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Still life is still life: for theater and exhibit designer Rick Belzer, the bodies he lights may be on display or in perpetual motion.

"I wasn't naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight."

--Gypsy Rose Lee (a famous stripper)

This is a favorite quote of lighting designer Rick Belzer of Belzer Design International, who, when it comes to bringing forth bodies--whether in motion or still life--makes certain they are always covered in light. Belzer is the lighting designer of "BODIES," the permanent exhibition featured at the South Street Exhibition Center in New York City. "BODIES" is comprised of, well, bodies. Real human cadavers are on display, preserved and dissected to reveal the underpinnings of the body's complex systems of organs and tissues.

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However, when it came time to highlight living, breathing, dancing bodies, Belzer added additional oomph, if that's possible, to the already red hot sizzling torsos of Burn the Floor, a dance spectacle featured last summer at the Longacre Theater on Broadway. The bodies on display, unlike their embalmed counterparts, were in continual motion.

Belzer was raised in Panama and began his career in theater not long after seeing a Broadway classic. According to his mother Sarah Belzer, "At 13, I took him to a production of Brigadoon and haven't seen him since." He has subsequently designed every type of theater production from off-off-Broadway to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Siegfried and Roy's spectacular at the Mirage in Las Vegas, The Mikado 1050 and Sweeney Todd. He has been involved with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group for 18 years, designing the lighting for Evita, Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar, among others.

Over the last 15 years, in addition to his lighting for theater, Belzer has designed exhibits for "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," "Diana" (an exhibit about Princess Diana), "A Vatican and the Legacy of the Pope," "Planet Shark" and "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," all long-running worldwide touring shows, and recently worked on "The Silk Road" exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History and "The Da Vinci Exhibition," featuring the Mona Lisa.

His latest endeavor is back in the realm of theater. Belzer is now in preproduction on Go West, a new musical about the Village People. Start envisioning the biggest disco ball in the world--surpassing the Guinness Book 24-ft 1,000 mirrored disco ball created by Michel de Broin of France.

Belzer offers his views on lighting for the theater vs. lighting exhibits, whether in museums or on the road.

LD+A: What would you say the major difference and challenges are in lighting bodies in Burn the Floor vs. "BODIES" the exhibition?

Belzer: When you're lighting a show you're dealing with people and they're moving and they're alive. There are costume changes and you're moving around and you're dealing with sets, etc., and sometimes there's music.

LD+A: What's changed in the past few years in theater lighting?

Belzer: Musicals, especially, are a very complicated monster to light--especially now--because there's so much technology in the theater. You've got lights that move and spin and you change gobos, you change color, you change positions. I would say that for something like Burn the Floor we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 channels of different controls that you could access.

In a big museum exhibit there might be 96 channels and they usually do just one thing like dimmers. Sometimes we have moving effects, but we pretty much try to stay away from anything complicated because of maintenance issues. The most complicated task you might get into in a museum or exhibit is something like water ripples--projectors, where you use moving gobos that mimic water rippling or the reflection you might get off the ocean or a river. I just came from the Field Museum in Chicago where they had water ripples everywhere.

LD+A: Do you prefer theater to museum or exhibit lighting?

Belzer: Not necessarily. There are some things about the museum business that are very satisfying to me. You go in and you bring your theatrical expertise--and you use a bit of gel and color and theme it up a little bit. You put in dimmers and such. When you go in alone, a lot of times museums won't have anything too sophisticated. They have track light and you can't dim it and it's difficult to put filters in. You can't just place a piece of gel over a lamp and say, "Oh, that looks good," and if it doesn't you use another piece of gel. If you have enough lead time to plan, you might create a layout and order dichroic filters and that might help. But if I go in with theatrical fixtures, I can order 50 pieces of gel for 400 bucks and just play around with it. There are not that many cooks in the kitchen. Maybe there's the producer of the exhibit and maybe there's a designer or a production manager, but you don't have a bazillion opinions. I might have one or two people on my team, whereas if you're doing a musical there are like 12 people driving the boat.

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There's something nice about being in the museum by yourself with just your crew, doing what you want to do. You have other opinions. Maybe it should be lighter here or darker there. Compared to lighting a musical the stress level is low, unless you're trying to put an exhibit up in three or four days--which I've done. You're going 24/7 for the last two days. But in terms of doing it, just the feeling of creating and being left alone is satisfying. Of course the thrill of having 2,000 people stamping their feet and applauding is its own reward, as well. But when applying some of these theatrical skills in the "King Tut" exhibit, suddenly you're lighting for a 1,000 people, so it becomes a whole different type of exhibit.

LD+A: How did you go from theater to museum and exhibit lighting?

Belzer: It's interesting, the only reason I got into the museum and exhibit business was the theater people I knew and worked with started doing exhibits. In the theater, we deal with what we call the "real" world. Everybody that I work for is in commercial theater and basically they're doing exhibitions to make money. They got into it for profit--not because they're being benevolent to the public.

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We deal with these museums and institutions, and they want to bring projects that will interest the public such as the "Titanic Exhibition" or the "Mammoth Exhibit" at the Field Museum, that's going to be going all around the country. However, most of my clients are all commercial producers and most of them came out of the theater world--the guys that did the "Titanic Exhibit" originally produced David Copperfield. And part of the reason I get along with the museum people is because I come from the same world they come from.

LD+A: How did your first exhibit project come about?

Belzer: The first connection I got to exhibit lighting was because I knew someone from the Jesus Christ Superstar tour who called me up and said he'd just lost his lighting designers and asked if I could I help him out. And the next thing I know I'm doing the "Titanic Exhibit" (it started in Orlando, FL, in 1999 and is still running all over the country). They said we have to go on in 10 days--so put the walls up, hang the lights, lay the carpets. I was their man. We had a lot of problems in the beginning figuring out the turf. Those in the museum world were like "Who are these rock-n-roll guys coming in?" It wasn't a good idea to have too many guys on the crew named Rockhead with too many tattoos.
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Title Annotation:Q + A
Author:Lowe, Roslyn
Publication:LD+A Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2010
Words:1303
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