Behind the scenes: the technical challenges of hosting dance in Saffron Hall

Posted on April 24, 2020

Our stage set up for a dance project with students at Saffron Walden County High School and dance company Boy Blue

Chris Wheal, our Technical Director, gives an insight to the technical challenges of staging dance in a venue purpose-built for classical music.

As many of you will know, Saffron Hall was conceived principally as a concert space for classical music with a large open wooden stage and carefully considered acoustic panelling. However, if you have been to see dance at the Hall you will know that, for these performances, the stage undergoes a huge transformation into a space suitable for dancers and more dramatic lighting and stage effects. Moving between the two set ups takes a huge amount of work behind the scenes and, given the spotlight on dance in this week’s newsletter, I thought I’d give you an insight in to how we make this change possible.

Firstly the floor is crucial, depending on the type of dance the impact on the dancers feet and ankles can be very high. Purpose-designed dance venues have a sprung floor that gives with the impact and cushions the dancers feet, at Saffron Hall we have a stage with a semi sprung floor with a smaller degree of give that we then upgrade with a dance floor covering. It has the added advantage of being black which suits the design of 99% of dance shows!

Next we create a black box by using panels which slide out from both sides of the stage on tracks and a top black border which is hung from one of our motorised bars above the stage. Within that defined stage we than assemble tall wooden flats covered in black serge (called book flats as they are hinged on the vertical spine and stand like an opened book) to create masking either side for entrances and to hide lighting. Lastly we hang black side masking and rear masking to complete the black box hiding all of the wood work and seating behind the stage, our side masking was actually made by Deidre one of our volunteers and Duty Manager.

The last major installation is lighting. Most concerts require lighting from overhead and from above the audience to enable the audience to see the players and the players to see the music and conductor. Dance requires a lot of side lighting in addition to some overhead, this is to reveal and accentuate the shapes and physicality of the dance by revealing the musculature of the dancers bodies in a way that flat front on lighting will not. Shine a torch grazing across the back of your hand and compare that with shining it down onto your hand and you’ll see what I mean. Saffron hall has lighting circuits controlled from the lighting desk installed at stage level and we build 8 vertical booms hidden behind the book flats with lights at shin, thigh, waist, chest and head height on each shining across stage into the opposite wing space created by the book flats.

Focussed to the shows designers direction much of the look of a dance show is created by the lighting, with what is not lit as important as what is lit and the interplay between light and shadow working with the dancers to create the show. That’s the basis of a dance show staging but as always designers and dance companies are adopting new technology into their shows. Most now use smoke and haze to give an atmospheric look to the show and define the edges of beams of light to creates “pillars” and “walls” of light that dancers then interact with, many use moving lights to allow changes of focus and colour to achieve more from the same number of lighting fixtures. The most adventurous are using video and projection extensively and we have looked at shows using remote controlled illuminated set pieces, projection mapping to create illusionary spaces and falling sand to create ethereal moving shapes. Very different indeed to a concert!


Saffron Hall is a charity and we rely on income from ticket sales and donations to keep doing what we’re doing. If you want to support us through this difficult period, please consider making a donation or becoming a Saffron Hall member.

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