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Once the house lights go down in a theatre and the curtain goes up, the stage is suddenly lit as if by magic. This illumination, the lighting design, is a very important ingredient in the creation of stage illusion. You are probably never quite sure what causes mood and atmospheric changes on stage; you can just feel them and see their subtle transitions. Often you will find they have been created by lighting.

Large theatres such as Toronto's Hummingbird Centre and New York's Metropolitan Opera House have very sophisticated technical equipment. Especially set, timed and controlled backstage by lighting technicians and electricians are hundreds of lights, some visible to the audience, some hidden away from view. These lights create special effects timed exactly with the events taking place on stage.

Lighting creates a sense of place, enhancing the scenery and flattering the dancers and costumes without drawing attention to itself. Lighting also creates a sense of time, giving us a day from dawn to sunset, a night with or without stars. It also gives us good weather, storms and even the effect of wind. It creates moods ranging from sunlit joy to moonlit madness. As the choreographer choreographs the dances, the lighting designer choreographs the lighting of the ballet.

Lighting design through history

In performances of ballet from the court of Louis XIV in the 17th century through to the 18th century candles were used to light stages. Since it would have taken a long time to extinguish and re-light hundreds of candles, there was little difference in the lighting and mood of each scene. Sometimes candles were placed behind bottles of water tinted with chemicals to produce various colours which intensified the illumination.

During the Romantic era, from 1830 to 1870, gaslight was used to great effect and could be controlled to create an eerie stage. The Romantics loved moonlit scenes by lakesides and in graveyards. But gas lighting had its own drawbacks. It was dangerous because of its open flame and the lives of several ballerinas ended tragically when their tulle tutus caught fire in the wings of a stage lit by gaslight.

Lighting design today

Today electric lighting is used in theatres around the world and is ideally suited to creating stage magic. Lights are hung from horizontal poles placed above the stage and vertical poles located in the wings. Most theatres also have lights attached to the balcony, footlights at the front of the stage and a follow spot the circle of light that literally follows dancers as they perform solos at the back of the theatre. The light should capture the dancer, but never itself be the focus of your attention.  Each light is covered with a "gel" a thin sheet of coloured gelatin or glass designed to help soften the light and create a mood. Different coloured gels create varying atmospheres. Here are some basic colours and the moods they project:


To be able to recreate the mood of the choreography and costumes with lights, a lighting designer becomes familiar with a ballet while it is being rehearsed. But he/she does not select the gels for the ballet until he/she can see the dancers in full costume and makeup and the completely painted sets and backdrops. This is because coloured light can drastically change the look of dancers, costumes and sets. For instance, red lipstick can look black under the wrong lights.

Once the gels have been selected, the lighting cues and changes are compiled in minute detail so that they can be timed to correspond with the dancing in a live performance. Then, when the curtain rises you are witness not only to the choreography of the dancing but to the magical choreography of the lighting design.

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