Back to Basics

Christina Aguilera has been strutting her dirty stuff all winter and spring for her Back to Basics tour in support of her album of the same name, which features a more jazz- and blues-infused sound than her earlier work. To complement this trend, the live show takes on a theatrical style, including eight dancers and a four-piece horn section added to the usual band, and a themed production in three parts: Jazzy Hollywood, Juke Joint, and Enter the Circus. Peter Morse and Baz Halpin teamed up on lighting design duties, Morse collaborating with Butch Allen on the production and set design, with content by video director Dago Gonzalez, all under the direction of show producer Jamie King.

Light And Set The Basics

King had definitive ideas from the outset that drove the overall design. He provided a show rundown to the designers with several scenic elements and storyboards, each with its distinctive, themed look. “The looks were various as the show progressed,” says Morse. “While this was assisted with scenic elements, the overall lighting feel had to alter with the change of ‘era’ that was being represented. Beyond that, I was attempting to establish a theatrical feel while maintaining a feel for Christina's music and current image.” Allen adds that choreography really dictated the physical needs of the space. “We all worked in our own spaces — choreography, costumes, lighting — all pulled together by Jamie's direction.

Morse and Allen — through their new company, Re:Design — also worked on the set design based on King's conceptualizations. “The way Butch and I work is, I supply him with ‘napkin drawings’ and other similar input,” says Morse. “He then proceeds to marry our ideas and bring the concepts to reality.” Morse notes that Allen takes care of the “nuts and bolts work,” as well as renderings. “I continue then with the lighting design,” he adds. Lighting renderings for the tour were drawn by Morse in VectorWorks v10 and then integrated into Martin ShowDesigner, used for preprogramming due to extremely tight rehearsal and programming times at The Forum in Los Angeles. “Knowing the rehearsal constraints we were under, we couldn't wait until rehearsal to look at it,” adds Allen. During breaks in his Barbra Streisand tour duties, Morse would have Eric Wade (Aguilera's lighting programmer) join him on the road, where they would utilize Show Designer to preprogram lighting cues. Mike Morabitto, who was production/stage manager, left the tour and was replaced by Jon Pollak. Sean Kohl is lighting crew chief.

Collaborating closely on the development of the set and video elements, the outcome is a seamless integration of the lighting, video, and set. Much of the structure supporting the lighting was integral “both physically and aesthetically in the visual concept of the show,” Morse notes. “Some of the scenic elements were ‘married’ to the lighting trusses, and — in reverse — several lighting trusses were utilized as scenic elements,” says Morse. “Basically, you could say that both scenic and lighting work practically as one.”

Halpin notes that, “Peter and I both felt that we needed a very theatrical look that was flexible enough to incorporate more rocky environments for songs such as ‘Fighter.’ We had three very specific scenes within which to work, and we also needed enough punch to balance with the three large onscreen LED walls.”

Halpin notes the need to blend with the large amount of video for the tour. “We have static imagery where the lighting becomes more rhythmic, accentuating all the dynamics of the music,” he says. “We also use geometric shapes, patterns, and color content where we try to match the color and feel of the visuals both complementing and contrasting.” The live and pre-recorded footage, created by Gonzalez, “is theatrical in nature, and we opt for a more scenic-setting approach such as for the Juke Joint, which is all relative to the atmosphere of the footage.”

Lighting gear includes various Martin Professional MAC 2000 and 700 units, Syncrolite B52s, and 8-Lite Molefays, all run from a Martin Maxxyz console. Lighting supply is by Ed and Ted's Excellent Lighting of Oxnard, CA.

The truss design features a retracting truss chandelier of four rings, layered flat, with each ring smaller than the next and outfitted with MAC 700 Profiles. “It gives a nice layered look,” Morse says. “We knew we were going for a high trim — approximately 40' — so we needed a fixture that would carry that distance, and at the same time, the truss is lowered down to 15' to 18' so we needed a good zoomable fixture, too. I put the 700s through their paces when the chandelier comes down for some nice ballad looks.” All truss on the production is by Tomcat and Total Fabrications.

Upstage of the chandelier, above a V9 center video screen from Nocturne Productions, are six ladder trusses with more MAC 700 Profiles. “We also had MAC 700 Profiles upstage doing backlight specials on the floor,” says Halpin. “We used custom gobos and custom colors for all the fixtures and used the 700s animation wheel mostly for midair gobos as we didn't have many projection surfaces. We had MAC 700 Washes located on the floor as shin kickers.” MAC 2000 Washes surround the V9 screen with more on soft ladders on either side.

Halpin notes that the custom colors of the show were chosen to complement the three themes of the set, as well as video content and costumes (designed by Roberto Cavalli). “For example, in the Juke Joint scene, we have a lot of pastels, no-color yellows, medium blues, soft pinks, etc.,” he says. “Then, in contrast in ‘Fighter,’ we are very monochromatic, sticking mostly to cold whites and CTOs.” Morse adds that Juke Joint was lit in a tungsten feel, “almost a sepia approach.”

Three arc trusses with Austrian curtains created by Atomic Design — 1,440 yards of white silk — lower in and out, while general swing wing trusses are outfitted with MAC 2000 Profiles and Washes. “The first time I saw the curtains,” says Allen, “I had a hard time not crying.” Tait Towers provided a fast-deployment system for the Austrian curtain, a patent-pending system that allows hanging of the curtain pre-rigged and pre-automated. Tait also created custom lighting brackets to hang 40 automated lights on the Austrian system, as well as custom brackets to hang lights underneath the video screens so when they fly up, the lights fly out with them.

In addition to all this, Tait Towers constructed the set. “We worked very, very closely with Butch,” says Adam Davis, vice president of Tait Towers. “There was a tremendous back and forth between him and Tait Towers to solve all of the technical problems, which were actually pretty sophisticated, as was his design.” Davis notes that it was crucial to get enough width upstage to accommodate the video looks and the motion necessary to get the scenery through and downstage, as well as to have the VIP platform in a place that worked visually. The deep stage must allow enough room upstage to store all the show elements and to incorporate all of the props on stage and into the choreography. “We all spent a lot of time working out the storage positions and how everything would juggle around to get all of the looks to work just the way Butch wanted them,” Davis adds.

“Tait built a beautiful mobilator that drives much of the scenery,” says Allen. “We take the same base pieces for each scene and build on that. For the opening, the stair unit is built on the basic unit, so when the risers get attached and it gets driven downstage again, it's then Juke Joint. We had really practical solutions for the set construction.”

By far the biggest challenge of this project was the very limited tech rehearsal schedule, according to Morse. “Usually, I end up complaining that scenic elements create lighting obstacles,” he says. “However, in this case, Butch's implementation of the various props and set pieces took the lighting into consideration. So, for once, this was not an issue.”

“Jamie doesn't miss a thing,” adds Allen. “He nurtured the creative process for everyone — never a demonstrative or oppressive atmosphere for anyone. Especially under those time constraints, the way Jamie delivers commentary, you never feel like you're getting beat up.”

Video Basics

Nocturne provided the video package, including the Nocturne V9 wall, two side Barco D7 walls, and side screens IMAG camera package.

Nocturne sent out video director Bill Crooks on the tour, who mixes four Ikegami HL45 cameras with eight channels of Doremi hard drive playback on a GVG Kayak SDI system, feeding visual content to a moving array of both the V9 LED and D7 video displays. “This creates an ever-changing backdrop, as Christina mixes pop standards from the past with her own catalog of hits,” says Crooks. “A montage of testimonials submitted to Christina's fan club is also featured on the screens, allowing her biggest fans to be a part of the show, as well.”

Jason Harvey, also from Nocturne, is the video engineer on the tour, and he programmed the LED screens on an Arti show controller via a PC, six Doremi V1×2 drives (three for backup), and a Pesa Ocelot 16×16 router. Harvey notes that the production is divided into three video streams, each with its own channel, to display the various and multiple images created by Gonzalez and his company, Veneno.

“Working with the design team at Veneno — the same people I just worked with on the Madonna tour — we put together three Digi betacams that were then loaded into three Doremi drives with the same ref codes,” says Harvey. “Using Arti to recall the start/stop times, I'm able to control the Doremis like VTRs and start and stop them at the touch of a button. This is done via a series of lines of code, and once this has been set, you can put all the events onto one button.”

To make it a little easier to keep in sync while running the show, some songs are locked to timecode in Pro Tools. “So I link the button to start in time with the click, and the videos — all three streams — will then all go to the start and play at the given click start time,” Harvey adds. “This is all still done live, as we have to wait for one song to finish and then get ready to catch the next new song. We also use the live camera outputs from the GVG kayak switcher to send to all the screens for some songs, too. This, again, is programmed into Arti to route the correct feeds to the screens via the Pesa router — also done live between Bill Crooks and me working as a team to get it to all work in sync.”

Tait Towers built some systems to support the video package. “We worked with Nocturne Productions to engineer and manufacture the high-res V9 screens using a new quick-mounting system,” says Davis. “It makes a very stiff screen structure that deploys at a speed that is unprecedented. Because of its light weight, it allows the production to have larger screens that are doing more dynamic moves during the show than were really feasible before.”

Four additional Nocturne crew on the tour include Stefaan Michels, video crew chief and chief LED tech; Mike Sienkiewicz, jib/LED; Brad Kaplan, handheld camera op; and John Moore, long lens/LED.

Flying And Other Basics

No tour with an entire segment called “Enter the Circus” would be complete without such scenic elements as flying trapezes. For Back to Basics, riggers Bobby Savage and John Fletcher of Five Points in Nashville, add some support to the trapeze choreography by aerial artist Dreya Weber. This includes a ChainMaster VarioLift system with control and programming, in addition to the rigging systems Five Points provided for scenic and lighting elements.

Additional contributors to the tour were many. Perry Scenic in the UK built circus flats, as well as Juke Joint spaces for the “Big Night Out” scene, matching risers to video content. Sew What? provided additional support onsite in LA, building some masking during rehearsals. Show Effects provided the props, while All Access joined the show during production rehearsals, building unobtrusive audience barriers for the unusual position of the front-of-house audio position.

“What was unique with this experience was it being the first project for Re:Design,” says Morse. “Though Butch and I have worked together before — in fact, similarly on Christina's first concert tour, What A Girl Wants — this was the first time we literally merged our particular specialties and worked as one. This also facilitated a level of trust and communication that was truly enjoyable and highly productive. As I was busy on tour with Streisand and other shows, Butch was in LA dealing with the early rehearsals and construction of the set and many props.”

“I'm really proud of the entire thing and the way it's pulled together,” says Allen. “Undoubtedly, Christina is the best part of the show. Hearing her sing live will change your life. Her vocals and power have only become stronger. All we do is support her. She's such an amazing talent. She dances. She sings. She's a pro.”

The first leg of the Back to Basics tour visited Europe last fall with the second leg now touring North America.

For information on additional special effects on the tour please see:

Pyrotek Special Effects Inc. On Tour With Christina Aguilera

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