THE LUMINOUS BODY

Guy Cools in conversation with Russell Maliphant and Michael Hulls.

30 September 2013 at Sadler's Wells.

From the book: Imaginative Bodies: Dialogues in Performance Practices. Amsterdam, Valiz, 2016.

 

 

‘For sound is not the object but the medium of our perception. It is what we hear in. Similarly, we do not see light but see in it.’1

 

GUY COOLS

Russell and Michael and I go back to 1997 or 1998, when you came to Ghent and presented Shift and some other early works. It is a pleasure to have you here now.

Each time I choose a theme to frame the talk and as Russell and Michael’s collaboration is so much about the relationship between body and light, this is the obvious theme that we will explore today.

You just had a premiere last Thursday in Eastleigh, a new collaboration, and this is a result of almost twenty years of working together, maybe twenty productions also...

MICHAEL HULLS

... actually forty-three, I think, roughly.

 

GC

It is quite unique that two artists have such a long ongoing collaboration. Can you go back to the beginning, to how it all started?

MH

I didn’t train to be a lighting designer, I trained in theatre and dance at Dartington College of Arts. The dance training was mostly contact improvisation, with Steve Paxton. It had always been my long-term goal to be a theatre designer and design sets and costumes, and I went a very long way round to get there. When I started doing it I decided that the thing I had always wanted to do wasn’t the right thing, and I wasn’t sure what to do. One day I bumped into the dancer, improviser, choreographer Laurie Booth, who’d also been at Dartington a little bit before me, so he had also been trained by Steve Paxton. Laurie knew that I’d had the same improvisational dance training as him and he knew that I was a sort of visually based life form, so he asked me if I would consider coming to work with him and make lighting for him. Which was something that I’d never thought about. So I said, ‘Yes, let’s give it a go’, and I became a lighting designer by accident.

I started off by improvising lighting with Laurie Booth performing a solo. I enjoyed doing it, as it was aesthetically and visually interesting, and improvising was fun. Laurie then asked me to make a new piece with him, which was going to be not just a solo but involve a couple of other dancers, too. I went along to one of the first rehearsals for this piece, Spatial Decay, and there were three other dancers that Laurie was going to work with. One of them happened to be Russell. This was how we met, working on an improvisational piece by Laurie Booth.

 

GC

And Russell, what was your journey from the Royal Ballet to working with Laurie?

 

RM

Well, from the Royal Ballet I went to DV8 Physical Theatre, by way of a company called Dance Exchange. That was quite a big jump already. And then I saw Laurie perform a solo at the ICA, and I really loved what he was doing. I spoke to him after the show and he said that he was leading a workshop at Dartington and invited me to come and do some improvisation. I did, and he said, ‘Why don’t you join me for this project that I’m working on’ – which was the one Michael was talking about. I’d never done improvisation really; we did some on the making of DV8’s piece Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, but I hadn’t learnt any improvisational techniques. On this project we did six weeks of tasks and learning about it, and then started performing. That’s when Michael and I really had a chance to interact on stage through being in a place, bringing up lights, moving away.

 

GC

Already at that point, you told me, you started talking about wanting to collaborate on this thing about dance and light.

 

MH

Yes, over the next year or so we did. The piece was a quartet for the premiere, with Laurie, Russell, Gill Clarke and Scott Clark, and then Gill and Scott went back to Siobhan Davies Dance Company so it became a duet, which actually for me was more satisfying. Over the next eighteen months to two years we toured it – not intensively, maybe once a month. I was enjoying, as Russell said, meeting him on stage, with me improvising lighting and him improvising movement. One of the things that I was interested in was that Russell seemed very sensitive to the light on stage and would dance in a different way if he was in the centre of a light to how he would dance if he was on the very edge of a light.

Over time, touring and hanging around in airports and hotels and things like that, we started to talk and hatch the idea that what we both liked to do was to work together, with dance and light. We wanted to use improvisation as a tool to discover and create material, but then to put it into a structure and composition, so that the performances themselves wouldn’t be improvised.

‘In terms of lighting for dance, I guess, it really started with Jean Rosenthal and her works with George Balanchine and Martha Graham that gave birth to lighting for dance in the era of Modernism. That was then developed and taken forward by Jennifer Tipton and that’s the start of the recognition of lighting design in itself.’ 2

GC

There were very few role models at that time for lighting designers working specifically in dance. One of them that you have referred to is Jennifer Tipton, who you went to work with and did some workshops with.

 

MH

The year before I started to work with Laurie, he had been to the United States and worked on a project with Dana Reitz, with lighting by Jennifer Tipton. Laurie had started to talk to me about Jennifer and the way that she approached light. It seemed interesting to me and a kind of parallel to what I was trying to do with Laurie, and then with Laurie and Russell. Very kindly Julia Carruthers, who then was Arts Officer at the Arts Council, asked me what I would like to do if she could get me a training bursary, because I’d had no training in lighting. So I said that I would like to go to New York and work with Jennifer Tipton. I knew that she was going to do a two-week workshop for choreographers and lighting designers the following year and thankfully the Arts Council gave me the money.

Jennifer and Dana were making a new piece and they were working on the piece themselves in the mornings, and I guess that they were funding the time to do that by running this workshop for eight choreographers and eight lighting designers in the afternoons. I actually spent my mornings working for Jennifer, rigging and focussing lights. They would then repeat the workshop in London the following year as part of the Dance Umbrella programme in 1993.

 

GC

And then the two of you went into the studio to create your first solo collaboration, which I think was Shift?

 

RM

Actually, the way this first solo happened was that I’d suffered an injury and wasn’t able to work for nine months or almost a year, and then when I was free, Michael wasn’t available. So I made my first solo with someone else, Margie Medlin, a lighting designer from Australia who was working here. After a while she went back to Australia and as I was touring the piece, Michael came out on the road. We started to play with the piece and remake it along the way. It was a kind of workshop piece for us, trying things out this way and that way. Then we made Shift.

 

‘Limitations are good in lots of ways.’ 3

 

GC

In that period when you started, you had to make work in really limited conditions – but somehow these limitations also stimulated creativity.

 

RM

Well, we were limited financially, that’s for sure. But there was support. We were given some weeks at Middlesex University by Prof. Christopher Bannerman to work in a room with light.

 

MH

Over the summer holidays.

 

RM

That was fantastic. I can’t remember how many weeks we had there. It was a glass room that we had to black out every day, because the black would fall off the windows, but it worked and it gave us the opportunity to try things with a set rig. We would just sit with one particular lighting state and work with that all day, or try a run of movement in the light, or play with different levels of light and stop it at a certain level. Looking at things – you don’t often have the opportunity to do this, because usually you have a piece and you need to get it lit and you only have a few hours to do it in.

 

MH

There were limitations in the space: not much equipment, no money, just Russell and myself. Later another dancer came in to work with us.

Just to go back, when Jennifer Tipton came to London the following year, Russell did her workshop, so we both had that experience of working with her.

 

RM

That was very interesting, she was so fantastically experienced. She would invite all the choreographers to try a lighting state and then look at movement in it, and she would always get them to test which way was better. She didn’t tell us, she said, ‘I don’t know – you look at it. Which state gives you more of the result that you want?’ She wouldn’t work with her past, but instead encourage us to see everything afresh, look at it in many different ways, and then make a decision.

 

GC

Shall we have a look at a fragment of this second work, Shift?

 

MH

Yes. The piece was co-commissioned by a dance festival in Nottingham, and it was going to happen in a gallery. So one of the things that we knew when we went into the studio to make something was that ultimately it would be performed in a white-walled gallery space. There were very limited possibilities for overhead lighting. I thought, well, ok, it’s in a white space and we better have lights on the floor to give us a bit of flexibility.

 

RM

We had one week to make the work. That would scare me phenomenally now. At that time, because I was doing improvisation, I thought, ‘Great, we have a whole week to play around! We could go and do it in a day’.

I had been in the studio thinking about ideas and when we got there Michael had a plan for what he wanted to try. You’ll see on the video that there weren’t a lot of movement possibilities in the final plan we settled on, so most of my ideas went out of the window.

(Guy Cools shows a clip of Shift.)

 

GC

You are dancing with your shadow. And as you said, the lights create a lot of limitations here.

RM

Yes. You have a light at the front of the stage, ten metres in front of the cyc, and the closer you are to it the bigger your shadow is. The range is about a metre and a half across, so if you are right at the back you have almost this much space, but as you get closer to the light and are able to keep your shadow well placed in the frame, the space to move in, gets smaller and smaller. The movement had to be very much in the body and not much through the space.

We also knew that we wanted to unveil this idea, so that there would be one shadow, two shadows, three shadows at different intersection points of the lights. Because of this idea, the piece kind of suggested itself quite quickly.

 

GC

It became extremely interactive right from the beginning, which was also your aim of working together. And it is interesting that in a lot of your lighting designs the light forms a grid on the floor. Did you always want to include this notion of the interaction between light and body, and light as a landscape?

 

MH

Both those things. Light is a landscape, but more importantly in collaborating with Russell, it is something that is indivisible from the movement and from the piece as a whole. If you take the lighting on its own it doesn’t make sense, and if you take the dance there is no other way of lighting it – it has to be like this.

For two days we worked with taped out beams of light on the floor to establish the principle of dancing between various quite small intersections. Maybe half the size of this table top. As Russell said, the movement had to be in the body because the angles were so tight.

We wanted it to be indivisible, and the only way of doing that is to start with the lighting on day one of rehearsing.

 

GC

And you continue to do that to this day?

 

MH

Yes, though not always with lights. It is something that we would always like to be able to do, but sometimes it is not possible.

 

RM

We made a piece recently with BalletBoyz that was probably the shortest time that we have ever worked practically with lighting. I think we had a day or two days...

 

MH

Twelve hours, just before the premiere.

 

RM

It was the least amount of time of any project we’ve undertaken, but Michael was in the studio a lot and we were discussing ideas and because we’ve worked together so much before we knew when things were shaping up in a certain way and we could say, ‘Let’s do that, let’s define it.’

MH

We do a lot with tape on the floor. We tape out compositions of spacing and this helps dancers to be in the right place spatially. It’s a bit trickier when it’s not a mark on the floor but a light. Some people are more skilled at finding the light than others.

The strange thing is that this is kind of the norm, not getting any lights on until a day or two before the premiere.

 

GC

You continued to make a whole series of solos and there is a second solo that we will show a fragment of. I think that this piece is especially interesting because the lighting is so dark. There is something about darkness that is as triggering as Shift, which was created for a white space. This almost feels like the opposite. Can you comment on that?

 

RM

It’s always about what is highlighted, and what is taken away. Both are part of it.

We did a project recently, The Rodin project. Rodin, had a lot of sculptures present in his studio and home for inspiration, and he used to cover parts of them, in which he was less interested in order to make the beautiful parts resonate even more. I think sometimes it’s a bit like that with light. Working in the studio where light is all around, it is very different to looking at movement in a specific light.

In this next piece there is a lot of backlight, so what is highlighted are the arms, shoulders and head. If you make something that is very intricate for the feet, it doesn’t work. Strangely, on the project that we just made now, I made five minutes of work that was great in the studio but when we looked at it in the light it was nothing.

 

‘You can’t have lighting without darkness, and the quality of the darkness is really important.’4

 

GC

Michael, what is your fascination as a lighting designer with darkness?

 

MH

Well, you can’t have one without the other. We talk about having good lighting, but the other side of the coin is having good darkness. One of the important things for me is the ability to maintain a really high quality of blackness, which is sometimes really difficult to do.

It’s exaggerated on film because the camera is not as sensitive to light as the human eye, and sometimes you have to make your lighting a little less bright than perhaps you’d ideally like, because that’s the only way that people can preserve the quality of darkness in a space. You have to find the right balance between the two of them.

With Russell’s work, it seems to me that the movement is coming from inside the body rather than from having an idea of creating a pattern with dancers in space. There is an intensity to it. It needs a particular focus that will complement this experience, so it’s very clear that you are tightly focused on something.

 

GC

Shall we have a look at the piece? (He shows a clip of One - Part Two.)

Darkness also completely influences your sensory awareness. Is that why you like to play with it?

 

MH

Yes, it would never be my intention to try and frustrate people, but obviously I like the work of Caravaggio, I like sculpture, and for me being able to light something with one light source makes it sculptural because of the contrast between light and dark. Given that, given what I said earlier about the quality of darkness, working with a low level of light is sometimes a way of achieving both of those things. I also think that when you’re not quite sure what you are seeing, there is an ambiguity that opens up your mind. We have a heightened sensory awareness of things in that ambiguous low light state, which relates to thousands of years of not having electrical light, or much light at all.

In the theatre of course we don’t want to create a ‘flight or fight’ response in people, but that heightened sensory awareness, where all your senses have to sit up and take a little bit more notice because you’re not quite sure what you are seeing, is a useful state.

 

GC

Russell, when you are moving in a semi-obscure environment, how does that affect you and influence the development of the movement?

 

RM

This piece is really three times of coming into the same light, and three different ways of working with entering into the light. There is an interaction between the speed of movement and the intensity of the light. The light remains constant in all three instances, and I play with different speeds and levels in the space, but also the reflection of the light from the arm on the face. You see it at the beginning when the arm moves into the light and then back, and then gets a bounce off the face.

You play with the light – is it compressing you, are you being drawn up by the light? What kind of viscosity are you moving in?

‘I’ve often called the lighting for the stage the ‘music for the eye’, because it has the same way of making an atmosphere, making a landscape, changing fluidly from one place to another without seeming effort. And I feel that the same rules apply as in music: variation, structure and form, and statement of theme, and development of theme. And I also feel the rhythm of a production is made by the lighting.’5

 

GC

I’d like to bring in a quote by Jennifer Tipton, where she calls light the music of the eye, because it follows the same rules. Can you recognise yourself in that? Is the light like music?

 

MH

Yes. It operates in the same way in that it is a composition, and it has a variation of rhythm and structure, and different notes and different qualities. It is also the way that the space breathes, expands and contracts. Sometimes it does that without anyone being aware until afterwards, when you realise that it has happened.

 

RM

It also has energy. In the piece that we just looked at the light has a very low energy – the lamps are slowly coming on, they stay at a low level, but it is a very constant, slow rhythm. The dance is the percussive element on top of that.

We worked on a piece recently that has a very different use of energy. We were looking at something that felt like a very nice state, but it wasn’t energetic enough. Just like music rises and falls and gives energy, we looked for ways for the light to give us more energy.

 

MH

Sometimes you don’t necessarily want the music and the light and the dance all doing the same thing. If you are in counterpoint, you create a different kind of energy and tension.

On a very fundamental level, there is no time or space without energy. And that is something that lighting creates. In this work we have a black space, so until we have some light, there is no space.

 

GC

After these original collaborations, which resulted in a number of solo works, you got other people involved and collaborated with Sylvie Guillem and the BalletBoyz, amongst others. How did that step arrive?

 

MH

Actually, there were some group pieces before that, it wasn’t just solos.

 

RM

I knew the BalletBoyz Michael Nunn and William Trevitt from the Royal Ballet. When they were leaving they asked if they could perform a duet that I had made, titled Critical Mass.  The following year they asked if I would make a piece on them, which became Torsion. We were performing on a bill at The Place together where Michael and Billy danced Torsion; Dana Fouras, performed a piece called Two, and then Dana and I we danced another piece, titled Sheer.

Sylvie Guillem, who knew Michael and Billy well, came to see this show and enjoyed it, and when I met her in the dressing room afterwards she asked if I would make something for her, Michael and Billy. This would become Broken Fall. It was performed at the Royal Opera House, but it wouldn’t have happened without her.

 

‘The thing that is really important is light that moves, rather than having a series of lights alone a line.’ 6

 

GC

In your recent work you have begun to work a lot with projection and animation. Can you explain what interests you about this?

MH

The interest is to be able to move the light. To use a projector as a light source and then to work with video software or an animator to make it move.

It is something that we’ve always been interested in and tried to do, even just working with fixed generic lighting. Earlier we said how we wanted to create an ebb and flow of light in the space, and using a projector with software or animation is another way of achieving that.

 

RM

There are also some practical reasons for that. For Afterlight, when Sadler’s Wells asked if I would be interested in doing something for the Diaghilev season, I remembered the paintings by Nijinsky that I had seen. We knew that with a certain level of light you could get this tracing effect of movement in through space, and I thought that we could utilize this tracing reminiscent of Nijinsky’s paintings. We’d also done Transmission, where we had used a very small box of light, no bigger than a cigarette packet, and when you put your hand through it quite fast you got this flash. I wanted to do something that had this kind of flash all over the stage.

Michael said that we would need hundreds of pin spots and that we would never get that set up in a full evening programme – but we could get the same effect by using a projector, and a projected pool of light, with lots of shafts of light and dark. I was interested in textures in the space, and animation and projection was a way of achieving this.

 

GC

When I came two weeks ago to see rehearsals of your most recent piece, I also got the sense that when the light moved, it allowed the body to remain very still.

 

RM

Exactly, it allows you to play with juxtapositions and energy.

Afterlight was the first animation piece that we made and it became something that I wanted to do more and more of.

 

GC

The projection very much has the quality of a kind of weather constellation. Is that something that you thought about?

 

MH

It was consciously intended.

 

RM

It’s more about textures, about light and shade, cloudy kinds of pictures.

 

MH

It’s about texture, depth, and movement – exploring them in a way that would be very difficult with generic lighting or even moving lights. One of the first things that I said to Jan Urbanowski, the animator as a reference was to think about how a tropical storm or cyclone appears on a weather satellite image: this swirl of cloud that has trailing end bits coming off it, and a dark hole at the centre of it. It has light, dark, and mid-tones in it, and it has a lot of movement.

GC

You mentioned that Afterlight was created as a solo for a mixed bill, the Diaghilev evening at Sadler’s Wells, and that you then decided to develop it into a full-length piece.

 

RM

That’s not how it worked actually. We started by making trio material and solo material, but when we tried it for the first time with the projector, having the projector with three people was weaker than having the projector with one person. So we developed the solo part first for the mixed evening, and then went back to the trio parts afterwards.

It’s harder to make it work with people stretched across the stage, because the projector only has a limited frame. And we could only afford one projector – not four, or nine – so it was better to have one person at the centre of it.

 

GC

Is it about the relationship between body and space, in that every body is a centre of attention, and the light kind of creates a landscape or a frame around these bodies?

 

MH

The strongest relationship is between one dancer and the lighting, because once you have two dancers, the strongest relationship needs to be between them. It can still be a collaboration with light, but it needs to be a less powerful one. The more people you have on stage, the more you multiply those relationships.

 

GC

You have chosen a fragment of Afterlight to show, would you like to introduce it?

 

RM

Actually there are two fragments in this – it is part three and four of a four-section solo. The dancer is Daniel Proietto.

(Guy Cools shows the final seven minutes of a recording of Afterlight.)

 

GC

One of the original sources for Afterlight were Nijinsky’s drawings, and for the Rodin Project you also worked with Rodin as a source. Not only with his sculptures but also some drawings and watercolours.

 

RM

Yes, the Nijinsky piece was the first one where we really had a theme as our inspiration, and chose to follow that. We had lots and lots of books open in the studio throughout the process and used photographs and drawings for reference, and I think they were good for all of us – from costume to lighting, to movement, to interpretation. As we enjoyed that process so much, we wanted to follow it again in the Rodin Project.

 

GC

In the Rodin project, it is the sculptural quality of the body that almost transforms it into a kind of set design.

 

RM

Yes, for parts of this piece we had very little costume. In the fragment which we are about to show, which is from a film adaptation of the piece called Erebus, we did still want some kind of costume. Sometimes it is about giving some flow to the movement, and I think you probably see that in this. But there is a lot more body than costume.

 

GC

You were also consciously looking for a different type of body for the dancers.

 

RM

The weight of muscularity of Rodin’s figures, particularly the weight and physicality of the men, seemed very important. That brought me to the dancers that I chose for that project, Dickson Mbi, Tommy Frantzen, and Tomasin Gülgeç, who you are going to see here. There are also three women in the project who aren’t present in this clip.

 

GC

You said it was a clip of the film version.

 

RM

Yes, the Rodin Project was a seventy-minute piece and from that we made a fifteen-minute film adaptation called Erebus.

(Guy Cools shows a short clip from the film.)

 

GC

When I came to see rehearsals for your new piece two weeks ago, I observed a long, very detailed conversation about costumes, how they would be draped around the body. Looking also at this, it looks very casual, but it is actually very constructed. It looks like skin. Clothing is the interface between light and the body and it is something you very consciously work with.

 

RM

Yes, very much. And we had time to look at costume in the piece, to get the red colour in the beginning for example. We also realised that it worked much better in the light when he had a hat on, because he had very dark hair and it just looked like a dark shadow. The grey pants meant that they could kind of disappear in the darker parts, but they also gave enough sheen on the material that allows you to fill in that part in the picture.

 

GC

The relationship between skin and clothes, is that something you researched as well?

 

RM

Skin. You can’t beat skin in the light really.

But sometimes there are parts of the body that you want to drain away a little bit, so you don’t put them in white tights or white shoes but something a little bit more muted.

 

MH

It is always a long conversation that starts with the question of how much or how little skin, and then when you get somewhere with that, it is about how light or dark the costumes should be to be able to make visible what you want to be visible, and to hide what you don’t want to be so prominent. You have to keep trying things out to find a balance between all these things.

 

GC

Keep trying things out. That is a great statement to finish this talk with. Thank you.

 

 

 

Notes:

 

1 Tim Ingold, Being Alive, essays on movement, knowledge and description. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), 138

2 Michael Hulls, from a personal email, 29/06/2016

3 Michael Hulls in theartsdesk Q&A, 21/01/2012,

http://www.theartsdesk.com/dance/theartsdesk-qa-lighting-designer-michael-hulls

4 Idem

5 Jennifer Tipton in Hamilton Dramaturgy, 07/12/2011

https://hamiltondramaturgy.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/theatrenow-interview-with-jennifer-tipton/

6 Michael Hulls in theartsdesk Q&A, 21/01/2012

http://www.theartsdesk.com/dance/theartsdesk-qa-lighting-designer-michael-hulls

Shift. Photo: Bill Cooper

© Michael Hulls 2020