"Dancers live in light as fish live in water"
That is something that Jean Rosenthal wrote in a book called "The Magic of Light". Jean Rosenthal was a famous lighting designer, considered to be the founder of the concepts behind modern theatrical and dance lighting. Before her pioneering innovations in lighting design, there often wasn't even a designer on the production team, and light plots were worked out by the electrician or set designer. That's hard for us to imagine today, because the limits of what can be done with light have stretched so far that choreographers usually incorporate those possibilities into their scenic concept as a whole, and the skill and artistry of the lighting designer can change the entire impression of the piece for the audience.
It affects the impression of the piece for the dancers, too. Our journey with a ballet begins in an environment completely opposite from where it will end up. We start in the studio, in front of a mirror, under flourescent lights, with huge windows letting in daylight (we're lucky in that regard) and occasionally even sun. The mirror reflects our images, but also the tones and shades of light in the room behind us. By the time the ballet is ready to go onstage, we've already tried on the costumes a few times, maybe even rehearsed in them once or twice (or maybe we've been wearing a practice skirt or tutu all along), perhaps we've done a runthrough or two facing away from the mirror, but although we might know some basics about the lighting plot such as when the blackouts are (and what we have to do in them), we're still completely unfamiliar with the most disorienting element of all--- the lighting. Ironically, the lighting is sort of like the icing on the cake--the final element that completes the ballet, unifies it, sets the tone and mood, and even carries along the storyline. The lighting can be basic or elaborate, but it is always the unseen player that the audience member may only notice when it screams for attention (silhouette, stark harsh side lights, strobes, strange colors, that kind of thing).
But the dancers are acutely aware of what the lights are doing to us-- though we may not know technically how they're doing it!-- in terms of how it affects our orientation on stage. It can be tough to adapt to sometimes, and is always one of my foremost concerns. I've always had a difficult time transitioning from studio to stage because of the change in light and space. Even taking class on stage is harder for me. We all tend to use the mirror to "hold onto" an visual image, which is how we balance. On stage, you've got to recalibrate your brain to a different kind of spacial awareness, to be able to balance by focusing further away, and into a black void with maybe just a couple of exit signs to latch onto. And of course, we're not always facing front--- turning upstage and trying to use the backdrop or scrim to space yourself isn't always any better, because the way the light is back there can make it hard to even know WHERE the backdrop really is! Similarly, it can be hard to know exactly where the dropoff in the front of the stage is in certain kinds of light (if it's quite dark, or side-lit, without much footlight). And followspots.... they can be rough, especially if the rest of the lighting is fairly dark. The feeling is definitely "deer in the headlights"! I think the most dramatic example of that was when we did Who Cares? a couple of seasons ago. The light for the pas de deux was very dark, and there was an extra-strong followspot on us. The idea was to generate a sense of intimacy, like we were all by ourselves in a small space, very dramatic and romantic. And I'm sure it worked just great to generate that effect, but oh my gosh... I've never held onto my partner so tightly. We didn't even know where the floor was because we couldn't see it, let alone the wings or the edge of the stage. But we did get used to it after a few rehearsals and shows, and it really was an amazing feeling of quietness and closeness, even though we were on a huge stage in front of a zillion people.