Howell Binkley, Who Sculpted Broadway Hits in Light, Dies at 64


Most audience members at shows that Howell Binkley worked on, whether Broadway smashes like “Hamilton” or dance performances in small spaces, probably never gave a thought to his contributions. That’s the way Mr. Binkley, one of the most sought-after lighting designers in the business, preferred it.

“I always go back to my roots — simplicity, clarity, showing the text,” he once said. “Not putting on a ridiculous light show. Lighting is to expand the words and music and dance, not distract from it.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of “Hamilton,” for which Mr. Binkley won one of his two Tony Awards, first experienced Mr. Binkley’s artistry on his earlier hit, “In the Heights,” which made it to Broadway in 2008.

“I peppered the show with challenges,” Mr. Miranda said by email, “songs titled ‘Sunrise’ and ‘When the Sun Goes Down.’ The first act ended with a citywide blackout and the company singing, ‘Look at the fireworks.’ Howell never batted an eye, evoking all these natural phenomena with subtlety, allowing the audience’s suspension of disbelief to take them the rest of the way.”

Mr. Binkley died on Aug. 14 in Jacksonville, N.C. He was 64.

His wife, Joyce Storey, said the cause was lung cancer.

Mr. Binkley, who had residences in Emerald Isle, N.C., and East Harlem, had more than 50 Broadway credits and was nominated for the lighting design Tony nine times. He won for “Jersey Boys,” which opened in 2005, in addition to “Hamilton” a decade later.

Often since his first Broadway credit in 1993, four or five Broadway shows he designed were running simultaneously. He also worked extensively in regional theaters and in dance, including a decades-long collaboration with his friend David Parsons, the choreographer.

Modern Broadway lighting booths are full of high-tech gadgetry, but what Mr. Binkley helped Mr. Parsons achieve with his “Caught” almost 40 years ago, using a strobe to make a lone dancer seem to float and fly against a black background, is legendary in the dance world for its searing, minimalist beauty.

After three years there he joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company, hoping to learn from its esteemed lighting designer, Jennifer Tipton. She encouraged him to strike out on his own, and in 1985 he and David Parsons, who was also at Paul Taylor, founded Parsons Dance, with Mr. Binkley doing the lighting designs.

Resources are always sparse for a start-up, and Mr. Binkley learned to do a lot with a little, something he came to see as vital.

“I truly believe that if a lighting designer is able to sculpt a piece with passion, imagination and a limited amount of technology, the world will open to her or him,” he said.

He had ample opportunity to test that creed as the young dance company toured extensively both in the United States and abroad, performing in all sorts of spaces in the days before light boards were computer controlled.

“We loved the hardship,” Mr. Parsons said in a phone interview. “We would clean theaters if they were too dirty. Howell was up on ladders — it was all manual, all gels.”

Mr. Binkley often equated the art of lighting a dance performance to sculpture.

“You are sculpting the body from all sides in order to give definition to the body as it turns, as it’s lifted, as it rolls on the ground,” he told The Winston-Salem Journal in 2012. “I try in my lighting of plays and musicals to use that same carving tool.”

His big break in theater came after he did the lighting for a gala on Theater Row in Manhattan. Harold Prince attended and apparently liked what he saw.

Mr. Binkley often said he particularly enjoyed the collaborative nature of dance and theater. Mr. Miranda recalled his calming, veteran presence on “In the Heights,” whose creative team was relatively youthful — Mr. Miranda himself was still in his 20s at the time.

“I’d gravitate toward his tech table, where he kept a small bowl of assorted chocolates,” Mr. Miranda said. “He caught me picking out the peanut butter cups on the first day, a huge grin on his face. On the second day, I found another bowl of candy on his table: this one only full of peanut butter cups, just for me.”



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