Mark Stanley: Living Light

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Photo: Paul Kolnik

Can you convey a complex mood using only a single light source? This is the challenge that the Resident Lighting Designer of the New York City Ballet presents to first time students at the classes he teaches at Boston University, where he heads the lighting design program. Although the question may startle some students, it embodies the philosophy that Stanley has followed over the course of a career that has seen him design over 200 premieres featuring some of the world’s most acclaimed choreographers at the NYCB, in addition to his work at the New York City Opera, London’s Royal Opera House and the Kennedy Center.

Photo: Rosalie O’Conner

Avoiding power for power’s sake alone, Stanley has created subtle, thoughtful and transformative designs that seem to evoke emotional power from each individual fixture. Some of his notable projects have relied on only a few fixtures, others have used a myriad of them; always with the goal of not merely lighting dance, but creating an environment in which it can flourish.

Dance, in his view “lives in light.” Through countless performances, his designs have helped this be a life well lived. We caught up to Stanley between design projects and asked him to share his insights with us.

You’ve often borrowed a phrase from Chorus Line that “everything is beautiful at the ballet.” Can you elaborate what you mean by that, in terms of ballet and vis-à-vis lighting ballet?

“I use that phrase in two ways. The first is that ballet inherently strives to be beautiful in its revealing of the human form and emotion, in its relationship to music, and in its design. But like all theatre, there can be something gritty behind the magic, so sometimes that phrase is somewhat facetious. A ballet dancer’s life is hard, the hours are long, design and production time are short, tempers flare, equipment breaks. There are many things behind the curtain that can more often than not be the very opposite of beautiful.”


Photo: Paul Kolnick

Ballet can be seen as a celebration of beauty. So how would you describe the relationship between beauty and light?

“Light is the world in which the dance lives. It enhances mood, emotion, form – and it partners with the movement and the dancers in time and space. The beauty comes when that partnership is in perfect harmony; when the lighting environment and the dancer, along with the music and the choreography, all provoke in the audience an awareness of something ephemeral, meaningful, and relevant to their lives.”

We understand that when you teach, you will ask students to create a mood using a single light. Can you describe the important lesson that this imparts?

“It requires a student to explore the fundamental qualities of light: intensity, color, form, angle, movement, rhythm and to apply them in a creative way. When you only have one light source, it becomes about creativity not about hardware. As a starting point for a young designer, this is very important.”

If you encountered someone at a party and they asked “what is ballet lighting?” What would you tell them?

“Well, first I ask how long do they have. The answer can take a while. But the short version is that ballet lighting is as diverse as any genre of lighting. It can be anything from fluorescent tubes to harsh HMIs to pastel colors. It is light that is unique to a moment that creates a world in which the dance exists. But this is true of lighting for all performances types. The techniques of ballet may differ: we use more sidelight, there is often no scenery, color palettes may be different, but the overall goals are the same as if you are lighting a play, opera, musical, or any other performance.”


Photo: Paul Kolnik

Ballet has evolved quite a bit over the past 50-75 years, so it is no longer exclusively stories with scenic elements. How does your approach to lighting differ with different types of ballets?

“The abstract, or plot-less ballets require you to focus on a specific set of visual symbols to help support the dance. This can be anything from a single, bright, full stage light cue, to something more graphic or detailed. This might be color, form, or angle, but instead of it being in support of the scenic element, it is the primary visual element. So instead of looking at a scenic rendering and saying, ‘how can light support this environment and bring it to life?,’ I’m thinking, ‘what in the movement of the dancer needs to be supported and theatrically revealed to the audience, and how does that reveal happen over the time of the dance?’.”

At the New York City Ballet, you create a light plot to accommodate 30 to 40 ballets in a season. What kind of challenge does this present and how do you meet it?

“The rep plot has been pretty solid for many years since I redesigned it in 1988 for the American Music Festival. We’ve built a highly flexible system of focus changes, color changing, and additional special equipment that allows for each ballet to be unique. The real challenge is in the way the ballets are scheduled for the season. At NYCB the 20-minute intermission is the changeover. We don’t have set programs that are the same every time. So any ballet must be designed to allow it to be performed in the same night as any other ballet.

“Obviously there are exceptions, but this requires me and guest designers to work within the plot and create a design that can be easily set up and taken down in that time frame. We have an amazing production staff and stage electrics crew that can recolor, refocus, and reset a huge number of lights in that time, but you do have to be creative in terms of what you use. Sometimes the color or angle you want has to come from somewhere totally different than what you imagined. You get to be very inventive with rovers, and deck equipment that can be quickly put into place.”


Photo: Paul Kolnick

You also worked extensively in theatre and were the lighting director of the New York City Opera. How does working in theatre and opera compare to ballet?

“Time is the big difference. The dance world operates on a very rapid schedule. From the first lighting session to premiere is often less than a week. Also, the repertory nature of a dance company changes the logistics. In big opera companies you might be dealing with two or three operas a week on stage, with a big ballet company there might be five or eight ballets on stage in one week. Not all of them are new, but all of them need to be rehearsed, and cues need to be looked at and cleaned up. There are certainly time pressures on big operas or musicals, but it’s not the same. If I’m designing the lighting for an opera, often the entire light plot is dedicated to that one production. At NYCB that light plot is dedicated to 30-40 ballets a season and over 200 ballets in the active repertory. It makes you think differently about what you can adjust or add.”

When lighting a production of Balanchine’s
Serenade you had only four light cues. Can you describe the design process in that case?

“I inherited this production, so there wasn’t a typical design process for me. It was Balanchine’s first ballet in America in 1934 and the original performance was not in a theatre. The lighting for this piece is iconic and known throughout the world. When the curtain goes up on the corps de ballet, the stage is washed in blue light all from one direction. As I have done with all the Balanchine works, I had to think about what is the essence of the design choice. Did it exist in the past because of technical limitations or because that was the actual design choice? So for example, in that first cue back in the 1940s and even after the company came to Lincoln Center, not all the dancers on stage were lit, because the plot couldn’t cover the stage evenly. Now it can, so the choice becomes do you cover all the dancers or not?

“I choose to make as striking a stage picture as possible with all the dancers lit strongly from the one side that was true to what came before me, but was a more striking image. To me, that meant lighting all the dancers. I don’t want anyone to look at the light cue and say, ‘oh that’s not the way it was’ but I do want it to be fresh, alive, and more dynamic now that we have that capability in the plot.”

You’ve called your work for the New York City Ballet’s production of
Sleeping Beauty the lighting project you’re most proud of. Can you tell us why?

“This was three years in the making. It required extensive experimentation because we were trying many new things, like the light boxes that illuminate the translucent scenic legs. The set was modified from a design by David Mitchell that he had done without considering the specific theatre, rep light plot, or choreographic demands, so we had to find a way to adapt to all of that without losing what he had originally designed. The end result is a production unlike any Sleeping Beauty around, and to me, very beautiful.”

What drew you to lighting design? How did you get started in your career?

“I started as a follow spot operator of a children’s theatre production of Tortoise and the Hare in 7th grade. It was all of theatre that excited me. I acted, built sets, costumes, and loved going to performances. In college the Alwin Nikolai Dance Theatre Company came and did a residency. I had never seen anything like that and was hooked. That’s when I knew I wanted to make a career out of it. After that I was lucky enough to study with Gilbert Hemsley at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then go work for him in New York. It was an amazing opportunity and start to my career.”

What do you think you would have done if you weren’t a lighting designer?

“I think back and wished I had worked harder at being a director. I think in many ways that is where my theatrical instincts lie. But lighting design is very similar. You have to think about many of the same things. I also wish I had worked harder about being a good musician. I always just did it as a hobby, but looking back wished I had taken it further.”

Photo: Paul Kolnik

We’ve heard you describe the role of a lighting designer in ballet as creating a “perfect picture frame of light” for accenting the beauty of the performance. Can you elaborate on that?

“In many Balanchine ballets, the goal for the design is different from the traditional support I described in some of my answers above. There is a purity to what Balanchine wanted by not having anything other than the choreography and music speak to the audience. In many of the ‘black and white’ ballets, costumes are essentially rehearsal clothes, dancers don’t emote, and there is no scenery other than a blue backdrop. The light is there to frame the dance, much like a frame in an art museum. If you get it right, it provides the perfect space in which the dance and music can exist without telling the audience how to feel, where to look, or what to think. It leaves it up to them.”

What makes a good ballet lighting designer? What traits are important?

“First you have to love dance and movement as an art form. Being musical or having some training in music doesn’t hurt. But a good ballet lighting designer is also a good theatre, musical theatre, opera, rock and roll, event, and industrial designer. You have to understand that light is a dynamic form of design, that it can transform time, space, and an audience’s perception of an event. From there, it’s a matter of honing in on what that particular performance or event needs. But overall you need to see and imagine a non-verbal response to a non-verbal art form.”

When you design for ballet, which members of the creative team do you collaborate with most closely. Is there a lot of give and take in these collaborations? What makes a collaboration successful?

“Every show is different. Obviously, the choreographer is the primary collaborator. After that, the costume designer. Sometimes there can be years of conversation, sometimes none. Any collaboration is successful when everyone is treated equally within the partnership and has the common goal of creating a unique theatrical performance. When one or more egos get in the way of that goal, it all goes south. Each team member brings a unique set of skills to the collaboration, but all are theatre artists. There is ideally a safe space within the team to share any idea, and to explore any contribution without fear of stepping on someone’s toes. But success is difficult to define. You might have an amazing collaboration and be true to all your ideas, and still get bad reviews. You never know.”

Who were the big influencers in your career?

“As I mentioned before, Gilbert Hemsley was my primary mentor. He had an enormous impact on my development as a designer, my career, and my view of the world. Tom Skelton was also a major influence. And of course, that experience with Alwin Nikolai in undergrad school. But so many others contributed along the way. Teachers like my color theory teacher, Marjorie Kreilick, or set designers like John Ezell or John Conklin. And colleagues like Duane Schuler or Ellen Sorrin. There are a lot of people who shape who we become.”

How would you like to be remembered as a designer?

“As a collaborator who created lighting that was unique to each performance, and who always had good snacks at the tech table.”

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