A Master of Dance Lighting Steps Out of the Shadows

The lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker, whose work will take center stage with “The Choreography of Light,” part of the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series.

It’s easy to understand why lighting is essential to dance performance. Dancing in the dark is hard to see. But when Brandon Stirling Baker says he wants his lighting design to be essential, he means something different.

For Mr. Baker, 31, who recently became the lighting director for Boston Ballet, good lighting design is integral to a dance, inseparable from its moods and meanings. It doesn’t follow, however, that the lighting should grab attention.

“Brandon’s contributions are in support of the choreographer’s vision,” said Justin Peck, the resident choreographer at New York City Ballet. Their careers have risen together. Mr. Peck’s first major work, “The Year of the Rabbit” (2012), was also that of Mr. Baker, and since then, they have collaborated on nearly 20 dances.

“What I love about Brandon,” Mr. Peck said, “is how thorough he is, how involved.” Not all designers sit in on rehearsals, he added, but Mr. Baker is “woven into the development of the piece, and he has a lot of good ideas for the work as a whole, not just how to light it.”

Jamar Roberts, a choreographer and star dancer at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, agrees. When he and Mr. Baker were working on Mr. Roberts’s “Members Don’t Get Weary,” set to John Coltrane, they discussed many things: Should a dance about the blues have any blue in it? Should a memory of the past look murky or clear?

“And then things I had been thinking about would just show up in Brandon’s lighting,” Mr. Roberts said. “That’s why I call him the wizard.”

Usually, Mr. Baker is the kind of wizard who stays behind the curtain. But on Jan. 18 and 20 he will draw attention to his own work for once with “The Choreography of Light,” part of the Works & Process series at the Guggenheim Museum.

Credit...Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

For this event, which alternates between performance and discussion, the lighting comes first. In addition to an excerpt from a piece that Mr. Peck is making for Houston Ballet, there are three new solos that Mr. Roberts has choreographed in response to Mr. Baker’s lighting schemes. “It was important to me,” Mr. Baker said, “that these not be solos with light, but duets in which the partner is light.”

One solo for Patricia Delgado — the former Miami City Ballet dancer, who happens to be married to Mr. Peck — is about color. “Many choreographers are afraid of it,” Mr. Baker said. Another solo moves through extreme angles of light, in an arc, as if from sunrise to sunset. A third, for the City Ballet principal Taylor Stanley, demonstrates the varieties of white light. “Choreographers will often tell me, ‘This is a white light dance,’ and I’ll ask, ‘what kind of white?’” Mr. Baker said.

In a recent interview, Mr. Baker spoke about his essential but rarely discussed art: pointing out mistakes and misconceptions, revealing just how quickly he has to work and explaining the artistic satisfactions of service. “Just being part of this thing that’s bigger than I could ever be is all I ever wanted,” he said. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you get interested in something as specific as lighting for dance?

I grew up as a musician playing in rock bands in Van Nuys, Calif., but I’ve always been deeply inspired by visual art. When I was 13, I went to see a musical and I was, like, “Wow, lighting is this beautiful bridge between the visual spirit and the musical spirit.”

How so?

In the same way that a painter may use a brush to create phrases and mix color, I’m doing that with light. And lighting also has rhythm and pace. My friends back home will say, “Why did you give up music?” But I never gave up music. I just use a different instrument now.

But practicing stage lighting isn’t quite like practicing the guitar.

Right. I don’t own any lights. I did study at the California Institute of the Arts. All my roommates there now work for Pixar. But one common misunderstanding is that people think of lighting designers as technicians. There’s a whole different union in charge of that.

So what is your role, then?

To create a frame and a point of view. Like a cinematographer. I create a visual language and a color palette that is specific to each ballet. Each work should be a single statement, and the choreographer and I have to decide what it is.

What do you mean by a frame?

It might be an open space, a wide frame of light that embraces both the height and the width of the stage and lets the dance speak for itself.

That sounds like getting out of the way.

It can be. When Justin Peck choreographed “Rodeo,” he was taking on this famous Aaron Copland score that has an enormous amount of color in it. I chose to approach it in a minimalist way, with a wide space and warm sunlight. As an artist, you have to decide what needs to come forward. The lighting for “Rodeo” is simple, but it’s essential. It’s probably my best work.

When is a narrower frame appropriate?

In Justin’s “Everywhere We Go,” the first and last movements have a massive amount of dancers, and I made it extremely bright, like an arena. But there’s this pas de deux that’s quiet, just solo piano, and I took that as a hint and used only two follow spots. It allowed us to focus in, with an intimacy almost like a campfire.

You don’t let the space stay dim for long, though, unlike many other lighting designers for dance.

People do come up to me and thank me, saying, “It’s good to see who’s onstage for once.”

What are some other mistakes you see in lighting design?

Sometimes it’s very obvious that the lighting was an afterthought. Or is trying to cover something up. That’s why it’s so important to me to work collaboratively from the beginning.

You’re in on the planning all along, but how much time do you get in the actual theater before a dance has its premiere?

Maybe three hours, six at the most. And usually we open that evening.

You have to work fast.

It’s like a cannon. First, I finally get to show the choreographer my ideas, with some people onstage who aren’t the dancers, or maybe with coat racks. Then there’s a run-through that doesn’t stop for lights. I make choices on the fly, narrowing things down, adjusting for spacing. You have to remain creative.

You’re the lighting director for Boston Ballet. What’s the difference between a lighting director and a lighting designer?

Those terms are often confused. A lighting director maintains old works in the repertory, making sure that the lighting stays as it was at the premiere. Repertory is this amazing collection of ideas — not just of choreography but also of lighting design. Audiences are always seeing that but maybe they don’t know it.

And this Guggenheim event is to help make them aware?

I hope to give the audience a closer look at what I do. The work is never about me. But I do want them to know that we lighting designers are there.

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