Interview

Lighting up the stage: Peter Mumford

When he first started work on E=mc², Choreographer David Bintley knew that there would be no set design, so the lighting would have to do all the work. 'I knew it would require something quite dramatic with nothing there', he says. 'Peter’s the guy to do that.’

‘Peter’ is Peter Mumford, a doyen among British lighting designers and a long standing collaborator on David's work (Take Five, Edward II). ‘He makes art with light,’ the choreographer declares. ‘There’s always the wow factor with Peter’s lighting.’

For this piece, David had also commissioned a bold symphonic score from Australian composer Matthew Hindson, and Peter caught an early orchestral rehearsal, which informed his thinking. ‘I've worked on many original dance pieces and frequently the music is the only real inspirational starting-point,’ he says.

For example, the astounding final section, ‘Speed of Light squared’, or ‘Celeritas squared’, inspired what Mumford describes as ‘a very powerful wall of light, an extremely bright backdrop that silhouettes the dancers and almost distorts them with intense white light’. Exciting for audiences, this can prove challenging for the dancers – not for the first time in Mumford’s work.

‘I like Peter’s light because it’s extreme,’ David enthuses. ‘Dancers complain about the glare. Sometimes they don’t know where they are, where the edge of the stage is. We often have to put a strip at the front of the stage to help them.In the last movement of E=mc², the lights are really in your face – it changes the shape of the dancers. I like it.'

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Is extreme a description Peter would recognise? ‘Yes! I’m not allowed to design the classics,’ he replies, ‘they can’t dance them in my light!’ Even so, he doesn’t consider E=mc² an abstract ballet.‘It may not be telling a story like The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker but it has a narrative nonetheless – a narrative of ideas. It becomes the role of the lighting design to illuminate this kind of narrative and stimulate the emotional response to these ideas.’

Mumford also works on theatre, opera, major musicals – so why does he return to dance? ‘I think it’s the freedom,’ he considers. ‘Dance generally needs lots of space and I can design pretty extreme and diverse situations that don't interrupt that. It’s also very much about lighting the dancers and illustrating the choreography – showing an audience what to look at and how to perceive and “read” a dance work. That’s a beautiful thing to do.’