Five Lighting Techniques For Dance Performance

Choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar founded the acclaimed Urban Bush Women in 1984 “to create dance and to create community.” Lighting the way for UBW since 2004 is Susan Hamburger. Below, Susan shares five stories, in her own words, about lighting techniques she has employed, using Roscolux Color Filters, to enrich her dance performance designs.

#1 Color Choices and Skin Tones

It’s interesting designing for a significantly different skin tone than my own. I’ve learned what colors might look great on the dancers' skin tones even if it doesn't work for my own, but there are no universal rules as to what works or not. I find R83, a particularly flattering deep blue gel for the dancers’ skin tones. It has become part of my repertory color that I use for UBW.

dark swan photo by Michael Zirkle

For dark swan I wanted to etch the dancers from the surrounding space so it was razor sharp on their bodies and faces. Their expressions were integral to the piece. I used R365 in the Head Highs, R3202 in the Mids, R305 in the shins. These versions of ‘white light’ gave a sense of warm to cool rising from the feet to the heads and cut through the saturate blue of R83 from the backlight position. R83 not only enhanced the rich blue tones of the costumes, but also allowed the reds to shine.”


#2 Color Can Suggest a Time Period

Walking With Pearl – The Southern Diaries photo by Ayano Hisa

I wanted the lighting to reflect memories of Pearl Primus’ stories, but in a ‘non-romantic’ way. The palette I was working with, for most of the dance, consisted of amber and dusty rose colors. I loved using R321 because it can make everything feel as though you are looking at a sepia photograph.


#3 Color Can Create an Environment

Walking With Pearl – The Southern Diaries photo by Matthew Wright, Fig Tree Photography

Using R09 and R03 as the key lights on the body with accents of R50 helped recreate the environment we wanted-- the dry, dusty feel of parched cotton fields. The R50 combined with the R321 also brought the sense of heat to the skin and the costumes, without looking too pretty.


#4 Color Can Be Fun!

SCAT! Photo by William Nadylam

Located in a fictional, Kansas City jazz club, SCAT! is a site-responsive and immersive work that invites audience participation. Some of the source material for the production includes Jawole Zollar’s family stories. She introduces us to her telling of this story as “part truth, part memory and part myth”. I liked the saturated jewel tones of R377, R26, R83 and R393. They resonated the color palette from the paintings of Archibald Motley, which was a major influence on my color palette for this concert. R54 as face light is a flattering color for every skin type and it cut through the deeply saturate colors of the surround, allowing us to see the expressions of the performers’ faces and bodies, while still referencing the colors of the jazzy, romantic palette.


#5 Color Conveys an Idea

Shelter photo by Ayano Hisa

Shelter is a piece about homelessness in America. With this particular version, Jawole wanted to throw the spotlight on the crisis of hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans community. I wanted to stay within the watery world, but wanted to enhance the idea of the cold and stark environment of the post-Katrina destruction. The piece is lit by the low side light to carve the dancers from the surround, while the framing space remains black.

R68 in the shins and R64 in the mids gave layers to the texture of the cool, blue, suffocating water. In the moment of the photo above, the dancers break the 4th wall and confrontationally point to the audience. I used R62 in the front, flat spot, and took out all the other stage light to emphasize the stark, bright cold of their pointing to the audience asking what their culpability in the situation was. There is nowhere to hide here. R62 and R64 are perfect for diminishing flesh tones while exposing the body as a whole.

Susan Hamburger is a New York City-based lighting designer who has worked with numerous dance companies, including the Bessie Award-winning Urban Bush Women and Bessie Award winner Nora Chipaumire. Other notable dance companies include Troika Ranch, Blondell Cummings, Urban Tap, Ellis Wood, Alice Farley, Christopher Caines, Susan Chirniak, and Carol Nolte among others. To see more of Susan’s work, including her theatrical and residential lighting designs, be sure to visit her website:

To learn more about Rosco’s entire range of filters, visit our Color Filters web page, or explore our myColor web app to search, sort and save the colors you need for your next performance.



Joel Svendsen February 07, 2017 Questions?

About Joel Svendsen

Marketing Director: Joel's Rosco career began in Rosco's Hollywood office in 1999 – first in sales covering the Western US and the Los Angeles Film & Television market, and then as Product Manager for Rosco's Film & Television Products. Joel's knowledge about Rosco's products and how they're used in each of our different marketplaces makes him well suited for bringing the stories in Spectrum to life.