Get to know Brandon Stirling Baker, Lighting Director - Boston Ballet

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Get to know Brandon Stirling Baker, Lighting Director

Brandon Stirling Baker

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Brandon Stirling Baker is an acclaimed lighting designer who has worked for ballet, opera, and theatre companies around the world.

Brandon Stirling Baker

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Addie Tapp in George Balanchine's Serenade ©The George Balanchine Trust

Photo credit: Liza Voll

The talented 32-year-old recently joined Boston Ballet as Lighting Director and has since won the prestigious Knight of Illumination Award, which celebrates the outstanding achievements of international designers making a difference in our world today.

Baker has worked with a diverse group of visual artists, choreographers, and composers. In 2019, his work was featured at the Guggenheim Museum in a program dedicated to his work entitled “The Choreography of Light.”

In addition to his work with Boston Ballet, Baker has designed for ballet companies around the world including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, Semperoper Dresden, Berlin Staatsballett, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater among many others. Before joining Boston Ballet, Baker was awarded a residency at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University and he has guest lectured there, as well as at Yale, Boston University, Fordham University, and his alma mater, California Institute of the Arts.

Baker shares his thoughts about the collaborative process that makes dance come alive on stage.

How did you know you wanted to be a lighting designer?
I grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by all areas of the arts. At the age of 13, I had this realization that artists working with light could be an incredible bridge between the world of music and the world of visual art. My passion for music, animation, and visual arts eventually led me to pursue lighting in college and professionally in all areas of the arts.

What do you think about when you’re lighting a ballet? 
In all of my work as a designer for ballet, I strive to create a world of light that is specific to the dance. I like to keep every collaboration completely new and never repeat myself. Every ballet has a unique choreographic style and vocabulary. I strongly believe that the lighting must follow this language. I like to think that my work is never only about the light, but instead creates a unique world for the dance to live in. My favorite moment to craft as a lighting designer is the opening image and the final image of a ballet. I believe that it is our responsibility as artists to make visual gestures that are strong, clear, and simple while maintaining a unique point of view.

Soo-bin Lee and My'Kal Stromile in Helen Pickett's Tsukiyo

Photo credit: Liza Voll

What are the major differences between lighting a classical ballet like Giselle versus a contemporary ballet like Helen Pickett’s Tsukiyo?
Lighting GISELLE for Boston Ballet this fall was a total dream come true. This was my first story ballet design at Boston Ballet, and my first collaboration with the incredible Ballet Master and Stager LARISSA PONOMARENKO. Together we created a visual world that pays tribute to the many productions that have come before us, and at the same time creates an experience that feels fresh and new for today’s audiences. The lighting for Giselle in Act I required a specific aesthetic filled with hope, sunlight, and humanity that was directly inspired by a storybook romance. The lighting for Act II transforms this storybook aesthetic into a cold afterlife lacking any sense of natural color. The contrast of color for Giselle was a very important detail to consider in the visual design and directly matched the choreography.

Lighting Helen Pickett’s TSUKIYO was a wonderful and unique opportunity to re-design an existing work that had been performed in previous seasons. This new production of Tsukiyo has a minimalist approach to the design but provides a beautiful departure from what has been done before with a gentle, dream-like, and ambient quality.

Who inspires you most?
My greatest inspiration is having the opportunity to work with like-minded artists who are eager to make a difference in the world of ballet. I am deeply inspired by the work of choreographers and composers JEROME ROBBINS, Alexei Ratmansky, Justin Peck, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Lucinda Childs, Sufjan Stevens, Philip Glass, Jamar Roberts, and so many others. Many of my favorite artists and collaborators have a great respect for the history, but also a forward-thinking notion of presenting work that reflects the world we live in today.

What has been your most rewarding ballet collaboration?
In 2012, at the age of 24, I designed my first world premiere for New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. This was a new ballet by choreographer Justin Peck titled Year of the Rabbit with music by Sufjan Stevens. This experience changed my life forever and inspired me to dedicate my career entirely to the world of ballet.

Tell us more about the important connection between light and dance.
Ninety-nine percent of the audience is unaware of lighting as an art form but one hundred percent of the audience is affected by light. This is the incredible power that lighting has to offer in our understanding of ballet and design for the stage. Each ballet has its own unique choreographic vocabulary. We can say the same for the lighting of each ballet.

For me, the most successful lighting is when the design becomes a part of the identity of the ballet. As an example, we cannot present GEORGE BALANCHINE’S Serenade without the iconic directional blue moonlight from stage right in the opening tableau. This light is an essential ingredient of this ballet and it will forever be a part of its identity.

How did you approach lighting design for George Balanchine’s Serenade?
Serenade is one of Balanchine’s oldest ballets, originally choreographed in 1934 and famously premiered in an outdoor garden in White Plains. Over the past 86 years, this iconic ballet has had many lighting designers: Jean Rosenthal (1948), Ronald Bates (1964), and Mark Stanley (1990s). When I recreated the lighting for Serenade at Boston Ballet in 2020, I paid tribute to all who have come before me and maintained the identity of this work.
The lighting for this ballet can be mistaken as being very simple and somewhat classical. However, there is a quiet, sophisticated, and beautiful elegance that provides a perfect balance of moonlight, variations of blue light, symmetry, and asymmetry. It is a great responsibility and huge honor to recreate the lighting of this work and I’m so excited for audiences to see it in CARMEN.