Layers of Light

Going on a blind date can be an unsettling experience, but with choreographer Bill T. Jones in the driver's seat, it can also be very satisfying. This was certainly the case for lighting designer Robert Wierzel and video artist/projection designer Peter Nigrini, who collaborated with set designer Bjorn G. Amelan (the company's creative director) on the visual look for Blind Date, a new full-length work by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Blind Date premiered in September at the Alexander Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University, NJ, and is currently touring the United States.

Wierzel, who has worked with the company since 1985, notes that the lighting set out to answer these questions: “Why are we doing this piece? What do we want this piece to say? What's happening in the world today?” Jones, a prolific choreographer (also often provocative), looks at current events, from the war in Iraq to the media's effect on consumerism, using Blind Date to explore a political point of view.

“The design elements are cohesive and the process very organic,” says Wierzel. “It's not just about the lighting but rather about creating the world of the piece and giving it a sense of place.” His biggest challenge was integrating the lighting with multiple screens covered with text and images that the audience must follow throughout the performance.

Wierzel, who had worked with Nigrini at New York City Opera, recommended him for Blind Date. “They needed a video designer who could help shape the piece,” Wierzel recalls. “Bill came to me looking for a collaborator who could translate and develop his ideas in a way that amplified the dance — a way to communicate to the audience, in a more complex and clear voice, his strong feelings about our current political and social situation,” says Nigrini. “In addition, the lighting and video needed to work together to create a single compositional statement. The video also adds light to the stage. So when I placed a large yellow image over here, it asked the question, ‘what would Robert do with the lighting over there?’ We make individual gestures that must complement each other. It became a conversation, almost an improvisation.”

As the work came together over the summer, Wierzel and Nigrini created “a vocabulary about what any given image, color, or gesture might mean in the arc of the piece as it began to speak to us,” says Nigrini. “It was an unbelievable luxury as designers to have so much time to create a piece of this complexity. Thanks to Jed Wheeler in Montclair and his depth of vision, it was possible.”

“Bill's work needs space in which to resonate,” Wierzel says. “As a result, there was no masking on stage, just an open black box. Bjorn created patterns of seven boxes taped out on the floor with gray and yellow tape. These echo the shape of the seven video screens, as well as boxes on the custom-made black velour backdrop that has yellow outlines of the boxes.”

The production staff includes production manager Bob Bursey, stage manager Kyle Maude, and lighting supervisor Laura Bickford. Their challenges include the fact that the lighting does not benefit from a rig that travels with the production and that the video must be tailored for each venue.

The lighting rig is rather spare and based on Wierzel's touring rep plot for the company, yet reconfigured for an evening-length work. The backbone is a complement of 150 ETC Source Four® ellipsoidals, used with eight Wybron Coloram II scrollers (the plot is communicated to each venue in advance and pre-hung before the company arrives). The 32-color scrolls are what Wierzel calls “the Bill T. Jones repertory color scrolls,” as he selected colors he knew would have to last for 10 years. Lighting positions range from backlight, cross light, and frontlight to floor booms on each side of the stage and two “rovers,” or lights moved by the dancers.

Wierzel's palette is spare, except for a few selected moments. “There is, what I call, a neutral, objective light, cool white in color to integrate with Peter's complex media. It breaks out into a few more colorful moments, including the finale. The lighting is the plate that holds the delicacies,” he explains.

“Bjorn gave us a box of toys with a large number of screens,” says Nigrini, referring to the seven major scenic pieces, five of which are projection surfaces. There are four channels of rear projection onto custom-ordered Optitrans RP screens from Gerriets and one FOH projector on the balcony rail. “All five projectors are by Sanyo, with different lumen outputs since the screens are of different sizes,” Nigrini explains. “My goal was to balance the lumens per square foot. Images cover screens up to 10"×20", as well as the entire 35"-wide back wall.”

The location of the FOH projector varies from theatre to theatre. “The challenge was how to tour this piece, knowing the distances and angle to the stage would differ and that this one projector was required to hit a number of different surfaces,” adds Nigrini. “We created sections to show us where the various cues fall in each venue to help focus the video cues. That helped us predict alterations in advance.”

Unlike the lighting rig, the video rig tours with the company: screens, projectors, and a custom playback system devised for this production. “I wasn't happy with any of the systems out there,” admits Nigrini. “We had to project a lot of text for a piece in which the dancers speak in their own languages (including Spanish, Turkish, and Mandarin), and the text provides video translation in English for an English-speaking audience. But it also has to be understood without super-titles on an international tour. It was a mandate from the beginning that all the projected text be integral to the production design.”

Nigrini collaborated with computer programmer Matthew Ostrowski to create the custom playback system, knowing it would need to facilitate different languages for the text (there has been a lot of interest from European presenters). Using seven Apple Macintosh computers (five Mac minis, one G5, and a spare), the system is comprised of five channels of video and one for sequencing and calling cues via a standard Ethernet network. “The control computer can be used in the theatre, while the others are in racks backstage,” notes Nigrini. The playback language is based on MAX/MSP/Jitter by Cycling ‘74, an object-based programming language.

“The need to project the text in different languages at different times was the challenge for this show,” says Nigrini. “The other layers of video and still images are universal and can play around the world.” Nigrini used found images (George W. Bush, Jerry Springer, CNN graphics) as well as footage shot of the dancers to give Blind Date a documentary element with some parodies of TV commercials. “There is a lot of storytelling in the piece,” he adds. “Editing was done until the final moments of tech, with the system right in the theatre.” Nigrini edited on a Mac G5 using Adobe® After Effects® and Apple® Final Cut Pro®.

“I could send output from the system directly to the stage, then tweak what I saw,” he explains. “I could ‘sketch’ right on stage, trying to keep up with Bill. This technology is what makes a complex piece like this possible. Ideally, you can make the video move as quickly, gracefully, and seamlessly as the dancers on stage.”

In an intriguing moment, a “flipbook” is created in which each dancer creates a gesture. “The flat white light from the FOH video projector on the balcony rail captures their movements in snap shops for the sense of a flipbook,” says Nigrini. “We use the video projector to provide another layer of light on the dancers.”

The projected text and images provide a road map to the world Jones evokes on stage: religion, human rights, crimes against humanity, war, and peace, as he struggles to understand a society invaded by fast food and the senselessness of war. Like the world it reflects, the video, on a successful date with the lighting, creates an environment that both envelops and illuminates the dancers.