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Lighting the Cirque du Soleil puts spotlight on graduate

by Debbie Hum

From Saltimbanco and Allegria to the sensational new show O in Las Vegas, Luc Lafortune (BFA 84) has lit every production by Le Cirque du Soleil since the Quebec circus troupe was founded in 1984.

O (as in "eau") saw its premiere last October at the new Cirque theatre at the Bellagio Hotel. The show features 74 trapeze artists, synchronized swimmers, high divers and other circus performers. Another 115 technicians complete the cast.

Lafortune, who landed the lighting design gig six months out of Concordia's Scenography program, spent four-and-a-half months in Las Vegas last year lighting and rehearsing the show. In January, he was featured on the cover of the magazine Lighting Dimensions, which described his design as "a beautifully restrained elegance" that results in "a mixture of magic and mystery."

LafortuneWhen he's not designing new productions, Lafortune is busy restaging Cirque shows; there are currently six shows on tour around the world. In fact, the lighting designer has been home only four weeks in the past year. He's back in Montreal now, where the Cirque's latest production, Dralion, begins on April 22. He returned to Concordia on March 24 to share his experiences as the Cirque's lighting designer with a class of Design For Theatre students.

Lafortune quickly dismissed the notion that lighting is an additive that comes in after a piece has been blocked and discussed. "Lighting is a participant in a production that interacts with sound, set and costume design and the action of performers. Together they form un emballage, a whole, that evokes emotion or provokes reaction," he said. "Lighting has the potential to become a character or even a narrative element in a production."

Lafortune said lighting designers should strive for three qualities in their work, "clarity, wholeness and unity." He noted that the most difficult part of the design process is acquiring a vision and translating the imagery to the stage. His method is to approach each new production by forgetting that he is a lighting person.

"You have to take the play and relate to it on a human level. It's the only level you share with the audience, the only thing you have in common with them," Lafortune said. "The rationalization of lighting in the later part of design becomes a whole lot easier once you've acquired the motivation. Textures and angles are all influenced by that singular emotion."

Lafortune also cautioned against being overly specific or clichˇd. "It is important to remain simple, to find in each scene one or two gestures that design that particular scene, and to be ambiguous enough to allow for personal interpretation," he said.

The power of simplicity is a lesson Lafortune learned early on during his studies at Concordia. In set design class, students were told to design a set for a play about a native man who has a vision of a goddess and is intoxicated by her words and movements. Lafortune's set featured a teepee. The design by his classmate Rˇjean Labrie (BFA 84), who is now a recognized scenic designer, consisted of a large spiral painted onto the stage. "I was in awe. I envied his ability to call on emotions rather than rely on things that are more concrete. He understood the emotion of being a designer," said Lafortune.

Developing a style is less important. "People often talk about my 'style,' but I think that style is a dangerous thing. If you get too comfortable with one style it can become a double-edged sword; you become a prisoner of your style. You have to force yourself not to repeat yourself."

Lafortune admitted that the Cirque is sometimes "like a madhouse." The design process can be difficult and frustrating, involving extensive production meetings with the director and set designers, and the challenge of lighting acrobatic performers in perpetual movement. He has sworn on a number of productions that it would be the last, but the circus just keeps drawing him back.

"I've been everywhere on the planet in the last two years. There are no set rules and the environment is incredibly vibrant," he said.

Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.