courtesy of
Dance Magazine

first published
March 1957

STAGING THE RECITAL:  Lighting Effects

The difference between lighting a dance concert and lighting a recital is the difference between the objectives of the two types of programs.  Concert lighting must flatter the dancer’s body to give it form and dimension, and help the choreographer interpret the mood of the ballet.  The theatricality of the lighting should enhance the theatricality of the dance.  This has been discussed in detail in earlier articles of this series.  Recital lighting, however, should go further in the direction of lighting effects for their own sake.  Just as the sets and props for a recital should be planned before the actual choreography is started, lighting effects can also provide the basis of entire numbers if they are planned and tested in advance.

     Nickelodian [sic]:  If you are doing a number based on silent movies, an easy way to achieve the flickering effect is to focus a couple of spotlights (or one large follow spot) on the dance area and spin a color wheel in front of the light beam.  A color wheel, as you may know, is a device attached to the front of a spotlight with various openings so that colors can be changed quickly.  For the nickolodian effect the wheel should alternate between no gelatine and cardboard so that when it is turned quickly there is a momentary blackout.  If no color wheel is available the same effect can be achieved by switching the lights off and on very quickly, but all that switching is very wearing on spotlight bulbs, and on the eyes of the audience.  It would be wise to establish the effect for 15 seconds or so and then slowly sneak in some other light that does not flicker for the remainder of the number.

     A turning color wheel can be used for “Snow White running through the forest” or any time you need a great deal of movement on stage.  By having color wheels (each opening with a different color) on several spotlights, or simply by having people stationed at several spotlights waving their hands in front of the spotlights on cue, the whole stage will appear to pulsate and jump because the warm colors will make the stage jump forward and cool colors will make it recede.

     Underwater:  The angle of the light source can often provide a special lighting effect.  If you want an underwater effect simply remember that all of the light must come from straight overhead (as it comes down through the water) with one or two brighter rays of light coming from a high diagonal to represent the sun’s deflected rays.

     Sunlight is brightest from one angle, but there is so much reflected light from buildings, the ground, the sky, etc. that the effect of sunlight is best achieved with light coming from all angles, but the brightest and warmest light must come from only one angle.

     Moonlight, on the other hand, has very little reflected light.  There must be deep shadows and only occasionally a beam of steel blue where the moon peeks through the trees and around buildings.

     Firelight must come from underneath.  If the fire if off-stage, two or three spotlights with red and amber gelatins can sit on the floor in the wings, out of view of the audience.  The flickering of the fire can be achieved by passing your hands in front of one spotlight at a time.  A realistic fire on stage is more difficult to do.  Start with a small fan blowing streamers of red silk straight up into the air; surround the fan with several spotlights with different fire-colors, or even red and yellow bare bulbs; mask the whole thing with logs or some other scenic element so that the audience sees only the silk flames.

     Flashlights can be used as small follow-spots.  Each dancer can carry a flashlight and shine it on his own feet for a tap routine.  If all the other lights are out it makes an interesting effect to see just the feet.  You can get many ghostly effects by shining a flashlight on just a hand or face.  It will work best if everything is covered or dressed in black except the limb you want to see.

     Colored light and the effect it will have on pigment has been discussed earlier.  In case you don’t remember, the primary colors of light are red, blue, and green.  All other colors are combinations of these three.  Colored light on colored pigment will be sympathetic (i.e., will show the true pigment color) only if the light and the pigment are the same color.  If the color of the light is even slightly different, it will distort the color of the pigment.  If it is very different, the pigment will appear to be black.  Here are some effects based on this phenomena of colored light.

     Disappearing polka-dots might be an interesting effect in some ballets.  For instance, a white costume with red polka-dots – red footlights on the costume will make it appear solid red, since the white of the costume will become red, and the red dots will remain red.  Green or blue light will make the costume appear green or blue with black polka-dots, since neither green nor blue will be “sympathetic” to the red dots.  White light or any of the tints of pink, blue, or amber will make the costume look the way it actually is: white with red polka-dots.

     Your imagination should be able to devise many ways to use these color-changing effects, like the magician who makes polka-dots or prisoner stripes appear and disappear, or the milk-maid who becomes a princess.  You must be very careful when you choose the fabrics that the colors are “pure.”  It would be wise to test the fabric with the colored light.  Anyone who has ever tried to dye fabric knows how impure some dyes can be.

     If the dancer is holding a sheet of red cellophane, red light will pass through the cellophane and it won’t even exist.  Blue or green light, however will turn the red cellophane to a square of shiny black material.  A line of dancers could carry these black squares. Which disappear when certain colors hit them.

     Painted scenery can undergo many changes by simply changing the lighting.  If on a white or pale green background you paint a tree with a trunk and branches brown and the leaves bright green, under normal light the tree will appear perfectly healthy, but under green light the leaves disappear and you have only a stark dead tree.  If you’re really ambitious you can devise a painted drop that will show the four seasons just by changing the lighting.

     Simple line-drawings or lettered signs, too, can have certain lines and letters disappear on cue.  But as in fabrics, the paint and light colors must be pure, and experimentation is the only sure proof.

(continued next month)