The illumination of performance art: Vicky Butterfly interview

 

As we talked about in our recent article, dance and performance arts are finding endlessly inventive ways of integrating lighting technology into their art forms. One example that really caught our eye was that of Vicky Butterfly.


A London-based burlesque artist, Vicky’s background in theater design and love of light in all its forms led her to create a stage costume with integrated LED lights.


We recently chatted to Vicky about her relationship with light, her own constant goal of integrating lighting innovations into her work, and how future-looking technology and vaudeville have long gone hand in hand…

Vicky butterfly

For our readers, could you give us a brief introduction to the work you do, and what you aim to achieve with it?


I think I come in somewhere between a performance artist and an entertainer - I create fully self-realized pieces of spectacle that I hope trigger unexpected emotion as well as entertain.
Where did your relationship with light begin?

All artists have a relationship with light. When I was very young I was fascinated by the idea that what we see are not objects but the reflected light from objects - that a room lit in a different way is in its way a completely different room. Things only appear to exist as intersections of light and shade; especially as someone living in an age where we can photograph things exactly as the eye sees it, I like the idea that everything can still ‘lie’ and everything is potentially in flux. And light can change it all - mood, shapes, colors, the focus of an audience… It is one of the few things I still find genuinely magical.

Tell us a bit about your background in theatre design, and how you’ve used that within your performance work?

I trained at Central Saint Martins and I think that, despite what I may have thought upon leaving college, to some extent design IS my performance. Although I “live” in my performances and dance and move to express myself, a lot of the story I am trying to tell is effect - using design to make my ideas more real or magical.

 

A lot of my acts center on the idea of transformation so if you put them on a stage without costume, set or lighting design they wouldn’t be the same pieces.

Prior to your current work, did you look to integrate lighting advancements within theatre design? How did you go about doing this?

Right from the beginning I have always used light in my work: of course stage lighting has always been important, as is anything that can reflect light, but I have always been on the lookout for portable and non-obviously technological technology.

 

It has always been a challenge to find things that are affordable, portable and not obviously gimmicky. I have used LED storage lights, fairy lights, light changing bulbs, EL panels, rows of bulbs that can be placed beneath a rotating panel on different gels to create a flickering flame effect…

 

Given time and budget there are so many things I would love to experiment with: flexible screens for example. But as I am entirely self-funded, I usually try and find new and better ways of making more “classic” effects work better and go further.

What was it that led you to combine burlesque, an art form with a long history, with lighting and more technological elements?

They have always interested me and I don’t see having a variety of interests to be conflicting. I suppose that some element of it may be down to having an older brother who works in technology so it’s something that I have been exposed to. But there are also a lot of precedents: I see most of the stuff I do as being more in the tradition of exotic vaudeville, and modernity and electricity have always has a big part in that.

 

Vaudeville may look “old fashioned” to us now, but audiences were fascinated by the quest for innovation and novelty either to enhance existing effects (magic lanterns, film) or spectacle in itself (exhibition of Tesla coils, sideshow style acts using conductivity).

 

There is a performer I identify with in particular called Loie Fuller who began in American burlesque and went on to star at the Follies Bergere and in adverts for electrical products around the world. Although I was unaware of her when I started performing, there have become more and more parallels in my work. Nicknamed “The Electric Salome”, she was interested in using technology as an effect rather than a novelty. Some of the lighting technology she invented is still used today in theatre.

What is it about light as an artistic medium that fascinates you?

As I said at the beginning, I think it is innately fascinating to artists as it is the medium that decides what does and does not exist. The palace of Versaille uses light as a medium with its gold and its mirrors, Erte and the Marchesa Casati created a new “electric dress”… an exhibition or show can be spoilt by poor lighting. Light is the artist’s constant collaborator yet it is the only medium that does not physically exist or leave a lasting trace for the most part. And I think that there is also something that feels quite powerful and godlike about being able to “call something into existence” with it.

 

Artists love drama!

What are your favourite examples of lighting within set design or performance art?

Loie Fuller, The Crazy Horse in Paris… it’s actually pretty hard to pin down, as lighting seems to be more of a medium for installations or enhancement for performance. It often seems to be one of those things which when done excellently is the one thing few people notice whilst making everyone else’s work look better.
Which inspirations have challenged you to think about using light in a different way within your own work?

The(re) are definitely factors… I think a lot about how performative light can be, and the challenges faced with engaging the body within it, so it isn’t just a canvas. It is also such a powerful direction tool. A performance cannot exist without an audience; but although you can present something to them, often it can be a challenge to focus them on specific things you want them to see. Light can do that. And it can make things more intimate and voyeuristic. The reaction to light is something so primal that I am drawn to it. I am sure that there is so much still to explore.
Are there any current developments in light that you hope to use within your act in the future?

Many, though sadly not so many I can afford! The past couple of years I have been fascinated by potential illusions and effects created using sequencing, but sadly none have succeeded as yet.

What do you hope will become possible with light in the future?

I hope that there are a lot of things that will become possible, but sadly my skills are more with using technology creatively than inventing it… otherwise I would be a millionaire by now!

What would you use light for within performance art, if there were absolutely no limits?

It’s hard to say, and I am actually fairly reluctant to in case one day the capabilities are there and I work out (how) to harness them!

 

The wonderful thing about light is that I genuinely believe that there are no limits - I mean, you can already use a projector to create anything from nothing. Whether it convinces or not is another matter, but that’s the magic of theatre…

Where do you see the future of light going – both within theatre and live performance design in general, and within burlesque as a specific art form?

I don’t really distinguish between those forms. Largely for me the only difference is that burlesque is generally completely self-funded so there are far more financial limitations concerning access to technology. I suppose technology will get more portable, but the rest is up to the imaginations of those using it…

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