Manchester, UK based dbn Lighting has been asked to work on some challenging and quirky projects in its time, but "Eclipse", a special performance by Malian musical superstars Amadou and Mariam for the Manchester International Festival was their first concert where the requirement was to 'light' it entirely to be dark.
The three completely sold out performances were staged at the 500 capacity New Century Hall in central Manchester. "Eclipse" told the story of the duo's work and life together, featuring a collection of songs - a magical fusion of pop, blues and Malian music - spanning their amazing career which started over 25 years ago when they met at the Mali Institute for the Young Blind.
Amadou and Mariam specifically wanted the audience to experience the show in total darkness, so they could appreciate the psychological and sensory shifts involved in perception and experience that take place without vision, in the process gaining a valuable insight into the energies and emotions of their world.
dbn's Peter Robinson took up the challenge with great alacrity – and none of the normal parameters for lighting a show applied.
His brief involved designing an emergency lighting system under manual control that would function practically and safely in case of emergency, as the quest for total darkness in the room meant that the hall's in-house system, which bled too much ambient light, needed to be by-passed. This meant removing bulbs from a total of twenty fittings and involved installing a new temporary emergency lighting scheme, for which dbn used their own specially adapted 'Emergency Exit' signs, strategically positioned, which only illuminated if the power was lost, along with a large number of emergency twin-spots.
They installed infra-red lighting so the audience could be monitored with IR cameras during the show, and they used UV and a miniscule amount of very dim stage lighting upstage - mostly behind a mid stage drape - on the backing band (who were sighted) to allow them to see critical parts of their instruments.
The emergency lighting system was powered from dbn's mains distribution so that if they lost the ability to bring up lights manually, the room would be illuminated.
The overall auditorium emergency lighting was divided into eight zones, each lit with four 650 Watt fresnels hung from four 18m Slick Lite Beam Trusses flown on CM Prostar hoists. During the shows, operator Nick Buckley stood by with a set of manual cues programmed into his Jands Vista S3 lighting desk, in case of an emergency or the need to remove a disorientated audience member - none of which were actually needed as the performances all ran like clockwork.
Also central to the show was a large amount of air conditioning. This was installed to allow the room temperature to be varied during the performance, as part of the sensory concept was the timeline of the performance, which ran through a typically Malian 24 hour period encompassing night and day.
dbn also supplied eight Jem AF1 vari-speed fans, controlled from the desk on DMX which were used by the show's production team to disseminate a variety of aromas and smells from custom made scent pellets. These were simply held in front of the fans which wafted the odours throughout the audience area.
For the finale, to end on a complete and hugely dramatic contrast, dbn supplied a large upstage rear projection surface, which was revealed complete with an image of the eclipsed sun, for which dbn provided eight Chroma-Q Color Force 72 LED battens to wash up the cyc and enhance the feel and idea of light in the 'sky', creating a silhouette of the band before they were revealed with tightly focussed top light, and finally front light.
The minimal stage lighting required was rigged and treated just as a normal gig with careful positioning of lights on the above stage bars, and dbn also had to provide a barely perceptible walk-in lighting state, registering just enough foot-candles for people to be led safely to their seats and enjoy the show.
The concept was a huge success and there is already talk of it going on a world tour.
Said Pete Robinson, "When the Manchester International Festival comes round every two years, we know that there are going to be some strange and bizarre requests and some interesting projects to work on, but being asked to light a show in the dark really caught my attention!
"Despite changing briefs and last minute alterations/additions, the enthusiasm of the MIF production team and the band’s crew made it a thoroughly enjoyable project.
"And then the actual shows, in absolute darkness, with your other senses assaulted by sublime music and the scents and changes in temperature, along with the wonder of the audience ....... truly made for an exquisite experience".