If Light Could Tell Stories


It’s 1895.

Enveloped in silky layers of her costume, Loie Fuller appears on the stage of a Paris theatre. She stands in darkness for a moment and listens to the silence.

Suddenly, her skirt starts to glow as if it had caught fire.

Fuller spins and jumps, and the colour of her costume overflows from yellow to orange and from orange to red. Fire Dance continues and eventually engulfs the dancer in flame.

Light was a magician for the audience in the late 19th century. Light designers used calcium and electric lights to get red, green and blue colours. Even those three colours (the same one used today on computer monitors) were fascinating for people who saw dance with light the first time.

It’s 2015. Raoul Pillay dances in a spotlight. The audience curiously watches him doing his crazy footwork to Bob Marley’s Is This Love. Suddenly, the dancer disappears in the dark, and flashlights wake up a zombie – another dancer, Nigel Edwards. Dust fills the air as he shakes his shoulders and dreadlocked head. His fingers like spaghetti moved around the spot of light.

Fans of dance are used to the magical qualities of light, and light has become more of a storyteller. New conventional fixtures* made lighting design more functional and entertaining. Light sets up the location of a story, creates illusions and specific mood. LED lights*, which don’t burn out or get hot, allow lighting designers to mix up to seven colours and play with any shade imaginable.

Light and design

For those who get a chance to see light behind the curtains, it becomes even more than a magician or a storyteller. It becomes a temptress.

Five years ago Kyle Morton met light backstage at the York University theatre where he studied acting. He was helping a crew set up the equipment for Ti Jean and His Brothers, the first show he had seen designed with LEDs he saw. Morton was fascinated by how the work of light designers added beauty. It took him about two weeks to decide that he did not want to be an actor anymore and transfer to theatre production specializing in lighting design.

“As a lighting designer, you are never a star of the show. You are never flashy. But you can totally change the look of the show without people actually realizing you are doing it,” says Morton.

Having designed both, theatre (Tachycardia (2014) and Stronger Variations (2013) and dance (Urban Myth (2016) and Urban Legends (2015) performances, Morton says, lighting design is different for each of them:

“In theatre, lighting is more a part of art because it helps to create the mood and location. It’s more necessary to push the story forward. In dance, lighting is just an extra, but it’s important too. Dancers don’t have to set the scene because we do it with lighting. So they could just tell the story through dance and keep moving forward instead of stopping and setting the location.”

Theatre and dance have not only different styles but different schedules as well. While working for theatre, designers get a script the month before the performance happens; in dance they usually have to do their work in one day.

Morton says that designing for the dance shows was his favorite.

“It’s constant learning, a whole new world. It was a challenge to get into it because I didn’t know how it was going to be. But as we started to build it, it got more and more exciting.”

Lighting tools and location

The venue defines the freedom of lighting designers by the tools they use. Working for a festival or battle, the designers may choose their own lights. Working for the theatre, they usually use the equipment that theatre has. So, from an artistic side, it is more challenging to work in the theatre: if something changes, you are screwed because you have designed your lights very specifically. On the other hand, a festival or a concert is very broad, so even if something goes wrong, you have more ability to improvise.

Morton says, Factory Theatre, the venue of Urban Myth and Urban Legends, is very well equipped. It has flexible conventional lighting equipment. Morton used a fixture called Altman PAr64 to spotlight or highlight the main area and floodlight or illuminate a wide area. The second tool, ETC Source 4 Fresnels, helped to control the balance of wash light and soft beam. In general, that equipment was enough to create excitement for the audience.

Light and dance

Raoul Pillay as the main character of his house piece “Apocalypse” during Urban Myth dance show at the Factory Theatre. Photo by E.S. Cheah.

“For unexpected moments light is the best. Without light it’s just generalizing. It’s like watching a horror movie in sunlight,” says house dancer Raoul Pillay.

As all choreographers have their own styles of dance, the lighting design has to be different for each of them. During the rehearsal for Urban Myth, some choreographers were very specific with the lighting effects they wanted, while the others were like: “well, it’s a dark piece that has a lot of raw motion.”

For example, breakdance “Hide and Sneak” by Anthony “Illz” Put needed very basic light. The spotlight followed Illz during his breaking moves and disappeared as the character fell asleep.

“The story that I’ve created is about a boy who is waking up from the sleep, and he is afraid to go beyond his room to the next door,” says Put.

Some other dance stories were more unpredictable.

“My piece had to have flashing lights because of the zombie scene,” says Pillay who played the survivor in New York City in his dance Apocalypse. “And when I would do my monologue, I wanted to spotlight me because I’m in the centre of the situation. They did a really good job with my lighting.”

The producer of Urban Myth and Urban Legends, Deanne Kearney says lighting is the most stressful part of the project, something “you cannot control”.

“I was backstage, and when there was a mistake in lighting (which happened at least once every night), I was cringing. I liked the entire thing though,” she says, smiling.

She learned the language of lighting design from the dance program in York University where she met Morton.

“A lot of people like doing it. It’s just convenient to have people I trust to. Kyle was always on top of his class, so I wanted to ask him to do it,” says Kearney.

Morton doesn’t believe the perfection exists in light design:

“If you think you did a perfect job, you didn’t pay attention.”

Looking at dancers of Urban Myth (the show ran for two weeks), he thought he would change something in lighting each time. But the most important thing is that the audience liked it.

“Sometimes I say, ‘This was awful,’ and the people are like, ‘What?’ The only problem is if they notice,” says Morton.

Feature of lighting design

From Lanterns to LEDs

Although LED lighting is becoming a very useful tool for lighting designers, it is still most common for shows to use conventional lighting. Even though Morton works for A.C. Lighting Inc. that sells LED equipment around North America, he doesn’t get to use LED lights in his own projects: it is very expensive.

But as technology goes forward, more and more theatres and concert halls will be willing to get LED equipment, Morton says. It not only gives more colours and lighting effects, but uses less electricity than conventional lighting does, which is good news for the environment.

Right now, one of the most popular LED lights in the industry is a Chroma-Q ColorForce, a fixture that creates cyc lights, or cyclorama lights, on the back of the stage. Even though it contains the same red, green and blue, the designer can achieve much more colours by adjusting the intensity of each LED colour group.

Anthony ‘Illz’ Put performs “Hide and Seek” during Urban Myth show at the Factory Theatre. Photo by E.S. Cheah.

“The really cool thing about these fixtures is that they have the ability to create every colour you can imagine. You create sunset and daybreak,” says Morton.

Another awesome feature of LED lights is that the designers can control all those astronomic effects right from their DMX consoles.

An independent moviemaker and director Juan Rodriguez says the future of lighting design is bright. The most positive thing for him is the smaller size of the equipment:

“In the past, we had to carry three huge bags just to set up the lights. Now, you just need two or three lights and a few diffusers. Essentially it becomes much easier,” says Rodriguez.

Comparing the current opportunities of lighting design with that of the late 19th century, Kearney says, the technology of light could only improve:

“Loie Fuller was the first dancer in the late 19th century to perform with lights. She had those terrible calcium lights underneath her dress, and now we have grids of hundreds of lights with all different effects. So how far can we go in the future?”


*LED – A standard light bulb super heats a metal filament until it glows and emits light. LED uses a semi-conducting material that you push electrons through to radiate light energy out of the semiconducting material. There a metal filament will melt and burn up because of the heat, an LED’s semiconducting material does not heat up nearly as much; therefore, it extends the life from hundreds of hours to 50 000 hours or more. With an LED a designer has the ability to change the colour within the fixture without the
use of a physical “Gel”.
* Conventional lighting. Standard metal filament lighting, such as ParCans and Leiko Style lights. These lights do not have an internal ability to create colour; therefore a designer has to put coloured “
gel” in front of each fixture to create a colour other than white.      

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Svetlana Soloveva

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