Lake effects: New York City Ballet paints an all-new Swan Lake with bold strokes


New York City Ballet (NYCB) celebrated its 50th anniversary this year with several new works, including an evening-length Swan Lake with all-new choreography by NYCB ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins, and bold sets and costumes by Danish painter/geologist/writer/ sculptor Per Kirkeby. Lighting director Mark Stanley had several technical challenges to bring the ballet to life, to enhance the strong colors of the stage design without competing with them, yet not letting Kirkeby's artistic statement overpower the narrative of the ballet.

"One of the things Peter wanted was to be able to program it in repertory, so one of the major challenges for me was to design it out of the rep plot," Stanley says. "One thing that helped was that the set designer was very open to suggestions about the hanging of the show, which made it work better with our repertory situation. If we put a drop here I could light it in a certain way; if we put it somewhere else it wasn't a possibility."

Kirkeby is known for his abstract paintings, but this was the first time he had ever designed ballet scenery and costumes. What resulted was a series of dramatically painted scrims and a parade of vibrantly colored costumes running the gamut of medieval-Renaissance styles. Overture and intermission front drops were Expressionistic renderings of layered squiggling brushstrokes in dark colors, giving a very eerie feeling.

"I tried to light those as presentationally as possible," says the LD. "My feeling was that this is the artist's work in its purest form--it's not scenery, it's a 40'x60' painting. There were no templates, I had a no color wash and a Lee 161 [Slate Blue] wash on them, and it was just flat, as even as I could make it. When we got to the scenery, that's when I tried to make it more of an environment, to tie in what was going on choreographically with this world that he had created."

This incarnation of Swan Lake had two acts with two scenes apiece, and one intermission. The acts mirror one another: Act I starts in the courtyard of the Palace and dissolves into the Lake; Act II opens n the Palace ballroom, again dissolving to the Lake setting. The Palace courtyard backdrop was Impressionistic--a sketch of a palazzo arcade in sweeping brown and

green strokes. The ballroom drop used the trademark squiggle brushstrokes to evoke both woodwork wainscoting and marble walls. The Lake drop was another swath of layered, tangled strokes in dark blues and grays, very ominous and drippy-looking, like a bayou on a moonless night.

"There was a conceptual idea behind his progression in the scenery," Stanley explains, "which I incorporated into the lighting--Scene I being the most colorful, and ending the show in essentially a black-and-white look. We go from a very colorful Scene I to a more romantic, traditional color palette for Scene II at the Lake--the blues, the textures of what you might see in any Swan Lake no matter what the scenery. Then Scene III, back in the court, being a much colder, starker environment." The ballroom scene was washed with pale cools and lavenders; the final scene at the Lake was mostly no color with some Lee 201 blue color correction.

NYCB typically uses over 500 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals of various beam widths; eight each of Altman 1kW VNSP PAR-64s, Mole-Richardson 2kW fresnels, Kliegl 14" 1kW scoops, and Berkey Colortran 1kW Mini-Broads; more than 70 groundrows, cyclights, and striplights; three Pani 650W bridge spots, two Pani 1kW bridge spots, two Strong Super Trouper 1,500W xenon followspots, and two custom 1,500W xenon followspots, controlled by two ETC Obsession I boards (one as a backup), powered by 200 Kliegl 12kW dimmers and 240 LMI/ETC 2.4kW dimmers.

"I maxed out all the specials that normally might be used for 30 or 40 ballets," the LD says, "which means that I'll have to figure out how they go back and forth, but I'll cross that bridge next season." The New York State Theater, which NYCB shares with the New York City Opera, installed 90 Wybron color scrollers in January, greatly expanding Stanley's color possibilities. "Not only do I have scrolls happening between scenes, but even within light cues I'm scrolling. In the Lake scene I scroll from a blue to a blue-green to a dark blue while the cue is happening."

Scene I costumes were almost garish, each stratum of court society in a different semi-medieval style--crimson velvet pages, eggplant maids, courtiers in hot orange or kelly green, the Queen in Elizabethan black velvet with gold squiggle detailing and a cobalt blue ruff and headdress. The Swans were much more in keeping with traditional Swan Lake design--feathery white tutus with just subtle touches of pale blue squiggles on the bodices. The evil magician Rotbart was dressed in ornate Renaissance style with black doublet and breeches with gold detailing, and a huge, marvelous reversible cape, black on one side, metallic golden orange on the other.

"My palette was dictated by his color choices because they're so predominant," Stanley explains. "In Scene I the costumes are so vibrant that my color choices were not conceptual so much as pragmatic--what was going to be the best way to keep his colors true. But you couldn't light the dancers necessarily in those colors, so you have to find a balance between the two." He accomplished this by focusing ambers and reds on the costumes, while focusing traditional ballet pinks and lavenders on the dancers' faces for proper skin tones. "When we see Rotbart the first time, the choreography was such that I could control where the sidelight was hitting him, so there was some amber sidelight, Rosco 09 [Pale Amber Gold] and R17 [Light Flame], lighting into him," so that the cape material would flash with color as it swirled.

"One thing about [Kirkeby's] painting was that while it was very dramatic in its use of line," the LD notes, "it didn't have a sense of depth." He enhanced the atmosphere for the Lake scenes by focusing different colored washes on various sections of the backdrop and shifting them during the scene "so that the Lake would change emotionally. There were some lavenders and ambers in that backdrop that, in all of the blue wash for the dancers, got muted out, so we overlaid a pale amber and pale lavender wash on various sections of the drop to get those colors to come back." This treatment actually gave the single backdrop the appearance of several layers of scrim.

Unique templates accentuated the mystical ambience. "We scanned some of the artwork from the set designer's paint elevations and turned it into template washes. With the help of Mark Mongold, our assistant production manager who is quite a wiz on the Macintosh, we were able to create texture patterns of the same visual vocabulary as the artist's work. We used the texture overlays in the scenic transitions, and I added them in different places."

The production team developed a new technique for this, using a Barco video projector. City Opera installed it for supertitle projection, and City Ballet realized it could be used for templates as well. "We were planning to do it with a Pani projector, so we were making up the slides in Photoshop on the computer," Stanley recalls. "I don't remember how it came up, but the idea was that we could just plug it into the Barco and generate it straight from the laptop. In the program Photoshop you have total control over the hue, saturation, and value of any color--it was like having a paint shop right there. The first couple of slides we created, the textures were too dense, so we ended up taking out a couple layers, and it was just so easy because it was basically a push of a button. We were so impressed by the possibilities that we're going to keep working on it."

Scene III, in the Palace ballroom, requires the most obvious lighting manipulations. A typical story ballet convention is to provide an excuse to show off as many dancers as possible in short pieces for trios, quartets, and so on, known as divertissements. "It was the longest section of dance without storytelling," says Stanley, "so I wanted to move that along and keep the pacing of it so that it didn't bog down for the audience. I tried to make an interesting visual progression that kept the audience interested in each section." Kirkeby provided lots of variety in the costumes, which helped the LD to give each divertissement its own character.

"The Russian section was very sultry and we wanted to focus in on them and almost lose the corps and the set as much as possible," Stanley explains. "That was lit with a dark R80 [Primary Blue] wash and templates with very strong bridge spots. Those spots were the key element of that, to give it an isolated, focused-in look. The Hungarian section was a bright, uptempo folk dance, and the costumes were very colorful, so I kicked in a lot more saturated color from the sidelight so that as the skirts were turning there was a lot of color flashing in the folds and shadows of the fabric. That had R18 [Flame] and Lee 142 [Pale Violet], more saturated colors to make the folk dance element of it more vibrant."

The ballroom scene takes on a sinister tone when the evil Rotbart crashes the party to trick the Prince into dancing with the Black Swan. "It gets much cooler, the angle gets a lot steeper and sharper, and I added in the video [pattern] overlays, to break up the set and to give a hint of the Lake world, which was [Rotbart's] power, to bring that subconsciously into the court." Stanley was not able to push the lighting as far as he may have wanted, however, because the Black Swan duet is one of the choreographic high points. "Initially I started lighting it more emotionally, and the mood was very dark and mysterious, but Peter said we need to keep it lighter, because this is what the audience is coming to see."

So the LD saved his dramatic statement for the final moments of the evening. The Lake backdrop looks even more foreboding: The stark white directional lighting drains the color out of the drop, making the squiggled brushstrokes look like jagged black and white lightning bolts. The Swans mournfully dance their intricate patterns, ending in a wedge formation upstage left. "At the very end of the ballet the Swans disappear into the wings: It's very strongly backlit in a diagonal through the back of the Swans down to the Prince and the White Swan." The bright white light, diffused through fluttering layers of tulle skirts, was provided by the 1kW VNSP PAR-64s.

"Since the set was such an obvious statement by a modern painter," Stanley concludes, "I had three challenges: to light the choreography and the story being told, and to underscore the moods of the music--those are traditional ballet lighting requirements. The third was to find a way to make what was essentially a painting into an environment. It was an interesting process: It was about finding that fine line between what is a painting and when is it an environment."

To celebrate New York City Ballet's 50 years, the New-York Historical Society organized a 10,000-sq.-ft. (900 sq. m) exhibition of photographs, correspondence, and film/video footage chronicling the dance company's impact on the American cultural landscape. Included are originalscenic design sketches and models for many ballets, plus several actual costumes by quintessential ballet designer Karinska. Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet was curated by dance scholar Lynn Garafola and historian Eric Foner; the exhibit was designed by Stephen Saitas with lighting by Anita Jorgensen, IALD, IESNA.

Galleries are organized chronologically, with kiosks dedicated to certain famous ballets such as The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty containing costumes and props. "Stephen's idea for the project was to keep a very clean, spare look, which is not unlike City Ballet's work itself," Jorgensen explains. "His vision was to give the audience member an impression of what backstage is like." Kiosks and dividers are made up of large plywood panels painted white, in front of long vertical panels of white voile. The plywood panels are not connected and are unfinished on the back, like theatre scenery flats, and cabling and striplights under the voile scrims can be seen, giving visitors the feeling of standing in the wings awaiting their cues.

"The idea was to start with a kind of reference to a 'Balanchine Blue' cyc," says Jorgensen, reminiscent of Serenade, one of the choreographer's trademark works. "Then it goes into the Lincoln Center era, with creamy white tones for a very clean, sparse look, like Travertine marble." Some scrim panels are just grazed with white or pale blue. The exhibit ends with Peter Martins taking the reins after Balanchine's death, so the designers wanted to make a strong statement. Since one of Martins' ballets is Ecstatic Orange, "we thought that would be a great way to turn the very white, clean show into color at the end." In this gallery the colored light skims up the wall behind a large grid of plywood strips from which hang photos, creating interesting shadows.

Jorgensen kept her design as clean and spare as the exhibit by specifying very few types of fixtures. "The basic workhorse of the show, which did all the wall-washing," she says, was Lighting Services Inc. (LSI) closed-back PAR-38s with snoots to avoid light leaks and glare. She added spread lenses and GE 60W HIR lamps. "I didn't use a PAR-38 wall-washer fixture because it was a very high ceiling, close to 20' [6m]. We didn't want too much light way up on top, we wanted to keep it down at eye level, so I used a wall-wash lens with a fixture that took a cone." For highlights she used LSI closed-back PAR-36s with spread lenses and 50W 25-degree AR-111 lamps. "It's a very pretty, clean combination, and the color temperature doesn't really change over time."

The colored scrims were lit with Altman Micro-Strips with Osram Sylvania 20W MR-11 flood lamps. Color was added with GAM Color T12 fluorescent tube sleeves, just slid in under the top lid of the fixture. Balanchine blue was achieved with a single layer of GAM 845 Cobalt, by slicing the sleeve in half lengthwise. Martins orange was GAM 388 Gold Rush. It required double saturation, so the LD simply flattened out the sleeve. Costumes were highlighted with LSI gel in various colors.

The major technical challenge was keeping light levels low. "The entire show was 5-7fc, which is what fabric and works on paper require conservation-wise," explains Jorgensen. "We could blast the scrims, but we had to go very subtle on the costumes. This is the first time I had to light a tutu in a conservation setting. The bodice can take more [light] because it's vertical, and the tutu itself has to take less because it sticks out horizontally. It was a little tricky."

Her solution? "We used ordinary aluminum window screen, cut to size, as a mechanical dimmer. You can buy it ready-made, but there were budget limitations. I do it all the time in museums. It cuts the light and the color temperature stays the same. We placed it behind the lens of the fixture and that cut the level down. It required between two and four screens depending on what we were lighting. The accent lights required more screens--the AR lamp is punchier than the HIR, because it has a narrower beam spread."

A dance enthusiast, Jorgensen got into lighting design after seeing Jennifer Tipton's name in programs and admiring her work. Jorgensen has since made museum work her specialty, so designing this exhibit sort of brought her full circle. "I had a fabulous time working on it," she concludes. "I am a huge City Ballet fan, so for me it was a dream come true."