Tree Of Codes Opens In New York City Tree Of Codes, photo: Ravi Deepres

Tree Of Codes Opens In New York City

Continuing its series of large-scale, ambitious productions, the Park Avenue Armory in New York City presents the US premiere of Tree Of Codes, a contemporary ballet with choreography by Wayne McGregor, visual concept by Olafur Eliasson, and music by Jamie xx. Dancers from Paris Opera Ballet as well as Company Wayne McGregor perform this work, described by The New York Times as having “…breathtaking physical feats and visual dazzle.” Inspired by the book, Tree Of Codes, by Jonathan Safran Foer, the ballet’s world premiere was at the 2015 Manchester International Festival, with performances in New York on September 14-21. Live Design caught up with lighting realizer for Tree Of Codes, UK-based Rob Halliday, who worked on the transfer to New York, and serves as programmer.

Photo by Ravi Deepres

Live Design: Can you please describe the set briefly and how it has changed from Manchester to New York?

Rob Halliday: The set is an open stage with a series of flown screens of different materials, each the full stage width and height: downstage a ‘radiant wall’ of a dichroic film, mid-stage a half mirror that can tilt, upstage a mirror with two opening arch doorways, then upstage of that a cyclorama. These are used in various combinations throughout the show. The fascination of the show is how these different surfaces react with each other when used in combination, particularly the two mirrors, which generate a seemingly infinite set of reflections of the dancers. The mirrors also allow the audience to become part of the show—at times we light them so they can see themselves.

LD: How does the lighting work with the set, or how did the set determine the architecture of the lighting rig?

RH: I knew we were going to be quite reliant on crosslight, to be able to sculpt the dancers and pull them out from the screens and mirrors. I also knew they’d want to dance right up to the screens. So in each bay we have two ladders and two low booms: one set immediately downstage off the upstage screen and focused to cut just off it; one set immediately upstage of the downstage screen and focused to cut just off it. 

Photo by Ravi Deepres

In the low booms, we have an ETC Source Four LED v2 as a head-high shot, and another as a shin. They’re there because there was a lot of talk early on about white light, but—as is always the case with ‘white’— you could never quite be sure if one person’s white was the same as another. So we went with the LEDs as they’d allow us to ‘tune’ the white as we needed it. Ultimately, we use them for color extending beyond white, and the ability just to do slow, subtle shifts of color has become a key part of the show.

For the same reason, I was keen to use LEDs to light the cyc so we could adapt the white as necessary. This led me back to the Harman Martin Professional EvenLED cyc lighting tiles I first found and used on the Mary Poppins tour some years ago, and which White Light in London had available for our run in Manchester. They proved invaluable as we used them not just for whites, but for deeper colors, and also to graduate and wipe up and down our cyc.

In the original design, we had some lights deliberately focused onto the mirrors, to try to backlight people using the reflection from the mirrors, but in practice this just muddied the image in the mirrors—it made them milky—so all of that has gone now.

Overhead I was keen to use moving lights as far as possible to reduce our need to get to the overhead rig for focus, and, again, to control the light off the screens I knew we needed a shuttering fixture. Though I’ve been a long time fan of the Philips Vari-Lite VL3000 range, here we opted for the Harman Martin Professional MAC Viper Performance partly because it was what the rental companies in the UK had available, and partly because it was physically smaller and quieter, which was important for the units in the auditorium. The Viper also has both shutters and iris in one unit, which became useful.

In terms of lighting the set, we rarely light the set itself but what becomes interesting is the interplay of the set and lighting. For example, the dichroic screen at the front is in many ways a giant red filter. So if you light red behind it, you see black through it—until you open the two rotating discs in the wall so you can see through it, when suddenly this vibrant red appears. It’s at moments like that you realize what a deep understanding of the behavior of these materials Olafur has and how he designed them to work together and with light.

Manchester To New York

LD: What’s on the gear list for New York, and how does it differ from Manchester?

RH: This is the principal gear list for New York:

  •      24 Harman Martin Professional Mac Viper Performance
  •      12 ETC Revolution with shutter module
  •       2  Philips Vari-Lite VL1000AS
  •       ETC Source Four LED v2 Lustr: 42 (10 x 5°, 16 x 26°, 16 x 36°)
  •      165 ETC Source Four Tungsten with various lenses
  •      14 Par64#1
  •       60 Harman Martin Professional EvenLED panels (as a 10x6 grid)

We were fortunate that we were able to replicate the Manchester equipment in New York. The rig supplier is PRG, but I think they’ve been sub-hiring from all over the place (the Source Four LEDs from 4Wall, for example). We found the EvenLED at Solotech in Canada.

LD: What do you like about the various fixtures?

RH: Harman Martin Professional Vipers: bright, quiet, accurate with iris and shuttering. ETC Revolutions: tungsten, which is important for bringing warmth and humanity to the people, shuttering, quiet. Philips Vai-Lite VL1000s: A bright arc source we use as a backlight. ETC Source Four LEDs for their amazing color range. EvenLED for its qualities of being able to light a cyc in very little depth with the ability to color change, wipe, or dissolve, with incredibly smooth fading, even at the very bottom end.

Photo by Ravi Deepres

LD: How do you make sure the dancers can be seen and properly lit with so much going on with the design of the set?

RH: Hard work :)

Mainly it’s about the careful focusing of crosslight and backlight, then careful control of what’s on when to ensure we’re only lighting where we really have to at any given moment. Plus being careful to control what you see reflected in the mirrors, particularly when the tilting mirror is tilted back and it reveals most of the grid above! 

LD: What comprises your color palette? How many shades of white?

RH: Lots of shades of white, warm though to a ‘deep’ cool, then some deeper blues. Though I started with my color library, it was great just being able to ‘tweak’ colors in response to the costumes or just from Olafur or Wayne; we now have lots of palettes called things like ‘Olafur White.’

On occasion we go into deeper color. For one of the solos, Olafur one day came in and said, ‘What about if we try going from color to color to color, a rainbow?’ So we mixed a series of colors then just cycle between them. The liberating aspect of the Source Four is just being able to ‘play’ like that, without having to worry about gel you have or the order in a scroll.

My favorite thing we do on this show: We have some low-pressure sodium lamps that fly in overhead. When these turn on they come on in a very intense pinky-orange, and the color changes dramatically over the next ten minutes or so as the lamps warm up. But we need more light to help model the dancers. So once we establish the sodiums, we add the LED crosslight in a color that replicates ‘just on’ sodium, but then we run an eight-minute cue that has the Source Four color fade to a ‘warmed-up’ sodium color. The color change is imperceptible but crucial; I don’t think we could have achieved that any other way.

Photo by Ravi Deepres


LD: Was the show designed to tour? How did that affect your design choices?

RH: It’s designed to visit venues over time rather than to ‘tour’ (i.e. move week after week). Currently confirmed are visits to Faena Forum Miami, Paris Opera Ballet, and Sadler’s Wells, all for the 2016-17 season.

The show was designed to physically fit into the venues that were involved in co-commissioning it. I hope the gear we’ve selected is common enough (or will become common enough over the next year) that we’ll have no problem picking it up locally as we go. 

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