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The light fantastic - Fuller, Rosenthal & Tipton: beginning with Loie Fuller in the nineteenth century, dance has pioneered the development of twentieth-century stage lighting.

The marriage of light and dance was certainly the meeting of two like minds. Both move through time and air and space; both are ephemeral - always changing, never still,

The courtship may have begun when the American dancer Loie Fuller (1 852-1 928) projected red, blue, and yellow painted lights onto her white silk costume a century ago. Only technological limitations prevented a more perfect union, and today computer technology that makes ever more sophisticated lighting equipment possible can unite artistic imagination with the means of expressing it as never before.

The invention of the arc lamp in 1846 brought electric light into the theater for special effects; Thomas Edison's 1879 incandescent light bulb opened up the field of experimentation, in lighting design for theater and dance. There had been forms of stage lighting through the centuries, of course, Jean Rosenthal (1912-69), the first professional stage lighting designer, in her posthumously published book written with Lael Wertenbaker, The Craft and Career of Jean Rosenthal, Pioneer in Lighting for the Modem Stage (1972), describes such devices as torches in ancient Greece, candles in the Renaissance, and gaslight (in the last third of the nineteenth century) for theatrical performances of all kinds.

Without incandescent light, however, Fuller could not even have begun to meld fabric, movement, and light to replicate a lily blooming, a butterfly unfolding its wings, or the rise and fall of flames into the final flicker of a dying ember. Fuller, whom enthusiastic Parisians called "La Loie," was the toast of Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. She appeared at the Folies-Bergere, a hang-out of artists and writers, and made that risque dance hall an acceptable place for middle-class families to frequent.

Her Ballets Lumieres were early light shows, tapping into popular culture as well as high art, as some classical ballet companies are doing today. She took herself seriously as an artist. And she was taken seriously by painters and sculptors for her stylized natural forms. She also inspired such writers as W. B. Yeats and Stephane Mallarme, who described her in 1893 as "at once an artistic intoxication and an industrial achievement." Through considerable trial and error, Fuller had discovered that costumes and lights are as much a part of dance as the movement itself. The hardworking American also had a scientific bent, presiding over her own laboratory and honored by the French scientific community for her contributions to the theory of light. She was a friend of the Curies, who declined to lend her radium - which they had discovered - to sew into a costume for phosphorescent effect, on the grounds that it was too dangerous.

In 1896 Fuller toured the United States with her dances, where both her performances and her methods were well documented by the New York Herald. The first account pointed out that Fuller had patented her design for the skirts she had painted and then manipulated with bamboo rods to create her various organic effects. The writer also describes Fuller's patented scheme for lighting the stage during a dance from points above, below, and all around the dancer:

"An ugly looking dress, with the snakes upon its surface is a quite different garment to the view when it is being waved to and fro ... with ten or fifteen brilliant calcium lights in various colors shining upon it from the flies, wings and from underneath the stage. Then its filmy fabric shines like silver or gold, or waving flood of purple, as it passes under the changing lenses of the calciums, while the embroidered serpents seem to glide over its surface with ever-increasing velocity until the lights are suddenly turned out and the whirling form of the dancer is lost to view. It is not uncommon nowadays to get up a dance requiring five times as many lights. each of which commands the undivided attention of an electrician's assistant. Serpentine dances in these times ... are expensive luxuries. They owe their development to their present stage of perfection to `La Loie' Fuller."

Cost was no object. She sometimes traveled with as many as fifty electricians. each operating a different light. This made her concerts very expensive indeed. Her Fire Dance was cued to signals from her feet that went to an electrician posted underneath the stage, who inserted gelatins of different colors as Fuller responded to the music. Mirrors and lantern projectors. covered with glass slides, were also used to produce the effects she wanted. Stubborn and persistent. she never swerved from her objective - to explore every means of combining color and movement to create what one might call danse et lumiere, setting the stage for the use and design of stage lighting for dance.

By the time Jean Rosenthal entered, or created, the field during the Great Depression, cost was definitely an object, as it is today, and in some instances, necessity became the mother of invention as stage lighting took the place of elaborate scenery. For example, for George Balanchine, Rosenthal replaced the painted backdrops of the Diaghilev era with the famous blue cyclorama that forms the background for a good deal of New York City Ballet's repertoire today.

Fuller notwithstanding, when Rosenthal entered the field in 1929 women were not accepted as technicians in the burly backstage world. "My only real weapon ... in the battle for acceptance," she wrote, "was knowledge." Rosenthal, like Fuller, knew what she was doing. As early as the 1930s, it was possible to study stage lighting at Yale, which Rosenthal did, under the tutelage of the aptly named Stanley McCandless.

Rosenthal, who was the first resident lighting designer for the Metropolitan Opera House and who also designed the lights for many theater productions, felt that if she left anything to posterity it would be in the field of dance lighting. "Light is quite tactile to me," she wrote. "It has shape and dimension. It has an edge. It has quality and an entity. It is the one miracle of creation without which, to me, the others would be meaningless."

Unlike Fuller, Rosenthal was a collaborative artist, working with the star choreographers of her time. Some of the signature lighting she did for Balanchine and the diagonal shaft of light she created for Graham (lovingly referred to by her as "Martha's Finger of God"), are now in such widespread use by dance companies of every style that they have become standards of the lighting repertoire.

For Rosenthal every dance company had an individual aesthetic, and the lights had to be customized to fit it: "The only common denominators for ballet are the requirements of beauty and ease." For Balanchine she lit patterns in space; for American Ballet Theatre it was decor and narrative form.

From the first she made drastic changes in what had become standard and inflexible lighting for ballet in Europe, where the first ten feet of stage space were lit for visibility and change of color - blue for Swan Lake, pink for Les Biches - against scenery with flat light. Rosenthal lit the whole stage to give ballets mood, depth, and individuality.

Her light changes were keyed to both music and the physical impulse, no matter what kind of dancing she was lighting. Her career began when, a mere slip of a seventeen-year-old, she became a stage manager for Graham. It ended forty years later with her designing the lighting for Graham's Archaic Hours in 1969; weeks after the premiere she died of cancer at age fifty-seven.

For her work in lighting opera, theater, and dance, Rosenthal received many accolades as a woman who was both visionary and practical. She imposed, in her own words, "an organization, to create a set-up that could do all the diverse things the company did, tidily and anywhere. That meant flexibility, presentability and a color scheme which worked in many moods."

Today, it is Jennifer Tipton who travels the world, enhancing dance and theater productions, projecting interior landscapes, and creating exterior ones with the greatly improved lighting equipment available now, as well as with that boon to modem life, the computer. With this advanced technology, Tipton, her contemporaries, and the next generation of lighting designers can explore untold possibilities for lighting the dance.

Tipton is very much a collaborative artist, whose primary responsibility, she has said, "is to reveal what's there." She has done this with both classical and contemporary dance. Her lighting for Peter Wright's production of Giselle, being performed this season in London by Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House, makes the first act look rustic and the atmosphere laden with doom. Rather than a greenish tinge for the skin of the Wilis in the second act, Tipton uses a yellowish light that makes them look as waxen as any mannequin at Madame Tussaud's.

It is in her work with contemporary choreographers, however, that Tipton has succeeded in making light a full partner in the dance, never more so than in the 1993 production of Necessary Weather, a collaboration with Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz, in which the lighting looks as if it is emanating from the bodies of the dancers.

In Fuller's day that effect was achieved with one dancer and a multiplicity of electricians. In Tipton's it is done with all the changes and cues computerized for very few electricians. "Light for the stage," Tipton has said, "has four distinct properties - intensity, color, angle, and movement."

Like Rosenthal, and, for that matter, Fuller, who worked long hours in theaters to achieve her effects, Tipton plans carefully. She has said, "I decide what kind of light to put where, what color to make it, and what lights should be used together on dimmers. Working mostly from drawings, I have to visualize what the stage and set will be in real space." But the real preparation comes with experience. Reviewing a long career, she says, "The more I look, the more I see and feel - what happens in a space; how to feel muscle, form, energy, background, and the dancers."

In Tipton, who wanted at one time to be an astrophysicist, art and technology meet once again in the field of lighting design: "The rigor of lighting design fits in with my scientific background." Once Rosenthal announced proudly that she could work anywhere out of a briefcase specially designed for blueprints, plans, architect's drawings, and the like. But she had to buy an extra plane ticket to accommodate them.

Today, Lloyd Sobel, who is resident lighting designer for Eugene and Atlanta Ballets, and who lights ballet productions in Estonia and opera in Aspen, can also work anywhere and in a small space, using a laptop computer equipped with a modem. He is part of a generation of lighting designers who are willing to study the past and build on it as they look toward the future. With the materials at hand, lights of all kinds, and film projections, Sobel has collaborated with Eugene Ballet artistic director Toni Pimble to create an Alice in Wonderland that convincingly has Alice falling down the rabbit hole into the surrealistic wonderland created on the printed page by Lewis Carroll, effects that could not have been achieved without lights.

Through his affiliation with Atlanta Ballet, Sobel is deeply involved in what is called the Atlanta Ballet-Georgia Tech Dance Project. The program was set up in connection with the 1996 Olympiad so that engineers and artists can collaborate on state-of-the-art stagecraft technology. Georgia Tech's textile department is also involved, creating special fabrics for dancers that will have both texture and memory, with the goal, as Sobel puts it, of "morphing" costume changes with computerized projections.

Such projects are breaking down the barriers between art and technology and, in the process, admitting no impediment to the marriage of creative minds.

Martha Ullman West is the Oregon correspondent for Dace Magazine.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Dance Magazine, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Jean Rosenthal; Jennifer Tipton
Author:West, Martha Ullman
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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