Black costumes absorb light and not reflect it, which means that a black costume cannot support 3D lighting – it will not clearly reveal the direction of the light source. Matt black is the worst, but no black is good so if you have to wear black, make it shiny black! It is a problem commonly seen in amateur and dance school productions, where the dancers are absorbing the light and looking like holes in the staging.
We see colour because the costume reflects that colour light and therefore the strongest 3D effects require a broad match between the costume and the side light in particular. Thus lighting white ballet tights with open white or pale blue shin lights can work well for the legs, whereas lighting coloured tights with a contrasting colour will lessen the effect.
Single colour costumes present the best effect, or bi-colour if there is the possibility of bi-colour side lights. Costumes that reveal rather than obscure the dancer’s figure and movement will likewise work better. Loose costumes can suffer from strong shadows if relying heavily upon sidelight, with the effect worst across the front of the costume.
Finally, if designing a dance production to actively exploit lighting (the best design concept!) pale single colour costumes respond best to the use of different colours, e.g. using different colour side light each side. Slightly shiny fabrics can better reveal 3D form under sidelight, providing maximum constrast at lower light levels.
Why is dance lighting different from theatrical or concert lighting? The key difference is the absolute need to emphasise the dancers themselves, especially their 3D posture and movement, with usually much less emphasis on any set or backdrop. Considerably more use is made of sidelight and differing colour to create distributions of light and shadow that provide the brain with visual cues about 3D form. In contrast, a play staged on a proscenium stage with predominantly front and overhead light will appear 2D, i.e. flat to the audience. (how to check – look at a photo of your performance – does it still look 3D?)
In addition, the best dance performances use the light to augment the story told by the dance, so using techniques from pure drama to convey emotion. Control of light is fundamental, for example, how do you highlight ballet principals when accompanied by the corps de ballet? Visual zoning of the stage, creating darkness to separate dancers, or to highlight others, is another important aspect. For many dance styles, avoiding lighting the backdrop is important, to separate the dancer from her surroundings. Indeed, many performances adopt a black box stage with all the light upon the dancers, leading to complete artistic freedom for choreographer and lighting designer alike.
The obvious exception is ballet and that is for historical and also partly artistic reasons. It is mostly performed on a proscenium stage and therefore front light is usually present and fairly strong. Side light is normally added, to compensate for the flattening effects of fornt light but there is usually also scenery to light. As a consequence, there is often a lot more light on stage compared to modern or lyrical forms or flamenco, etc. In may respects ballet lighting tends towards operatic styles with a lot of added sidelight!
One less obvious aspect of dance lighting is the need to ensure continuity of effect. For theatrical productions simply ensuring the general cover is uniform across the stage may be adequate but for dance every effect within which the dancer moves has to maintain its styling. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for the designer; maintaining emotion and styling, possibly across multiple dancers, while they move around the stage. This is very different from creating a static theatrical scene.
Finally, certain artistic expectations exist. Ballet for example nearly always has a blue floor wash (from overhead), something which can confound more sophisticated approaches to lighting and especially if the floor is shiny! For examples of different artistic styles, take a look at the PInterest boards below.
Much of this blog will be offering commentary upon current production styles of dance performance, especially the figurative forms, i.e. those that were intended to present a spectacle and to be expressive, rather than just enjoyed. Thus Appalachian or English folk dances won’t appear here, but flamenco, ballet and kathak (and some other South Asian forms), and the whole spectrum from ballet through modern to lyrical, etc. will.
Much will be about lighting, a specialist form of the dramatic arts akin to theatrical lighting but with increased emphasis on revealing 3D form and texture and usually to light the performers and not the scene. The increased use of directional light, colour and the creation of dark space are key elements.
Looking forward, the use of projection and motion tracking is increasing, creating immersive performance spaces within which dancers move and interact with the visual effects.