The Job: Trad A. Burns, Lighting Designer for Kansas City Ballet

Imagine an enchanted fairytale world: Spinning dancers leap along silhouetted forests and cavernous walls and soar through swaths of golden light and purple shadows. Costumes of gossamer and velveteen sparkle with sequins, frosted eyes shine through the darkness, paper snowflakes drift.

But turn off the stage lights and flip on the auditorium “fluorescents” and what remains is the starkness of flat wooden cutouts, ceiling suspensions, foam rocks and silkscreened trees. This is the stage without the magic of a brilliant lighting designer.

When Devon Carney became Kansas City Ballet’s new artistic director in May 2013, one of the first decisions he made was to choose a lighting designer. He turned to Trad A. Burns, a designer Carney worked with during his tenure with the Cincinnati Ballet. With more than 600 productions to his credit, for companies ranging from the Joffrey to the New York City Ballet, Burns has built a reputation for endowing performances with transcendence.

Burns “brings to the light” the sculptural qualities of pas de deux and the melding of the corps de ballet into kaleidoscopic color-in-motion compositions. His signature illumination imparts a cinematic, technicolor scope to the performances he takes in hand.

“(Lighting) scenarios become part of what you are, and what you are known for, as a designer,” Burns says. “I really enjoy strong back light from far upstage, and it appears in almost all of my work.”

Kansas Citians have seen Burns’ work in Carney’s reimagined “Nutcracker,” last year’s “Swan Lake” and this past spring’s “Sleeping Beauty.” This summer, he will be designing for the 2017 annual Kansas City Dance Festival.
“The most important part to me is the audience that is in the seats,” says Burns, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theatre design with additional studies in musical theater from the Otterbein University, and a Master of Fine Arts in lighting design from Yale University.

And of course, photojournalists and videographers depend upon lighting for their cameras to record the full beauty of a performance. Without a highly-skilled lighting designer and enough stage light, shadowed areas become murky smudges, oversaturated color filters burn away critical details, and dark stages create a mess of indistinguishable graininess.

Masterful lighting design requires optic sensibilities and a keen aesthetic eye. For each production, Burns begins with a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) of the theater’s configuration.

“I use a program called Vectorworks, a CAD program that has a lighting plug-in for drafting,” he said, “(and) I rely on good old math and my experience to figure out what the design will look like.”

“I think like a painter when it comes to color,” he adds. “When I (begin) a new show, I (analyze) what color I want coming from what angle. It usually takes me a day or two (to) narrow down what I think the overall color palette should be. Once I have that idea, I will move into the specifics of the placement of the lights and what type of light I want to use. Each light has a different color temperature, affect(ing) the color choice I make for that light.”

LEDs have had a major impact on the field, Burns says, and it’s a positive one.

“Over the last few years there has been a big color temperature change in theatrical lighting with the addition of LEDs,” he explains. “Overall the color temperature has gone up about 500k, which makes a big difference for the camera. Plus, I think lighting designers have really had to adjust the overall color temperature of lights in order to stand out from what our audiences look at on a daily basis, from phone screens to wide screen TVs to digital movies.”

“(The) greatest thing about LED technology is that it allows us as designers to pick the exact perfect color for what we are working on,” Burns adds. “You can easily tweak a hue or saturation value by a very small amount to make sure that choice perfectly goes with the set and costumes as well as the mood.”

What audiences see at a production lit by Burns is the breathtaking beauty of balletic movement immersed in glowing, atmospheric color and endowed with purity and clarity of light. Perfection, down to the most carefully staged details, is what makes Trad A. Burns such an exceptional lighting designer.

About The Author: Serena S.Y. Hsu

Serena S.Y. Hsu

Serena S.Y. Hsu, a Kansas City photojournalist with a background in 3D animation and ballet, specializes in performance photography. Hsu has contributed to KC Studio and KCPT’s Flatland; she also works as a wire photojournalist for ZUMA Press.

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  • Reply george langworthy

    Excellent article, explaining the detailed works and artistry of the often overlooked lighting designer.

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