Horst Muhlberger says lighting for dance is different from lighting for theatre because lighting sometimes plays the role of the set in dance

Originally an engineer in electronic design, Cologne-based Horst Muhlberger decided to take up light designing because it involved human communication. “I was looking for something that involves much more of my interest and the complete range of things we do in life,” says Horst who already had a stage background through his hobby in acrobatics.

Horst was one of the mentors in the FACETS choreography residency that was part of the Attakalari Biennale 2013. “I decided to go deeper in this stage art, I was immediately attracted to dance because it involves the body and it’s an open form of communication that is understood not so much by words but at an emotional level. It’s an art form that needs the presence of the audience and the dancer in the same space.”

Taking the lights apart

Though Horst did not have an artistic background in stage lighting, he picked up the craft through experience and a self-learning process that involved disintegrating a typical stage light set-up. This is what he did before his first project as a light designer, for a dance piece based on Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

“When I did my first lighting, it was based on the fact that I didn’t have any problems with the technology. But then I had to go into the theatre and question myself on why there are so many different kinds of lights and fixtures involved. I had to take one of each down and plug it in to figure out each kind of light and its qualities and take notes on the possibilities.”

Lighting for dance is different from lighting for theatre because the context is different. Since there are usually no sets involved (at least in contemporary dance), the lights then create the setting.

“In many dance pieces, the set is reduced, there are curtains to neutralize the set and then there is the dancer on stage. The lighting has the option to transform and modulate within the space to create certain atmosphere and qualities that give the audience an emotional idea on how to look at the movements, what they’re about and how to interpret what’s going on. In theatre, the lights are there to illuminate the sets and the speaker.”

Since digital interaction, in terms of video projections is now incorporated in contemporary dance performances, the rest of the set elements have to create space or work around this. “I have never run into problems in integrating light and video because I don’t start from the technical aspect of the lighting, I start from the artistic aspect of the piece. So when there is projection, I know that before I even start thinking about the lighting, and then from this point on, it involves some technical aspects,” explains Horst who believes that this an effective starting point for a light designer working on a project.

“It is simple to put lights in positions that don’t hit the screens, it’s a mathematical aspect. But sometimes the videos have certain colourful animated forms, in which case a lot of work goes into matching the colours of the video, lighting and costumes. Video mapping also involves a lot of work and several tryouts before cuing because it is more fragile than a screen projection.”

And so, Horst says it is important for all the collaborators including the designers, choreographers and other media artists to have an idea about what the other is doing. “It makes sense for the technicians to know what the dancers and actors are doing on stage. It equally important that the choreographers and dancers have an idea on the lighting set-up and how to get it on stage because a lot of work has to be done before the piece can be lit, the cues written, and the images programmed.”