Asian Music and Dance

Breathing Light into Dance – A Dancer’s Perspective

Dancer/choreographer Kali Chandrasegaram urges dance artists to become sensitive to the interplay of light and movement – what he calls the ‘synergy of the human aura and particles of light creates a synchronised dance’.

The creation of a lighting design conceptualised in tandem with the dance is a work of art by itself. As a choreographer, I create my work visualising the dance simultaneously with the lighting to create a holistic experience. Dance and lighting need to fit as hand in glove: to envelop, caress and seduce the dancer to create an aura that is divine. Properly lit, the dancer on stage can become a magical being. And, if one is clever, the lighting can also shed a few pounds off the performer – believe me, it can camouflage a multitude of sins. I speak on behalf of many South Asian dancers who, like me, can’t afford a lighting designer and have been thrown into situations where they have had to devise a lighting design themselves. Since lighting is not a module in the guru-shishya parampara, the unfamiliarity can be unnerving. But equally it can be a blessing in disguise, forcing one to learn on one’s feet. 

So how could we think about enhancing our performance? I would suggest through five support structures: the skills of the painter, the architect, the civil engineer, the mixologist and the poet. By marrying the visions of these mindsets, a choreographer can tap into tremendous possibilities.

“…the meticulous shading of light and dark colours…the ‘Caravaggio’ effect’.”


Just like a painter who breathes life into his painting with the meticulous shading of light and dark colours, the lighting design can differentiate the Monets and Caravaggios of dance. 

By playing with the intensity and the angle of the beam according to the moving body and the intention behind the movements, one can generate a state of rasa (an emotional response) in the audience. One can sculpt the body with sidelights (the best friends of dance) hung on booms (vertical poles) in the wings and set at the level of shins, mids and heads (technical terms corresponding to parts of the body lit). They have the power to light the body brightly, while modelling it at the same time. As the booms light the dancer more than the floor, the dancer appears to float in the space. This is what I call the ‘Caravaggio’ effect.

The use of colour can intensify the emotive quality of the performers. One can use a white dance floor as a blank canvas to throw and blend colours as Cheng Tsung–lung, the artistic director and choreographer of Cloud Gate 2 does in his choreography Beckoning, or create linear corridors and angular shapes of colours as in the works of Matisse.

“…Choreographers need to have the eye of an architect…”


To create high defining shapes and forms in perspective, dancers and choreographers need to have the eye of an architect, one who uses the light and shades within a structure to bring out the most appealing vision. The stage is the perfect environment to create an illusion of perfection…perfect symmetry, perfect lines and perfect contrast. Considering the distance between the audience and the performer in relation to the space, the illusion of distance can be created by varying the intensity of the lights and using the sidelights in transition. The vast empty space can be considerably reduced to create an intimate setting by carefully lighting certain areas of the stage to achieve the effect of ‘pools of light’. 

Civil Engineer

When we are using visuals and need to decide where in the space we are going to put these, the civil engineer’s thinking comes into play. The performance needs to take the audience on a journey, so we map the visuals to make this seamless. The pathways can take the form of a motorway, a flyover, a bridge, a zig-zag, a cross junction or a roundabout. If the pathways end at the edge of the stage then we can either decide to turn back, to continue beyond the stage or simply have a blackout…end of a chapter.

“…The right measure for each element.”


“It doesn’t have the right mix”, we often hear said when the elements are not harmoniously balanced. Just as in baking or cooking, when one doesn’t get the amount in the mix right, the dish can flop! A mixologist mindset will know what is the right measure for each element. I am not a fan of repetition, so for me each visual experience needs to be different.

“Specials can be in the form of top lighting or backlighting, creating shadows and silhouettes…”


For me, what creates magic on the stage are the specials (lighting instruments used to create specific effects), which layer on a piece of dance like a poem. Specials can be in the form of top lighting or backlighting, creating shadows and silhouettes, so the performer becomes mysterious or elusive. Shadows can become an invisible partner to the dancer, multiplying the movement or taking and distorting shapes to create new patterns. The body in silhouette in a form as sculptural as bharatanatyam and odissi can produce exciting results. Often used in combination with a cyclorama where the background is drenched in colour, the bodies become etchings.

Good lighting not only enhances the dance but also breathes life into movements. Just as we dancers are hugely passionate about our form and technique, it is essential to carry that into the creative presentation on stage.

Lighting for dance can make or break a performance. As a moth dances and flutters its wings in reaction to the movements of a flame, dancers and choreographers with affinity towards lighting feel the warmth as the light embraces the performer while in search of a surface upon which to reflect. This mutual attraction, the synergy of the human aura and light particles, creates a synchronised dance in itself. As human vision is limited one is not able to see this dance of the energies, but it can be felt when there is a connection.

Sensitivity towards the sensation of light in space and in contact with skin and an awareness of the potential of the various light sources and states are key to creating magic on stage.



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