Winter light, Eric Soyer at the Teatro alla Scala

Pinocchio. Festival d'Aix en Provence,2017 photo©Eric Soyer

When and how did your artistic career of Lighting and Stage Designer begin?
I think that my prevailing and enduring impulse is the one of childhood, which is the kind of impulse that allows you to invent entire universes through building games, or drawings, or transforming or else bending the rules of the use of objects, through the power of imagination. Originally, there was in me a desire to play a role, to explore, to play with the space and with the senses. I attended a school of applied arts that enabled me to acquire the basics of technical drawing and artistic design and, moreover, the ability of projecting myself into the three-dimensional space. Then, a fieldwork with scenic experiments gave me the opportunity to understand what is really there, what we do see, and especially what we do not see.

Eric Soyer
Portrait de Eric Soyer Scénograhe et éclairagiste Compagnie Joël Pommerat en résidence à Chateauvallon, Var Photo ©Olivier Monge / M.Y.O.P.

What has formed you, who were your teachers? 
Observation is my first teacher. The eye is an organ that has to be perfected. Inspiration is everywhere and it starts from the moment we develop the sense of sight. What surrounds us exists on an incredible number of visual, sound, and olfactory layers. Natural light is forever evolving. There is only one sun to illuminate our planet with infinite nuances, and sometimes with extremely sharp contrasts. The shadows and the images, sometimes clear, sometimes blurred, have always fuelled the construction process of our perception of reality.

The grain of light, its structure and its fluidity, gives us information about temporality; it both constitutes and causes our databases to vibrate. This brings out the question of reality and the possible associated perceptions, and that particular feeling that we’re building up, to let it fly away soon after. Light is a wave that vibrates, always in motion, mysterious in its propagation and in the emotions it generates; it is a kind of oxygen with a variable density, necessary for life. It reveals matter, which absorbs a part of it, lets it pass through and reflects a certain amount. My work as a lighting designer is fed by my work as a set designer and vice versa. In truth, I consider it to be the same work, that is, to construct sensitive ephemeral architectures. Only the materials vary.

  • je tremble
  • Les Marchands

What is the relationship between the stage and the darkness that inhabits it? And what were the turning points in your career as Lighting Designer? 
The opacity, the darkness of the theatres is still a valid place to share our insights. A dialogue is established between the audience and the stage, in a sort of temporal and emotional compression. Everything is false, and everything is true; it never happens that two different theatres offer the same relationship, the same experiment.
Populated by ghosts and by thousands of seated spectators and by the actors who play, we’re dealing with a place of transit where we stop, where time stops and manipulates us all. We could say that it is an experiment of the flesh and the mind. I try to give life to an invisible space, unexpected, and I try to profit from imperfections, to create a lively picture that comes together at every moment and uses the living memory of the spectator as the background of an image that completes the construction.

It is therefore like tearing a fragment from the darkness, turning it in the light and letting it go away. The representation offers a particular time, compressed, expanded, fragmented, or linear. The spectator is active, and I try to offer to his eye and his senses, to his sensitivity, his nervous circuits and his cerebral cortex and also to his intelligence, the scent of light, its texture and its volatility. Impression, superimposition and deletion; as a detector, when developing photos, when the image appears. I usually make a calibration with a reference white, since it will give the feeling of a monochrome, and work on all the nuances of colour temperatures offered by the gradations of light. We started a “compagnonnage”1 with Joël Pommerat and the theatre company Louis Brouillard and created a repertoire of 22 shows, entirely produced by us. These creations were, all together, the most important workshop I have done and that allowed me to invent a language and deepen its grammar. For example, in the show Les marchands (The merchants), the quite powerful natural daylights were lowered with a very bright white background that appeared inside a box of rough concrete. Instead, in the show Je tremble (I quiver) we developed a palette of lights in a television setting, on a background with a sequined curtain. In the show Cercles fictions (Circles fictions), which took place in different epochs in an arena, there was a chandelier of the late nineteenth century in its centre. In Pinocchio, the sea surrounding the slender boat was a laser beam with smoke that gave a thickness to the scene. In the show La réunification des deux Corées (The reunification of the two Koreas), the bi-frontal light base was a zenithal video image that made a dynamic light with the possibility of different frames and “irises”.

The different qualities of the lights are a tool, a material from which we can build, and the amplitude of the spectrum that surrounds us is huge. The X-rays to see inside, the laser to pierce, cure, dry and polish, the LED, a flat light that offers the possibility to strobe on high frequencies, without inertia, the video projected as a moving light, fluorescent lights, incandescent lights, and not last the flame to warm us up, which we know since prehistoric times.

Theatre des Bouffes
Theatre des Bouffes du Nord janvier 2010 ” Cercles Fictions” écrit et mes par Joël Pommerat scéno, lumière: Eric Soyer costumes Isabelle Delfin avec: Agnès Berthon, Jacob Ahrend, Saadia Bentaïeb, Gilbert Beugniot, Frédéric Laurent, Serge Larivière, Ruth Olaïzola, Dominique Tack photo©Elizabeth Carecchio

How do you design and create the Lighting for a dance show, and how do you interact with the choreographer’s thinking and vision? 
As for the lighting, I usually proceed to the visual record of what the choreographer calls reality. I work on the division between the visible and invisible, between what we see and what we fail to see, and I try to transcribe in a scenic way the unspeakable of what the choreographer calls reality, made of visible and invisible things. The whole challenge of my spaces lies in this frontier. And this concern is a constant, struggling in questions and running through all the shows in which I am invited to participate.

How do you organise the lighting rehearsals with the dancers during the show editing? In what way do you make the lighting design? Is it through the dialogue and interaction with the dancers’ body and movement? 
I am very present during the rehearsals, totally absorbed in studying for my work, letting myself be hypnotized by bodies in motion and trying to understand the stakes of the game of the construction that is taking place. I like to leave myself a time without being forced to think of a result. The stage light is a playing partner for the dancers and the actors. On the set, the perception of light and its movements is part of the memory of space-time in which the performers are located and evolve. The breath of space is done with that of the actors, the dancers and the singers, and even with that of the words, sounds, movements and scenery. The resonance phenomenon is essential, as the music, the sounds, anticipate or prolong the sensation.

There is the architectural reality and there is the emotional charge that it stimulates and which we project. Next, I proceed with the settings and with the variations and evolutions that compose them. Then comes the moment of the montage of the show that will give the overall score. To write the score, the important thing is to position the turning points well. The work will find its final form when a general organic movement is delineated. So everything is in place, the background and the shape!

Les Marchands
Les Marchands Pommerat photo©Elisabeth Carecchio

Choreographic movement and dynamism, and movement and dynamism of light! What balances and relationships exist in the equations that produce the lighting project in a dance show? In your poetics, what kind of magic blend combines the use of traditional sources and lighting fixtures with the evolution and development of motorized spotlights that allow you to obtain calibrated and evocative movements of light on stage?
In our modern lives, movement is a fundamental element. The speed generates images, constantly moving, strobe lights, and lights that parade, or impacts, flashes, rhythms and vibrations. I started working a long time ago on live scenes, evolving and following each other, then I discovered that the light itself could be cut, fragmented, gain depth and be mobile. After that, the experiment field became exponential. Of course, resource planning is a very important rule, not to get lost in the realm of possibilities. That is to use the necessary means in key places to find the right breath. The principle of the breath of space is what interests me. Like being able to reduce the space to create the feeling of a close-up, or to be able to break it into different levels to accentuate the depth of field. And in this regard, the “slave” projectors offer a first-class tool.

The collaboration with Angelin Preljocaj: how did it start and develop? And your poetics of light, which direction has it taken after this important artistic meeting?
We started the collaboration with Angelin Preljocaj in occasion of the show La Fresque (The fresco painting), in 2016. We knew our respective universes, and so we quickly found a common ground for sharing our sensibilities and rhythms of creation. After that we worked on the creation of two short forms, Still Life and Ghost. We meet upriver, and Angelin tells me about the universe he tries to explore. Then, I attend research sessions in the studio and discover choreographic and musical fragments, and so I explain to him the directions that I want to take, and at that point we move on to the phase of scenic implementation. Here’s what Angelin said about the Gravity show: “The question of space is very important, so I did not want a scenery. I wanted the space to unfold the bodies. Working on the lighting was essential to accompany these different sensations of gravity.” Together, we came to the decision that the light sometimes had to be heavy, sometimes light, and even lively. It accompanied the choreographic gesture, surrounded the dancers and enveloped them. Now and then the dancers themselves were arousing the light. We chose a simple set design with a base of cuts of lights, rectangles, circles, light ribbons, which framed and enhanced the dancers. On the set, the lights, exploring the space, listened to the bodies, caressed and highlighted them. They shaped the contours of a precise dance. The dancers, haloed by the lighting design “undefined” the space; they blurred the limits of the stage, which seemed freed from the terrestrial contingencies too.

  • La Fresque
  • Réunifiacation

Winterreise is the production just staged at the Teatro alla Scala of Milan. The space looked like an endless garden of dark ash, illuminated by a faint light that gradually increased from the initial darkness until the space was filled with life, and brought forth, as sprouting, the dancers’ bodies. What was the genesis and vision of light in this work of yours?
Winterreise was built as a montage of short films, of variations around this monochromatic ashes rain. Then, the opening of the background pierces this universe, and there is a powerful backlight. The arrival of colour in Winterreise is a strong and saturated event that renews the perception of the stage and gives rise to emotions, similar to the glare that will open a new chapter of our receptivity. The shadow of a body or a face draws its trajectory, its presence, its past and its future.
There was a surprising phenomenon when we arrived on the La Scala stage. The singer positioned himself with the pianist in the orchestra pit, which was quite high, and suddenly, with them in the foreground, and the dancers in the background, I had the feeling that what happened on the stage was the result of the musical work’s visions.

Winterrese photo©Brescia e Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Where is your compass pointing today? 
I have always worked with artists who write with words or with sounds. There are no formulas to enrich or develop a language except for artistic encounters and sharing sensibilities. At the end, what I know is very fragile and contains its own limits.  Today, the need to blow up our knowledge, to shake our foundations, to escape the ways already outlined, and to return to these first emotions, is slowly advancing.

A French tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages: artisans specialized in a series of “apprenticeships” in workshops throughout France, acquiring additional skills. It is still in use for some professions, as a higher degree of specialization

This article was originally published on LUCE n°327, 2018.