While attending high school, Al Crawford had a life-changing experience at a performance of the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Al was captivated by the production and knew immediately that he had to find a way to someday to work with the New York-based company, and he did. Since 1998, Al has been the Ailey company’s lighting director. He has traveled with the company to 48 states and more than 60 countries, working on approximately 225 performances each year.
Along the way, Al also founded Arc3design, a multi-genre lighting design group that works on a broad variety of architectural, dance, music, theater, broadcast, and event projects. His group’s work ranges from installations at the New York Central Synagogue to Haiti’s Ayikodans and Cuba’s Malpaso dance companies to numerous state dinners at the White House and brand events for companies, including Samsung, Spotify, Google and others.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Al while he was in Detroit with the Ailey company. Articulate and enthusiastic, it’s easy to understand how teaching has also become a meaningful component of Al’s professional life. He is a guest faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and has been adjunct faculty at the University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts (UCONN), serves on the selection committee of the prestigious Gilbert Hemsley Lighting Internship Program at Lincoln Center and has presented at the Institute for Theater Technology Conference (USITT), Live Design International (LDI) and the Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas.
It was a pleasure to hear Al’s insights into lighting and about his career, which I’ll share in two installments. This week, I’ll focus on his extraordinary journey from determined student to lighting director and get the inside scoop on working with one of America’s premier dance companies. In the next installment, I’ll delve into Al’s fascinating ideas about the nature of light and his work outside of the Ailey company.
[MM] How did you master the skills you needed to work with the Ailey company?
[Al] I grew up in North Carolina with very supportive parents. My father is a professional musician and has always been involved in the creative world, and I have always been a student of the arts. As a child, I was interested in music, dance, visual arts, theater and a little bit of technical theater, but couldn’t settle on one.
I went to high school at Interlochen Arts Academy in Northern Michigan. It was mainly for dance and theater, but I eventually included more visual arts. I had a teacher at Interlochen who suggested I take a lighting class, and I quickly realized that lighting merged the passion I had for visual art with live performance. It was the key that would allow me to do both.
While I was at Interlochen, the Ailey II company [which features the Ailey company’s younger dancers and emerging choreographers] came to perform, and I was floored. I had never seen anything where the actual performance environment—the lighting, the scenery, the sound—has such a strong aesthetic. The dancers were beautiful. The repertory was really powerful, and I immediately wanted to know more about the company and its history. Shortly after that, I traveled to New York City during a school break to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and it hit me like a load of bricks. It literally changed my perspective on how the rest of my life would go. From that point on, it became about getting a job with them.
I knew the next step was to begin my professional training in lighting design. I needed to go somewhere other than traditional college, somewhere with more of a conservatory focus and a tried-and-true lighting design program. I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, which was very convenient, because I’m from Raleigh. It was a great program, and I was able to train in lighting design for theater and a broad range of genres. As I got closer to graduating, still focused on the Ailey company and going to see them during breaks, I came up with a sort of strategic plan. I decided I would work for as many ex-Ailey lighting people as possible. I spent a summer during college and the summer after I graduated working for different lighting designers who had worked with the dance company over the previous four decades.
Ultimately, an assistant lighting director position opened up at the Ailey company, and I was given an opportunity to interview. The interview literally lasted about 15 seconds. Everyone there already knew me, so it came down to my ability to express that I was ready. I was really young, but got the job and after a fairly short stint under my predecessor, became the lighting director.
[MM] At the Ailey company, you work with many different choreographers, do they each inspire a distinctive take on the lighting?
[Al] Most definitely. It’s a repertory dance company that started in 1958. We’re approaching 400 ballets and tour with 15–20 of them from different eras. We do three or four every night. This has given me a great opportunity to work with an extensive variety of choreographers with different styles, of different ages. They may be contemporary choreographers or more traditional ones in their 70s or 80s. They each come from different points of view and have to be considered individually, but that’s what I love about dance. You have to be able to change gears at a moment’s notice, depending on who you’re speaking to, what you’re speaking about and what you’re trying to create in terms of using lighting to support their work. It definitely never gets boring.
[MM] Does your work at the Ailey company entail being both a lighting designer and a lighting director?
[Al] Precisely. When a new work comes into the Ailey company, a choreographer is brought in and decides who will comprise their creative team—who the lighting designer, set designer, costume designer, if necessary, and composer are that will help create the work. The choreographer certainly has the option to use me as a lighting designer, but it’s not required. I actually love working with guest lighting designers, because they each bring a unique perspective into our repertory.
If a ballet comes from the 60s, and the lighting designer is alive and capable, they’ll come back and look at the lights. They will either update them or clean them up and make sure everyone is happy. If they’re no longer around, I’ll do it with the information I have, making the best decisions I can to recreate the original work.
In terms of new work, I’ve done more than 20 ballets for the Ailey company as a lighting designer. But, my role as a lighting director is to assist the guest designers to be successful in our house, to take their work around the world and protect their vision.
[MM] Has the overall approach to lighting for the Ailey company changed through the years?
[Al] From a lighting perspective, one of the wonderful things about this company is that there have been very few lighting directors. I have been with the Ailey company for 20 of the company’s 60 years, and many of my predecessors have spent more than 10 years as lighting director. So, what we have ended up with is a very tight institutional memory. We’ve been very lucky in that respect.
We still use the light plot that was originally designed by Nick Cernovitch in 1958. It grew a bit with Chenault Spence in the 70s and early 80s. Tim Hunter refined it in the mid-80s into the 90s, but it hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. Most of the channeling is exactly the same as it was in 1982. The plot transitioned cleanly, and everyone who has held the position respected what their predecessor had done and understood why the plot was the way that it was. I’m honored to still protect that.
Obviously, to move at the pace we do, we have had to embrace new technology. We’re not traveling with saltwater dimmers anymore. We’ve moved into modern technology and embrace it, because we have lots of opportunities for lighting design for new work. But, we’re still doing all of these ballets from the 70s and 60s, and those ballets need to look the way they did then. We’re not of the mindset of well, it’s 2017, we need to relight the ballet that was created in 1960. That’s not our spirit, not our mantra. I need the tools from a technology perspective to be able to go both ways.
Is the plot bigger than it was in the 70s? Absolutely, but it’s just an amplification of the idea of the plots from back then. Do we have more advanced control technology? Do we have a bunch of [Martin by HARMAN] MAC Viper Profiles now? You better believe it. But, the core idea of the light plot, like the core of the company, has not changed.
Many thanks to Al for his insights into his work with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Stay tuned to the HARMAN Professional Solutions Insights blog for part two of our conversation, in which we’ll discuss Al’s theories on why light interacts so well with other mediums and delve into his work with Arc3design.
Are you a lighting designer who works in dance? Share your insights in the comments.