To the average viewer, the importance of lighting design is often overlooked. However, if the production had no lighting design, everyone would be sure to notice. Not only would it be extremely impractical, because both the audience and dancers would be stuck in the dark, but it would be boring as well. The choreography and music often amaze us, but lighting is a crucial element of any stage production—as important as sets and costumes.
Good lighting design helps guide the audience's attention to the most important things on stage and adds texture and liveliness to a show by working with the music, complementing the costumes and sets, and creating an atmosphere for the dancers to live in. You can think of lighting as a sort of make-up for the whole stage (dancers and set included). Just as the dancers apply make-up to make their features visible to audience members all the way in the back of the house, lighting makes the dancers stand out and enhances the visual impact of their movements. The lighting designer collaborates with the director in order to produce lighting that best matches the atmosphere and the story.
Lighting designers use many different combinations of lights to illuminate the stage, but one light you might recognize easily is the spotlight that often follows lead dancers in certain parts of the show. Dancers constantly move around the stage (and sometimes extremely quickly!) so lighting can be a helpful guide for the audience and ensures that we can see the dancer and that they can see where they are going.
You might be surprised at how drastically different a show can be, depending on its lighting design. Does the ballet need warmer or cooler lighting? Does it need bright lighting or dim lighting? These are simple questions, but are part of the decision-making process that a lighting designer has to go through. It takes great precision to coordinate with dancers, music, and everything else happening on stage, but in the end it is well worth the effort. Good lighting can make or break a show and turn a good performance into a magical one.