JOCKS & NERDS MAGAZINE

In 2014, Hulls won the highly prestigious Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance. He is only the second lighting designer to win the prize, which is usually awarded to choreographers, or dancers. He is best known for his work with Russell Maliphant, with whom he began collaborating 20 years ago. He also works with a select number of other choreographers, including Akram Khan.

"I never trained as a lighting person," says Hulls. "I trained in theatre and dance at Dartington Hall [in Devon]. Acting, directing, dancing, writing for performance. I wanted to learn how to make shows. And eventually I did, and designed sets for theatres and drama productions. After a time I decided it wasn't doing it for me. Then I bumped into Laurie Booth, who'd been at Dartington a couple of years before me. I told him I was dissatisfied with theatre design, but I didn't know what direction I was going to go in next. So Laurie said, 'Why don't you come and do some lighting for me?'"

Booth was making his name in improvised dance. "He felt comfortable asking me to come and improvise lighting," says Hulls, "because I'd had the same training in contact improvisation as he had, by Steve Paxton at Dartington. Laurie said, 'You just do whatever you want and I'll improvise.' So I started out as a lighting designer by improvising lighting live, without any sort of training or background. I'd go along to a theatre with a lighting desk and then the theatre technicians would say, 'Do you want to plot the show?' I'd say, 'Oh no, I'll make it up as I go along.' And their jaws would drop. But for me, it was just another way of performing or creating a performance."

 

Hulls met Maliphant when he was dancing in one of Booth's shows. "Russell was just at that point where he had decided he wanted to choreograph, and I was at the point of wanting to use lighting as a creative medium," says Hulls. "So we decided we should get together and make work that is a genuine collaboration between light and dance. The traditional process is that a choreographer sets the steps to music, and then it is costumed and at the very end of the process somebody applies some lighting to it. But they can't change the choreography because by then it's all fixed. What we wanted to do was take lighting from the back end of the process and put it right at the beginning. That's how we still work together today."

What does Hulls regard as his signature? "That it's too bloody dark to see what's going on," he jokes. "When Russell and I worked on Sylvie Guillem's farewell tour we had old-school ballet fans saying they couldn't see her... anatomy. You felt like telling them to buy a book of photographs if that's what they wanted. For me, light and dark are two sides of the same coin and you can't have one without the other. And it's important to pay attention to the quality of the darkness, which is often quite a struggle because in theatres you may have lights in the wings or in the fly tower - or in the auditorium fire exit signs near the stage, which you're not allowed to turn off.

"I hope, too, that I've brought a new degree of fluidity to the way the space expands or contracts, or moves from one part of the stage to the other. Sometimes that's imperceptible, because we don't want people to watch the lighting; we want people to watch and experience the synthesis, the conjunction of all the elements, to create something that is greater than the sum of the parts. The choreography of light, how it moves and transforms... I'd hope that would be part of my legacy."

Published in Jocks & Nerds, Spring 2016.

© Michael Hulls 2020