Q+A: Joe Levasseur On Endangered Pieces

Q+A: Joe Levasseur On Endangered Pieces

Photo Nandita Raman

Lighting designer Joe Levasseur has been working with the dance company, Palissimo, since 2003. Endangered Pieces, which had its world premiere at the Abrons Art Center in New York City in October 2013, is their seventh collaboration on an evening-length piece and comes right on the heels of The Painted Bird Trilogy, a collection of three works presented as a four-hour marathon at La MaMa last June. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux interviews Levasseur about Endangered Pieces, in which the lighting plays a major role:

Live Design: Talk a little about your collaboration with Palissimo.

Joe Levasseur: This regular exposure to the company, designing approximately one piece per year, and then integrating them together into The Painted Bird Trilogy set up Pavel Zuštiak—the choreographer—and I with a tighter creative process than we had worked with previously, inside of a shorter time frame. The work was constructed with a concept of “poor theatre” in mind. In 2007, we toured a previous piece originally produced at PS122 to a festival in Bytom, Poland. The venue was a massive empty turbine hall of a power plant. With much less equipment, but the ability to put a single sidelight 60' from the edge of the stage, we discovered that, in distilling the plot into the bare essentials and enacting simple gel changes and focus shifts during the course of the show, the piece was somehow richer than it had ever been. With this experience in mind, I set out to design a plan for Endangered Pieces in which ideas were big or not there at all. 

Photo Nandita Raman

LD: For Endangered Pieces did you use the house rig or bring in your own gear?
JL: I did not bring any additional theatrical gear into Abrons Arts Center. The final product has about 65 channels and less than 90 units, mostly ETC Source Fours and PAR64s, with far-cyc backlights and three flying scoops on long taildowns, controlled with an ETC Element. There is nothing hung in the air mid-stage. The only addition to the house inventory was a number of neutral white LED tape strips. These super-low profile strips enabled us to create the flying bisecting line scenic piece and were taped to the upstage sides of the three bare vertical booms that are onstage for the duration of the piece. One length of this tape made its way onto the apron as a footlight of sorts, more to frame and comment on glamour and the unabashed theatrical space of a fore-curtain apron, than to actually light anyone.

LD: What about the nudity in the piece? Did you light the bodies in any specific ways?
JL: Nudity in this piece is treated in a number of different ways. In the first section, it functions exactly like unpainted wood, a blank canvas, or base material to be crafted and manipulated, thus lit with a worklight aesthetic. Later, a light in Jaro Viňarský’s solo points an unapologetic finger at the dancer in the action of changing his clothing, emphasizing the direction of his facing and the shamelessness of the task. When the men descend the three pipes, which marks the center point in the piece, their presence is much more vulnerable. They appear to be lit by the three scoops, which fly out during the course of their descent, but in reality, the floor-mounted shins are doing most of the work. When the men ultimately come down off of the pipes, I transition to a very saturated red front wash, flattening the image, and attempting to meld them into the mid-stage space. 

Photo Nandita Raman

LD: What was your biggest challenge here?

JL: My greatest challenge in lighting this piece was balancing the visual weight of seeing units as a Brechtian tool and the use of hidden lights for theatrical magic. In each moment of this piece, either or both of these approaches are taken, sometimes within the course of the same movement. Tempering and timing these elements, from the use of the hidden first electric for upstage frontlight to use of the house light sconces, became a huge part of refining the piece once we started during run-throughs in the theatre.

My goal was not to empathically mirror the action but to simply frame it, as in executing jump cuts during the three solos of the piece. In these, I was responding to the mini-episodic states, mostly ephemeral tasks that the dancers engage in during the course of each solo. The analog style of cueing became a way to accentuate the non-linear flow of each action-by-action moment. For the most part, these cuts exist inside of the movement bites, to overlap two ideas onto one action.

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