Burke Wilmore: Dance Lighting Designer


Over and over in this business you hear the same story about “How I got into lighting.” It usually starts with drama club in high school and continues as an extracurricular activity into college; it gradually becomes apparent that lighting is not just a hobby but a career. Burke Wilmore is another example of this realization.

“I was sort of a theatre child in high school,” he says. “In college I intended to either major in math or some law-oriented thing. I started designing shows because I was asked. I would take a computer programming class and feel like I had it down, but lighting remained a challenge. The more I was doing it, the more I realized that it was the thing I cared about the most, and I made the decision to be a theatre major.”

Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, is a liberal arts school with a theatre program that offers the practical experience of a heavy production schedule. “When I was in internships I met people who were in a college where the senior project was finally designing a show,” Wilmore comments. “By the time I left school I had lit about 30 plays and 10 dance concerts. There are a lot of mistakes you make early on that are good to get over with by the time you're out of school.”

Wilmore moved to New York City in 1994 and “for the first couple years out of school I managed to earn a living working in theatre, like work in scene shops and electrician work,” he says. “Most of my professional life has been in dance. I took an internship at Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival in 1991. I liked working in dance because it's so different from theatre at the college level. I loved working in a theatre that was clean and everything was organized, and lighting is a huge priority. People who tour in dance are fast and they're good and they know how to work with a crew. I liked [that], and I enjoyed a lot of the dance work that I was seeing.”

While at Jacobs Pillow he made an important contact. One of the LDs that year was Howell Binkley, and when Wilmore moved to New York, he sent Binkley a postcard for a small show he was working on. It happened to be at a time when the Parsons Dance Company, of which Binkley is co-founder and resident LD, was looking for a full-time production manager/lighting supervisor. Wilmore got the job and worked for the company for four years. Parsons is a major touring enterprise. “There was one year where we did 125 shows,” Wilmore says.

The Parsons company tours without any lighting equipment, so a significant part of the job is negotiating with theatre management at each venue. “The tech rider asks for things that for some theatres are completely unrealistic,” Wilmore explains, “so it's a matter of making sure that they don't simply cross everything off. People will remember the company. You need to be faithful to the work but it's good to be flexible, because if something does go wrong, if you have a good relationship with the house crew and with your presenter, they're there to help you.”

Since leaving the Parsons company in 1999, Wilmore has kept working with Binkley as an assistant. “He's been a huge part of my professional life. I'm very lucky to work for him, because he's looking for a lot more than drafting and paperwork out of an associate. He wants input, and if I'm doing a show with Howell there's usually a portion of it that's my little baby.”

Last year, Wilmore designed the lighting for Parsons' fall season, as Binkley was not available due to scheduling. The choreography of two of the new pieces, “Annuals” by David Parsons and “The Hunt” by former Parsons dancer Robert Battle, was rather abstract and surreal, with no clearly identifiable themes or messages. “I think a lot of what happens in modern dance is subject to a lot of interpretation. I know that there were a few [lighting] ideas that happened in those two pieces that seemed to work but I couldn't really tell you exactly why. And it wasn't something that was born out of a meeting with the choreographer, it had to do with listening to the music and watching rehearsals and just kind of taking a stab at it. Probably with a choreographer I didn't know as well there would be more discussion. I think it's possible to handle a dance piece without completely understanding it, if you understand the voice of the choreographer behind it.

“I tried to make the lighting consistent with the vocabulary onstage,” he continues. “There shouldn't be two voices coming from the stage, there should only be one. Sometimes dance is really delicate, and you want to be careful about messing with it. No matter how good you are, the fact of the matter is the choreographer has taken months to work on something, and you have a four-hour tech rehearsal.”

One of Wilmore's upcoming projects as Binkley's assistant will be the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center, “a massive undertaking,” he remarks. “It's six shows in rotating rep. And I will also be assisting him on Hollywood Arms at the Goodman Theatre, with Carol Burnett, directed by Hal Prince.”

Wilmore expects to keep working with Battle in the future as he develops his choreographic career. The LD is also designing for Infinity Dance Theatre, a troupe of wheelchair-bound performers. “They're a very young company, and they're trying to organize themselves to do some touring. They're moving past doing showings. Working with them has been great because it puts me in the position of being able to put together a rep plot for them from scratch, which is an ideal thing to do. I'm certainly finished with touring. I wouldn't trade five years of touring for anything, but having done it, it's time to do something else.”