue gives 40%  (Blue is the least efficient color due to the fact that the filament in a light bulb favors the red end of the spectrum).  If you wanted a steel blue it would take 9 primary-colored spotlights to equal the intensity that one spotlight with a Steel Blue filter could produce.  True, the extra richness that the 9 primary-colored spotlights would provide is quite worth the effort, but who can afford to use 9 spotlights where one is “almost” as good?

Basic Tints

     Since we have proven that for all practical purposes the primary colors are best confined to the footlights and borderlights for toning purposes, we must now be concerned with the tints.  The color you use in your front wash cannot be changed between ballets and must therefore be a flexible color that will not ruin costumes or complexions.  Many designers choose Flesh Pink since it is a tint with high illumination efficiency and can always add a warm glow to the stage.  I prefer Special Lavender and consider it the most practical of all colors:  it is very flattering to makeup and to all costumes, and can double as a warm or cool color depending on the other light colors.  When I have enough spotlights to be able to afford the luxury of two sets of instruments for the front wash, I use Jean Rosenthal’s system of one set of spotlights in Steel Blue and the second in Flesh Pink which gives the added flexibility of a color range from Flesh Pink through Special Lavender to Steel Blue.

     For the sides washes Steel Blue on one side and Flesh Pink or Bastard Amber (also called Light Scarlet) prove to be good basic form-giving washes, especially when Special Lavender is used from the front.  Bastard Amber, close to the sun’s color, is usually very good on a man’s makeup, but the more delicate pinks of a woman’s makeup are often distorted, and costumes in the blue and green range are grayed.

     Any of three of these four colors, however, coming from different angles will collectively flatter all costumes and all makeups. That’s a big statement but I think it is pretty well time-proven.  Furthermore, these 4 colors are sufficiently different to permit a color range for mood value; the non-used colors then are dimmed to provide only a little light to fill the shadows.

Special Effect Colors

     Since all of the, what I call “special effect colors” are hard on all makeups and on many costume colors, they must be used with care, preferably as an accent color where they do not light the dancer full face but from an angle.  For almost every ballet there is one of these “special effect colors” that will pretty much express the whole ballet and help the designer establish a mood.  (Magenta for the Moor’s Pavane, for example.)  It is a useful device to start the ballet with only the accent color, and then gradually add visibility lighting.

     The basic “special effect colors” that I always have on hand are: Lemon for stylized sunshine and accent on costumes that have touches of gold or yellow.  Dubarry Pink and Light Magenta for weight and passion, or to make the pink wash a little brighter.  Light Blue which is starker than Steel Blue since it contains a little green (and extensively used as a wash color by Sadler’s Wells).  Light Amber which is a very rich orange, useful with Lemon for impressionistic sunshine, for ethnic dance from the warmer countries, or for stylized interior lighting.  Medium Lavender, richer than Special Lavender, is especially flattering when used at a low angle or in the footlights.  Light Blue Special and Light Green Blue, rich blue-greens, for sky lighting and for mysterious unnatural effects.  Steel Blue used in double thickness, which emphasizes the ultra-violet found in all blue light and is useful to make white costumes whiter than white.

Color Names and Numbers

     Color names are at best a matter of opinion.  Gelatine is codified with numbers and names, more than 75 of them, which for lighting purposes we must consider the norm.  In America alone, however, there are two major manufacturers of gelatine, each with its own set of numbers.  Some of the names, however, do coincide.  Below I have listed the names and numbers (Rosco and Brigham gelatins and the English Cinemoid) of the colors I have mentioned in this article, but first let me give you a warning and a pet gripe:  99% of the dancers I know seem to go out of their way to show me how much they know about lighting by saying “I always like Surprise Pink” or “I’ll be happy if you give me Surprise Pink.”  Surprise Pink is an obsolete name for Special Lavender, which is a very flattering color, and dancers for generations have evidently passed down the word that the safest thing to ask for is Surprise Pink.  You will not be encouraging a less dancer-proof stage worker’s cooperative attitude if you have to tell him that he doesn’t know the names of colors.  Then he’ll really give you the green light you’re trying to avoid.


     Flesh Pink                  #2

     Dubarry Pink             #9

     Light Magenta          #10

     Special Lavender     #17

     Medium lavender     #18

     Light Blue                #27

     Steel Blue                 #29

     Light Blue Special   #30

     Light Green Blue     #40

     Dark Lemon             #52

     Light Amber            #57

     Light Scarlet or Bastard Amber     #62


     No Color Pink             #60

     Light Magenta             #21

     Surprise Pink             #120

     Medium Lavender     #122

     Sky Blue                   #132

     Special Steel Blue     #130

     Light Blue                  #129

     Light Green Blue       #131

     Light Amber                  #9


     Gold tint                 #51

     Middle Rose           #10

     Pale Lavender         #36

     Middle Blue           #18

     Steel Blue               #17

     Blue Green             #16

     Yellow                     #1

     Medium Amber       #4

Note:  The color matching is approximate, sometimes having only a quality in common.