For over three decades, Jeff Barlett has been lighting dance from the inside. He partners with choreographers from the Twin Cities and across the country in extended pas de deux, helping them to define, refine, and support their visions.
Most of his lighting designs were created for the Southern Theater, from which he was abruptly dismissed by the board in July after 27 years as artistic director. His designs often illuminate the emotional core of a dance work—the eerie expressionism of Carl Flink's 2008 dance Wreck, for instance, or the ardent theatricality of his ongoing work with Susana di Palma's Zorongo Flamenco. His lighting sculpts dancers in ways that highlight their form and clarify their actions, while adding depth and texture to the stage picture.
Many of the choreographers with whom he has worked over the years insist that he has helped them evolve as artists by engaging them in rigorous dialogues about their work.
"He keeps me flushing out what it is we want the dance to project, forcing me to be clear and examine each artistic decision. After listening carefully, he goes off and performs his magic," di Palma says.
"He has this way of letting me talk about what it is I am going for and then enters into it himself with ideas that take it further," says Mathew Janczewski, artistic director of Arena Dances.
While Bartlett's work has been recognized by a 2005 Sage Award for Dance in Design and a 2003 McKnight Theater Artist Fellowship, perhaps his most important contribution to dance has been as a vital collaborator. At the Southern Theater he gave artists not only his lighting expertise but the rare gift of time and space to develop their ideas. He continues to work as a freelance designer, merging the prowess of a master technician with the instincts of a poet.
Linda Shapiro is a freelance writer who writes about dance and performance.