Pianist Christopher O'Riley at Symphonie Fantastique performance in NYC
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Symphonie Fantastique: Behind the scenes at a most unusual performance

At most plays, musicals, concerts and dance recitals, photography during the performance is strictly forbidden.  That doesn’t mean most photographers don’t itch to capture the emotions, expressions, gestures, and action and wouldn’t jump at the chance to shoot during the show.  I’m no exception. In New York City, I recently had the chance to go behind the scenes at a most unusual workplace.  The scene was a theater in downtown Manhattan, the HERE multi-arts center, home to the Dream Music Puppetry Program.  As part of the celebration of the 25th anniversary season of HERE, a renowned work of puppeteer and stage designer extraordinaire Basil Twist, Symphonie Fantastique, was being revived, 20 years after first being presented at this site.

We know Basil from a few years ago when he was in La Jolla, presenting an original commissioned theatre piece, Seafoam Sleepwalk, as part of the biennial WoW (Without Walls) theatre festival of La Jolla Playhouse. This is a festival of shorter theatrical pieces presented in non-traditional performances spaces-a tennis court, elevators, cars, even a neighborhood garage.  Basil’s Seafoam performance was at La Jolla Shores, a wide sandy strip, and popular beach.  The performers emerged from the ocean, with the audience seated on the sand. We had a sense from meeting Basil at a reception the night before that long focal length zoom lenses would be best to capture the action in the water and on the beach, so we went armed with Nikon 80-400 mm lenses.  This was a great opportunity to have free reign to shoot during a performance.  We couldn’t move around from our front row seats on the sand places, so our zooms had to do the legwork for us.

At the evening performance of Symphonie Fantastique in NYC, unbeknownst to me, my Fujifilm X100F camera around my neck had attracted the attention of the cast backstage as a “cool camera”. This wasn’t the first time its retro styling has served as an icebreaker.

Congratulating Basil backstage afterward, I was surprised when he asked if I had taken any good shots. My initial reaction was dismay, thinking “oh no, missed opportunity”.  Saying “no, I hadn’t wanted to distract other people”, I was thrilled to hear Basil respond that they were having a special rehearsal the following afternoon and I was welcome to come and shoot if I liked. To me, this was an open candy store of an invitation.

Having seen the performance and toured the backstage set-up, I could see this would be a challenging shoot with VERY low light levels, a tight and wet backstage area, with swift-moving performers in wetsuits, not to mention a variety of unusual props being passed from hand to hand, to be manipulated and dunked into a large, 1000-gallon tank of water.

Sinuous ribbons dance in time to Symphonie Fantastique, just one of the many eye-dazzling effects achieved in time to the music.

The net effect is a filmic series of balletic images, some evoking dreams, others sea creatures, phantasmagoric colors, and patterns, a crazy kaleidoscope come to life, all accompanied by a concert pianist playing the demanding 5-piece Hector Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.

Fabrics and other materials swirled through water in a large tank move as if alive in Symphonie Fantastique.

This is all accomplished by performers who are backstage and never seen, who manipulate objects, fabrics, mirrors and all manner of prosaic articles above, behind and in a large water-filled tank, which is the center of attention. The net effect is that of music being manifest visually.  It demands to be seen rather than described.

Dancing lights and swirling abstract effects are achieved with low-tech means in Basil Twist’s Symphonie Fantastique.

For me, the challenges were myriad.  The easiest scenes were out front with the house lights up.  With the house lights down, the only illumination was the tank itself, reflecting flickering brilliant colors, and the backlit score used by Christopher O’Riley, the renowned pianist.  This demanded a tripod.  Even with a tripod and wide aperture of f3.2, my shutter speeds were slow (1/30 second) and I had to use an ISO bumped-up to 8000.

Performers in wetsuits manipulate fabrics and objects in and around a large, lighted water-filled tank in Symphonie Fantastique.

Backstage, the performers work in near darkness and black wetsuits, with the only illumination being focused on the tank, coloring their faces lurid magentas, blues and greens, depending on the scene. More challenges were keeping out of the way, not hitting my head on a prop hanging overhead or missing a step at the wrong moment, trying to capture interesting interactions, while not disrupting or distracting the performers. This rehearsal was prompted by the need to cross-train performers into new roles, so thankfully there was a bit of starting and stopping, which gave me a chance to try different positions to shoot the same scene.

I used my Fujifilm X-T2, oscillating between using a fixed wide-angle lens, the Fujifilm 23 mm f/2.0, and the Fujifilm 80 mm f/2.8 lens to shoot facial close-ups and details.  Backstage, there was no room or time for a tripod, so I had no choice but to shoot on continuous high, with a wide-open aperture of f2.  To achieve a shutter speed of 1/40, I had to bump the ISO to 10,000.  Although I usually shoot in manual, the lighting was changing too rapidly to react and I found Aperture Priority a better starting point.

Even processing the resulting images was challenging.  The performer’s faces were reflecting the vivid colors of light trained on the tank. Depending on the image, sometimes this worked as part of the story, while other times, I elected to desaturate the colors mildly and still, others, converted to black and white.

Behind the scenes performer at Symphonie Fantastique.Performer in Symphonie Fantastique.

It is an unusual workplace where the performers are in wetsuits, swishing, moving and manipulating fabrics and objects in, above and behind a tank of water. Some performers were literally suspended in harnesses over the tank, needing at times to lunge forward to maneuver a prop over the center of the tank. This required intricate coordination, as the team worked out tricky timing and handoffs. It was an honor to be a part of it for a memorable and challenging afternoon.  To experience this unique performance yourself in NYC, you have until July 15, 2018.  Tickets and more information can be found at: http://symphonienyc.com/Performer poised over tank used in Symphonie Fantastique

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