Welcome to part two of my conversation with Al Crawford. In the first installment, I spoke with Al about his remarkable career trajectory and the lighting legacy that has illuminated the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for the last 60 years.

Today, we’re delving into the work of Al’s company, Arc3design, and exploring some of his theories about light and the fascinating way it enhances other art forms.

[MM] How would you describe the relationship of light and dance?

[Al] Jean Rosenthal, a designer whose writing I love to read, used to say, “Dancers live in light like fish live in water,” and that speaks to how I try to approach dance lighting. It’s the space in which these performers express themselves. Can they do it in work light? Sure. Can a dancer go into a non-traditional space, turn the lights on and just perform? They could, but our job as lighting designers is to be an extension of their spirit; to take a choreographer’s vision or a dancer’s movement and create an environment of light that speaks to that story, to the spirit of that piece.

[MM] How do you approach the creation of that environment?

[Al] I start by considering why the piece is being made. What is its purpose? What are we trying to say? Not every question can be answered with every project, but even some of the answers will give us a trajectory, a springboard to help establish an idea. In most cases, it’s about the dance, the movement and potentially about the music. The lighting should be something that supports them 1,000 percent.

[MM] In your career, you’ve explored many applications for lighting. Whether it’s architecture, music, theater or dance, what enables lighting to enhance other forms of expression?

[Al] I think you have to go back to the idea that light is really life. When we think about what light is to a human being, light is the thing that gives us life. It is fire. It is the thing within. It is heat, and it keeps us alive. Even cavemen built fires to keep them alive. I don’t say this in a woo-woo kind of way, I really do think, in its core purpose, light is life.

I didn’t have that perspective when I first began doing lighting. It has taken 20 years in this art form to really understand it in this way. But now, it’s why I think light is so effective on everything we put it on. Light and music are a match made in heaven. With light and architecture, you can make a building feel majestic or powerful. And, the way that works is no different than how we light a dancer. It’s all about form and spirit. I come from the idea that, ultimately, light is that key thing in our lives that brings us happiness. When I think about how to apply that idea to my work, it translates to something that is deeper than, “oh, wow, isn’t that pretty.” It needs to be an essential part of the experience of a work. 

[MM] You’ve mentioned “spirit” a couple times. What role does it play in your work?

[Al] As a lighting designer, spirit is incredibly important. Yes, can you just pinch the buttons and bring up a great looking blue, do a ballyhoo of moving lights, so everyone goes, “Ooh and aah.” But, if you bring your spirit to it, if you bring what’s inside of you, your story and your vision, ultimately, the audience is going to be moved differently.

So, how do I bring my spirit into a project? It’s through trying to be gracious, trying to be a collaborator; trying to find the thing that the other person you’re working with is excited about and amplify that, elevate it, help celebrate it.

There are many young lighting designers who want to do lighting for a living, and I always tell them I can teach them the skills and how to light a stage. What I can’t teach them is to have spirit. I can’t teach someone how to be an individual, how to bring their own spirit and voice to a project.

[MM] In addition to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, what kinds of projects do you most like to work on?

[Al] At Arc3design, we tend to work on projects that involve experiences, and I use that word in a very broad way. An experience can be something beyond a piece of theater that you sit in a chair and watch. An experience is something tangible that you have to do, that you walk through, that you touch and feel, and it changes you in some way. It can be a theatrical experience, a high-end private dinner, a brand experience, where you’re being educated about something like a vehicle, a piece of software or a computer. But, in the end, you walk away feeling something about that brand. That’s the kind of work we’re excited about and the kind of work we find ourselves doing quite a bit, alongside brand strategists, very high-end special event designers, florists and interior designers.

For example, during the last few years, we had the great honor of working on five White House state dinners for visiting presidents from around the world and on a number of social events under the Obama administration.

[MM] How did you approach events like state dinners for the Obamas, and what is the experience you tried to create?

[Al] As a team, whether it’s a state dinner or a high-end fundraiser, it’s the same approach. What do we want the lasting impression to be? How do we want our guests to feel, and what is it we want them to experience at this event?

With a state dinner, you approach it considering what needs to be expressed. Is it the spirit of our country? Is it the story of the relationship between the two nations? What does that look like? What are we trying to have that story become? What do we want a visiting nation to experience? These are really important questions to consider when deciding things like food, music and décor. Lighting is an important piece of the puzzle. We work with these teams to support their design visions and stories to create an atmosphere that speaks to those ideas.

I really believe that light as an art form digs into the subconscious mind a little. It’s where I like to work and is certainly applicable to these kinds of high-level events.

[MM] That’s an interesting way to articulate it. Does lighting express the subconscious of an experience?

[Al] I would hope so. You have to find that delicate balance between showing your cards and putting layers into a lighting design that people don’t necessarily point out, but still realize it’s not as good without them—that it’s not as beautiful or as storytelling.

As designers, sure, we can light the stage. We turn on some lights, and it’s lit. But, the art form is that delicate development of an idea in light. What’s happening in the shadows? What’s happening in the color story? What’s happening in how the décor is lit in a way that makes it look a thousand times better than it did before it was lit? All of that is in the subconscious. Of course, our tools are the technology. The question is, how do you create a lighting design that, in the end, doesn’t become about the technology?

[MM] How do you work with technology without making it about technology?

[Al] Essentially, it has to be about solutions and not technology. Here’s an example. A number of years ago, I was looking for a solution for the Ailey company. I wasn’t happy with my current moving light solution on the plot, so we started looking at different fixture lines from different manufacturers. The thing is, a lot of the manufacturers are specifically focused on the concert production world. I feel like the theater and dance world kind of gets what it gets, and it has been that way for decades. What I found was the Martin [by HARMAN] solution. A combination of MAC Viper Profile and MAC Viper Performance were the fixtures for us, because they gave us the delicacy and the accuracy I wasn’t able to get from any other fixtures, and they had the smoothest dimming. For its size, the MAC Viper Performance is one of the punchiest fixtures and, for me, it came down to optics and repeatability. Alvin Ailey is all about consistency, theater-to-theater, show-to-show. We needed a fixture choice that would help us do that. The Martin fixtures definitively fit the bill. It has been about five years now, and they’ve been rock solid on the road. I couldn’t be happier. Now I use the MAC Viper products and the rest of the Martin line on a lot of industrial projects around the world.

Thanks again to Al for taking the time to speak with and sharing his story. Are you a lighting designer who works in various environments? Share your insights in the comments.

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