My lighting career began in the ballet world more
than 40 years ago as a truck driver with Dance
Theatre of Harlem. I quickly worked my way up
through their ranks to become an electrician, and
later technical director, stage manager, and lighting
designer. DTH was founded by Arthur
Mitchell, a lead dancer with the New
York City Ballet, and many of the ballets the
company performed were given to Mr. Mitchell from George
Balanchine of the New York City Ballet.
I flashed back on all this on my drive to work this week
when I heard a radio piece on NPR about preserving the
ballets of George Balanchine. (Listen
to the radio piece here)
The thing that amazed me early in the radio program was a
statement by Balanchine ballerina Francia
Russell. Although she hasn't performed in 50
years, she says as soon as she hears the music for
George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, her body starts to
The music is Bach’s Concerto For Two Violins in D
Minor, and the two lead dancers each dance one violin
part. I probably watched that ballet from backstage
a few hundred times over the period of five years, and it
is so deeply etched into my mind that I can also see the
steps in my mind every time I hear the music. (Watch this You Tube
video to see and hear the story of the ballet)
Around 1974, DTH was installing the Jerome
Robbins ballet Afternoon of a Faun (music by
Claude Debussy) and I was charged with recreating the set
and lighting from the originals by Jean
Rosenthal. I visited the New York State
Theatre and met with NYCB’s lighting designer, Ronnie
Bates, who showed me the great set, original scenery
plans, and lighting design notes from Jean
Rosenthal. The set is a white china silk ballet
studio on stage (ceiling with skylight and three walls)
made in forced perspective, with a white ground cloth, in
front of a blue cyc. The original lighting design
notes mentioned things like “the light changes as if a
cloud passes in front of the sun.” The set and
lighting are simply stunning and the ballet is a classic.
This was pretty heady stuff for a young so-called lighting
designer like myself who was untrained and knew basically
nothing about lighting or scenic design. My entire
lighting education came from copying a Jennifer
Tipton dance light plot and trying to figure out how
to make it work.
That evening, I was planning to watch Faun from
backstage as unobtrusively as possible. Sometime
before the curtain went up I was introduced to Mr.
Balanchine, who watched every move in every ballet every
night from backstage. When I told him I was there to
learn Faun for DTH, he said “Come with me”,
and we walked to his viewing spot, which was in the first
wing stage right, onstage of the stage manager’s position,
just a few feet from being on stage. We stood
together watching the ballet.
The NPR program swept me back to the ballet world for a
few minutes this week, and it was a reminder of what a
beautiful, quiet, artistic, and interesting world it is,
and how different it is from Broadway and other areas of
entertainment I worked in after leaving the ballet world.
George Balanchine died over 30 years ago. He created
the neo-classic ballet world that is known today, and has
influenced generations of dancers and designers.
Balanchine, shown here in 1965, was born in St.
Petersburg, Russia, but moved to New York when he was 29.
Afternoon Of A Faun - New York City Ballet
Jean Rosenthal is considered a pioneer in the field
of theatrical lighting design