Al Crawford: Lighting Dance Africa At BAM

Senegal's Les Ballets de la Renaissance Africaine "WAAtO SiiTA"
(Richard Termine) Senegal's Les Ballets de la Renaissance Africaine "WAAtO SiiTA."

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) celebrates African dance and music in its annual DanceAfrica festival, founded 40 years ago under the artistic direction of Chuck Davis. This year’s DanceAfrica, now led by Abdel R. Salaam, runs May 26-29. Live Design chats with DanceAfrica’s lighting designer Al Crawford, who is also the lighting director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and will present a Live Design webcast about his work on Tuesday, September 26.

Live Design: How did you get involved with DanceAfrica?

Al Crawford: My official connection to DanceAfrica at BAM began four years ago. I grew up (literally) with DanceAfrica founder Baba Chuck Davis. He was a babysitter (Yes!) and an important elder while in N.C. Many of my early experiences with dance or lighting were with the African American Dance Ensemble under Chuck’s direction. We’ve been friends my whole life. When the wonderful lighting designer William (Bill) Grant sadly passed away, Chuck asked me if I would come pick up the torch that Bill had carried for decades with the festival. I was honored, and that became the beginning of a great relationship with the festival.

Compagnie Tenane's Who Are We?

LD: Is there a repertory rig for DanceAfrica? If so, what are the fixtures, and architecture of the rig? Are all the performances in the Opera House?

AC: The performances are indeed all in the beautiful Howard Gilman Opera House. We design a plot that will accommodate primarily the needs of the DanceAfrica performances; however, often we incorporate some elements for events happening around the festival for convenience and efficiency. The plot is primarily a repertory dance rig, inspired by my home rig at Ailey but then adjusted and amplified to meet the needs of the festival. It consists of about 250 conventional ETC Source Fours, ETC Source Four Pars as well as Altman Spectra Cyc 200, Philips Vari-Lite VL4000 Spots, and Vari-Lite VL1000TS Spots. We use the house ETC EOS Classic console to control the whole rig.

LD: All in-house gear or rental of anything special?

AC: In general, we try to keep rentals to a minimum. We do rent a star drop, foggers, hazers, or any specialty effects.

LD: Do some of the companies have their own LDs? How do you coordinate with them? Do they send you their plots in advance? 

AC: In general, they do not. Most of the visiting companies that come to DanceAfrica are from remote small villages in Africa and have not experienced this level of design on their work yet. It’s exciting for them, and I'm honored to support their pieces in a way that they often haven’t been able to in their homelands.

Senegal: Doors of Ancient Futures, in the 2016 season of BAM's DanceAfrica

LD: Who does the programming? BAM staff?

AC: The house electricians program the EOS desk. They are a group of super talented folks, and they tend to tag-team us depending on the day. It’s always smooth, and they are very skilled.

LD: Use of color? Use of movement? There always seems to be some ‘excitement’ in the lighting for DanceAfrica, in keeping with the rhythms!

AC: It’s a very colorful production! We have a great time meeting the high-octane energy level of the performances. It often is opportunity for some serious drama, but also some delicate moments as well. It's true dance theatre.

LD: Do any of the dances have large set elements to light this year?

AC: This year Abdel Salaam, artistic director of DanceAfrica, wants to use the motif of a large tree to inspire thoughts of rebirth, family strength, and growth. We are still in design development but we are playing with the ideas of incorporating a large three-dimensional tree sculpture into the performances. We will likely use this idea to branch off (no pun intended) additional visual statements that support this.

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