Frances Chung as the title role in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

What Goes Into Lighting a Ballet? A Conversation with Lighting Designer Natasha Katz

Six-time Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz has lit such Broadway musical hits as Frozen, Hello Dolly! and A Chorus Line. She is also one of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's biggest collaborators, designing the lighting for works such as Broadway's An American in Paris, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Cinderella, a 2012 co-production of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Shortly after SFB opened their 2020 season with Cinderella last month, Pointe caught up with Katz to talk about her career, her collaborative relationship with Wheeldon, and the lighting profiles of co-productions.

What does a psychiatrist's daughter bring to lighting a stage production?

I was brought up to look at all sides of things and to delve deeply into their emotional and psychological meanings. Nothing was black and white! Maybe it explains why I became a lighting designer. Aside from the art and craft of my work, I have to look at the whole picture: scenery, costumes, music; I have to talk to the artistic director, dancers, to fully explore the story. I have to give my father, Dr. Joel Katz, credit for raising me to be someone who takes the world into consideration when I design lighting.

How did you get into lighting design?

It's a college major these days, and so people dream about it as an ambition. I came across it accidentally, at Oberlin College, where I did everything in the theater, and got my first lighting internship. That's true for most lighting designers of my generation, Beverly Amos, for example. Jennifer Tipton started as a stage manager.

Joseph Walsh, as the Prince, with Esteban Hernandez and members of San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

Do you consider lighting design an art or a craft, and if both, where does one bleed over into the other?

We consider ourselves designers and artists. The craft is what we use to implement the art. It's like a painter's paintbrush or sculptor's tools. We're often called "technicians," though that's not how we think of ourselves, partly because you can't really put your finger on the lighting when you watch a show. It lives in realm of the subconscious. Do you even notice lighting? For lighting to be good, it shouldn't be noticed. That's where the subconscious lives: in the unnoticed world.

Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella was a co-production of SFB and Dutch National Ballet. What must you take into consideration for a co-production, different from one that is underwritten by a single company?

A co-production has the potential to be complicated. Cinderella was an unusually complicated lighting experience. We began working on it in Amsterdam, where a lot of things are different. They speak a different language, so you need a translator. All the equipment and how we control it via computer is completely different than anything in the U.S. Then there are cultural differences. For example, they take breaks a lot more often, so if you have four hours budgeted, a big part of that consists of breaks. The next step is translating the ballet's libretto into a repertoire lighting plot.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

What is a "repertoire lighting plot"?

With major ballet company productions around world, it's typical to see three ballet works in one night, or see three on one night and a different three on alternate nights, or one program at a matinee and a different one in the evening. The stage crew loads in shows, and the technicians have to hang all the lights in one setup for all the productions and then switch from one to the other from that single setup, because you can't rehang lights between pieces or even programs. Over the years, something called a repertoire lighting plot has come into being. It's like a libretto for lighting that allows you to quickly switch for each work. You'll see one dancer with a single "down" light from above on her that's been built into a repertory lighting scheme. There are instances where the dancer is placed at quarter line and center line only because the lights can't change from piece to piece. These constraints are sometimes the very thing that make a work so good, and though the audience can't see the motive, choreographers know house limitations, and stage accordingly.

Are cues identical for each cast?

If there's a principal who, because of skin color for instance, looks different than what you've planned for, yes, the lighting has to be changed. That's a technical issue, resolved to get to the intended idea. It's up to the resident lighting designer to make the call. For example, I can't make that choice in San Francisco because I'm not there, and just like a ballet master "takes care" of a given piece in the absence of the choreographer or stager, the resident lighting designer does the same for lighting it.

Esteban Hernandez (seated) with Elizabeth Powell, Ellen Rose Hummel and Sarah Van Patten in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

What is the collaboration process like with the choreographer, set and costume designer and artistic directors, especially for a co-production?

Cinderella, from a collaboration point of view, was last done in San Francisco in 2013, and in Amsterdam 2012. Christopher Wheeldon has the most amazingly precise, insightful vision of what the piece is. Before the costume and set designer comes on board, Chris has worked on the libretto with long-time collaborator, Craig Lucas. Then, Chris, as creator, meets with set and costume designer Julian Crouch, whose ideas are themselves so unusual. I come into the picture next, and because setups might be different from one theater to another, I have to think about one lighting scheme in Amsterdam, and one in San Francisco. We generally begin working on the project about two years before it opens.

How do you resolve big differences of opinion or approach?

It doesn't happen, in the sense that we're all working toward the same goal. "I want blue." "No, because you used red in the last scene." You talk it out. Decisions are, as a rule, collaborative and consensus driven. I can't think of a single time where it hasn't been.

Frances Chung with Alexander Reneff-Olsen, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Max Cauthorn and Steven Morse in Cinderella.

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

How much of your professional life are family and friends in touch with?

They're very much in touch with it. What nobody but my kids understand is the hours that a lighting designer keeps. Five pm, when most people on their way home from work, is the start of the second half of our day. We can be in the theater from 8 am to midnight for weeks.

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Eighteen-year-old Sarah Patterson (foreground), with her classmates at New Ballet School. She's decided to stay home this summer to take advantage of outdoor, in-person classes. Courtesy New Ballet School.

Why Planning Summer Study This Year Is More Complicated Than Ever

When it comes to navigating summer intensives, 2021 may be more complicated for ballet students than last year. On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic's spring spike in 2020, summer programs went all-virtual or had very limited capacity. This year is more of a mixed bag, with regulations and restrictions varying widely across state and county lines and changing week by week.

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Chris Hardy, Courtesy LINES

Check Out These 2021 Summer Intensives Especially for Adults

After a year of shuttered studios, virtual-only classes, and waving to ballet buddies over Zoom, summer intensives are back. For adult students, packing up for a few days of intensive training might seem like a pipe dream, as many of us spent the last year trying to fit in ballet classes while juggling work and, for those of us with kids, remote learning. With the country opening up again, let's start planning (safely!) for workshops that allow us to jump into technique, conditioning and, of course, high-elbowing some new friends.

For in-person intensives, please check the studio's website for detailed health and safety guidelines, including policies on masks, cleaning/hygiene, social distancing, and the policy on having to cancel in-person programs due to COVID-19 restrictions.


Alonzo King LINES Ballet Adult Dance Intensive (virtual only, via Zoom)

May 28–31, San Francisco

Immerse yourself in the celebrated home of Alonzo King, the artistic visionary who created LINES 39 years ago. Now in its second year as a virtual offering, this four-day workshop includes ballet, yoga, Pilates, choreography and contemporary. Students also have the option to drop in to class if they can't commit to all four days.


Lexington Ballet Adult Ballet Intensive

July 12–16, Lexington

Why should thoroughbreds have all the fun of training in the horse capital of the world? Reach new heights in your training at Lexington Ballet's Adult Ballet Intensive. Join school directors Luis and Nancy Dominguez and principal instructor Ayoko Lloyd for a five-day workshop that includes conditioning, Pilates, technique and repertoire. All classes are held in the evenings, and the program welcomes beginning through advanced students.

A group of eight smiling adult ballet students\u2014seven women and one man in the middle\u2014pose in a line and stand on their right leg in tendu crois\u00e9 devant.

A group of dancers pose at a past Lexington Ballet Adult Dance Intensive.

Ayoko Lloyd, Courtesy Lexington Ballet

Louisville Ballet Adult Summer Intensive

May 31–June 4, Louisville

Polish off a glass of sweet tea (or two), and then work up a sweet sweat at Louisville Ballet's Adult Summer Intensive. Geared towards beginning through advanced levels, students ages 18+ can take part in half- or full days of training. Classes offered include technique, pointe and jump strengthening, modern, Pilates and yoga. Students will also perform in a livestreamed performance on the final day.


Brookline Ballet School Adult Summer Ballet Intensive

June 23–27, Brookline

The Red Sox and New England Patriots may get a bulk of the glory in Beantown, but the city is also a mecca for ballet. At Brookline Ballet School's Adult Summer Ballet Intensive, students (beginner or intermediate level) will spend three weeknights and two weekend mornings in technique and repertoire classes, wrapping up with an informal performance on Sunday afternoon.


Kat Wildish Presents (virtual, via Zoom)

June 14–25 and July 12–23

Join master ballet teacher Kat Wildish in a virtual intensive that aims to take your training to the next level. Each day, in one-hour classes, Kat will lead students of all levels from basic to advanced in various ballet exercises. The group will be limited to 20 dancers, so each person will get personal attention.

A group of older adult ballet students in leotards, tights or leggings, stand in two lines with their left foot in B+ position and holding hands, as if rehearsing a ballet.

Kat Wildish (far left) working with adult students at Peridance Capezio Center

Matthew Venanzi, Courtesy Kat Wildish


artÉmotion Adult Ballet Summer Workshop

June 14–19, Cleveland

Head to the Buckeye State for a week of training under the tutelage of Ballet West first soloist Allison DeBona and principal Rex Tilton. In this Adult Ballet Summer Workshop, beginner and intermediate/advanced students will fine-tune their skills in two classes every morning: a 90-minute technique class followed by a one-hour class in one of the following disciplines: pointe/pre-pointe, acting, men's and women's variations, conditioning.


Amy Novinski

May 24–28 and June 28–July 2, Philadelphia

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July 26–30 and August 2–6, Charleston

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Houston Ballet Adult Intensive

June 1–5, Houston

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May 31–June 5, Salt Lake City

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A group of four men in dance practicewear face the right corner of the room and raise their arm as if beckoning someone. Three of the men stand in parallel, which the man in the middle sits in a wheelchair.

A men's class at artÉmotion Adult Summer Ballet Intensive

Logan Sorenson, Courtesy artÉmotion


The August Ballet Retreat in Leeds

August 28–30, Leeds, UK

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Morlaix International Adult Ballet Camp

July 2–10, Morlaix, France

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Still shot by cinematographer Benjamin Tarquin, Courtesy Post:ballet

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