Dance writer Sanjoy Roy went along to Dance Umbrella’s event No Body at Sadler’s Wells, which put lighting maestros Michael Hulls and Lucy Carter’s installations as the centrepiece of the performance. Roy, in conversation, explores the ideas and inspirations that sparked their creations.
I’ve been watching and writing about dance for two decades, which means – I guess – that I’ve been watching lighting for dance for just as long. But do I ever notice it? Sure I do – but usually, I confess, I simply see it. My focus is mostly on the dancing and the choreography. In my defence, the lighting itself is often designed to complement the choreography or direct attention towards the performance. Furthermore, if you put a human body into a field of vision – a stage, say – it immediately seizes our attention. That’s human instinct, and lighting can’t ignore it.
But what if there is no body? That was the idea behind, and indeed title of, a project shown at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre in June. No Body was a promenade through a series of installations that, by removing live performers completely, foregrounded the different media that often work in consort with dance – lighting, sound, costume, video (I would have loved to have seen some text up there too). It included two lighting designers: Michael Hulls (best known for his collaborations with choreographer Russell Maliphant), and Lucy Carter (who has worked most often with Wayne McGregor and Shobana Jeyasingh).
Hulls’ LightSpace feels initially like an art installation. The main Sadler’s Wells stage is thronged with suspended clusters of tungsten bulbs, glowing and fading mysteriously like will-o’-the-wisps. Soon, you realise that far from there being no body, there are plenty of bodies: us, wandering entranced around the stage. Soon after, the piece begins to mutate, as the lighting clusters start to rise and fall, and a soundscore (Andy Cowton and Mukul) grows in strength and definition. Then the whole panoply lifts up and away, to be replaced by a video projector as the light source and digital animations created by video designer Jan Urbanowski. A pinpoint beam expands to fill the stage, thin walls create shifting, smoke-filled rooms for us to pass through, space-age rays irradiate us. Far from being an art installation, LightSpace turns out to be the most theatrical event of the evening – taking place on the main stage, with a defined beginning and end, a dramatic arc, and an almost cinematic sense of sequential sets. As we look upwards, it feels like a scene from Close Encounters; as the beams rake over us or, at the heart-stopping end, plunge towards us, we know that we are more than onlookers: we are being addressed. It’s not only beautiful to watch, it’s dramatic to experience.
“It’s a show,” agrees Hulls when I talk to him later. “It has a dramatic dynamic, and the ending is definitely a moment of theatre. It’s all down to the timing and energy. You try to create a series of emotional responses, to make people feel relaxed, threatened, exhilarated. The tools for doing that are almost universal: rhythm, structure, flow, emotion, colour, light and shade.”
Maybe so, but the process is pretty particular. In dance, the nitty-gritty of creation starts with the dancers in rehearsal; with LightSpace Hulls had just three days before the opening to work with the lights in the theatre – and that time was mostly spent ensuring that everything worked. The work itself had to be created in advance, in the abstract.
To see just how abstract this is, Hulls shows me his notebook. Some pages look like a mix of geometry and algebra: arrangements of numbered, colour-coded squares, some with purple outlines. Another page looks like a Pianola tape, lines of varying lengths and colours plotted side by side and carefully numbered. “All these notations,” explains Hulls, “are ways of visualising something that does not yet exist. I had to work it all out in my head, second by second.” It’s a kind of invented code, like a DNA that will come to life only later. Crucially, it can be shared with other collaborators – specifically the composers, who needed a detailed timeline to be able to start writing music. The team did try 3D visualisation software, but found that although it was useful for Urbanowski’s video, it wasn’t workable for the tungsten scenes. Those were entirely down to paper, coloured pens, painstaking brainwork – and a creative vision.
Where Hulls brings us onstage, Lucy Carter’s trio of pieces called Hidden takes us backstage. In the wardrobe rooms there are blank-faced wig-blocks, rails of costumes that once clothed dancers, washing machines lit from within their rotating drums. There are no performers, but you sense the afterglow of live presences – dancers, stagehands, backstage staff. In the control room, a soundtrack plays while the lighting desk is animated as if by the invisible ghost of a technician. In the lighting store room, Carter has created a tour de force – a kind of concert of tungsten stage lights composed into what one viewer called an ‘electric light orchestra’ – a veritable symphony of light that starts with sporadic flickers and flares, and builds to bright chordal synchronies and sweeping glissandi, backed up by a mutable soundscore of hisses and thrums. If Hulls’ piece feels close to theatre, Carter’s feels to me like music.
When I speak to Carter, she concurs but focuses my attention back towards the lights rather than the idea of music. For her, the lights were like characters. “Each one,” she says, “has its own personality. As the piece develops they start to play. I wanted to show their energy and their interactions.” She duly worked closely with composer Jules Maxwell to ensure that the soundtrack seemed to come from the noise of the lights themselves – fizzes, hums, crackles – rather than sounding like musical instruments. “You feel that the lights are creating the soundscore, not following it.”
Intrigued by her naturally light-centric view (and conscious of my own bias: theatre, music), I ask Carter about some amorphous pillow shapes that appeared dotted around the three installations, phosphorescing like mysterious deep-sea creatures. “Ah, the ‘pebbles’,” she says. “We thought of them as expressing the energies and emotions of creativity: tension, excitement, calm. But,” she reassures me, “they were more like questions for the audience than statements.” So, I figure, unfathomable sea-slugs is okay.
Carter had eight days on site compared with Hulls’ three, but of course the vast bulk of the creation happened during the months before that. “It’s by no means all technical,” she says. “A lot of it is discussion, about ideas and emotions.”
It strikes me that although their works and their working processes are very different, Hulls and Carter have several strong points in common. One is a real love of the old tungsten bulb, and a desire not just to show its qualities but to programme it to best effect. Another is their recognition of, and reliance on, the fundamentally collaborative nature of their work, whether they are the lead or a supporting artist. It’s a group effort either way; the difference is their position within the team. Finally, both of them stress that light brings its own ‘intelligence’ (in Carter’s words) to bear on the stage. “It’s entirely possible to make theatre through lighting alone,” says Hulls, and after LightSpace I certainly believe him. For Carter, “lighting has its own ideas; it’s not just a support for choreography or performance. It communicates concepts, themes, emotions, even if the audience doesn’t know where they’re coming from.” That basic truth is also a little spur to me, as a dance writer, to get in the habit of noticing lighting a little more than I do now.
The article was first printed in Focus, the magazine of the Association of Lighting Designers: www.ald.org.uk