Light is an integral part of Whim W’Him‘s work, and Michael Mazzola has designed the lighting for nearly all its productions, the most recent show included. With Instantly Bound, the first piece on the program (January 2014 at Seattle’s Cornish Playhouse) artistic director Olivier Wevers explores the fear and fragmented horror provoked by gun violence. In order to show Michael what he had in mind, Olivier passed on to him some video material of the piece premiered by BalletX in Philadelphia last spring, a 5-minute Whim W’Him rehearsal video and a loosely sketched verbal description. That gave Michael “the idea of how to flesh it out in a bigger and potentially more risk-taking way.”
Besides a central spotlight, he decided to do “something with a sidelight that I never do—against my own rule.” Dancers dashing in and out, lit sporadically from the side, gave “a sense of danger and uncertainty, never knowing where it might come from.”
“That piece unfolded very naturally—so pleasing to me to have grasped what Olivier wanted,” he notes. Literally as well as figuratively, “It worked out to be very dark.” Michael was “happy with the idea of a red ending too,” although, ever in search of precision, he allows that he didn’t get it to unfurl quite as he would have liked—the nuance of a gradual transition ending in an instant of red.
Les Sylphides has a completely different ambiance, bright, giddy, droll. Michael remarks that “Olivier is a funny guy” and points to his instinct for the comedy of manners in contemporary society. “If I grasped that notion sooner, I’d have brought it into the mix.”
Early on in discussion, Olivier mentioned the idea of brighter, more diffuse lighting, as in many Balanchine ballets. “But in the end that’s not what we did,” says Michael. Instead, the dramatic possibilities of spotlights were utilized to illuminate a dark comic vision.
Yet he adds, in typically thoughtful fashion, that the localized lighting perhaps “depressed the possibility for seeing comedy. Another approach would be possible.” Michael is, as always, considering how something might be developed further.
For Crossroads, his first piece choreographed on an American company, Spanish choreographer Juanjo Arques transmitted to Michael, “a lot of information”—both verbal description of the “frame” of piece and computer sketches of the stage as envisioned.
The image of three separate spaces or apartments, with the possibility of angular lighting in front of each, “was crucial,” says Michael.”Once I saw that, everything became clear about my mission for the work.” Ideas were further developed and he facilitated construction of the set.
As to the lighting, Michael saw this as a ballet about abstractions of things. Ideas of openings, walls, interiors. “I felt like I understood pretty straighforwardly what I was going to do.” He adds, “The physicalization of emotion and conceptual ideas” is something very familiar and congenial to him.
There were, of course, things that needed working out. “That molding’s got to go,” Juanjo said, when he saw the window in the central wall. It did not go, but, in Michael’s words, “The lighting lit it, and changed it, and eliminated it—it’s all very backward how that happens.”
Juanjo had such a strong “sense of what his material was and where things should be,” that sorting out and refining the particulars went quickly. The sense of three interiors and the stories that take place there was clarified without being rendered literal-minded.
“Both gentlemen,” concludes Michael, “know the what and when of their work. It’s absolutely awesome.” Words exchanged between choreographer and lighting designer act “as a medium of expression, not a problem. It’s great—we do, look, go back and fix.”