Dance and light were the central themes of a recent collaboration—and an attendant conversation—between emerging Mexican lighting designer Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez and veteran New York–based lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.
Paired by Rolex’s Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, an international program joining masters with young artists across the fields of dance, film, literature, music, theatre, architecture, and visual art, Rodríguez and Tipton met over the course of a year in various locations to form a mutually inspiring creative collaboration. The program will culminate with premieres of new work by Rodríguez as part of the biennial Rolex Arts Weekend, Dec. 5–6, in Mexico City. This year’s event is curated by Brooklyn Academy of Music executive producer Joseph Melillo.
Rodríguez grew up backstage as the son of a dancer and actor. Opting to learn about lighting design on the job rather than in school, Rodríguez has worked professionally since 2009. He counts dance as a central influence. “Dance is a form of meditation for me,” he says. “It helps me understand the work of choreographers.”
It’s no surprise, then, that he often lights dance performances (including shows by Centro de Producción de Danza Contemporanea, the National Contemporary Dance Company of Mexico), but he also works across disciplines. Luz Y Fuerza: Cine Expandido (Expanded Cinema) is an interdisciplinary group he cofounded, which creates “handmade light devices for art installations and live cinema performances.”
In her field, Tipton hardly requires an introduction. But the MacArthur “genius” grantee, it should be noted, is particularly acclaimed for lighting dance—among her many titles is that of principal lighting designer for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. In fact, Tipton started her career intending to dance before studying with lighting designer Thomas Skelton. In her near-half-century career, Tipton has racked up such accolades as Bessies, Obies, Tonys, the Lillian Gish Prize and the Jerome Robbins Award, and, as an adjunct professor at Yale, has influenced generations of lighting designers.
On a snowy day in March, American Theatre caught up with the two designers at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, where Tipton was preparing for a performance of the Wooster Group’s Cry, Trojans! The following is an excerpt from their conversation.
ELIZA BENT: You both have a strong relationship to dance. I would love to hear you talk about how that informs your work.
JENNIFER TIPTON: I came to New York to be a dancer and fell in love with light. Dance has been a special thing to me always, and probably it was good to begin that way, because even theatre is more about movement onstage—change in places—than any emotional thing. It has to have emotional context as well, but it’s more about actors moving around. The light changes the emotion of the moment.
SEBASTIÁN SOLÓRZANO RODRÍGUEZ: I love dance. I can connect to the feeling of the movement on the stage more than in theatre, because words bring another layer of understanding to the scene. With dance you don’t have to understand, you just have to let yourself go with it. I think that light and choreography have a lot in common—I realized that after talking with Jennifer.
Was there a particular conversation that helped you figure that out?
RODRÍGUEZ: Yes. After she saw a play that I designed light for, she told me lighting is about composition in time and space at the same time. She told me that I have to pay more attention to composition in that way. So then I paid attention to how she works on light with dance and theatre and opera, and I now see some of the things that she meant.
RODRÍGUEZ: It’s difficult to say—it’s easier to see it. But it is about timing and about how clearly you can see the space. Or not. And it’s about the movement and what you hide and what you show. It’s something you have to see!
TIPTON: It’s very hard to talk about. It’s like talking about music without hearing the music. It’s much easier when you have examples right there that you’re listening to or examples you’re looking at in light.
Tell me about working on Cry, Trojans!
TIPTON: It’s our second day here. I’ve worked on it before, but for Sebastián it’s new. We did quite a few scenes today—maybe we’ll see the whole thing tomorrow.
RODRÍGUEZ: For me it’s interesting to see the process they follow to create these pieces, because it’s really experimental and the text is really classic—so it is a strange mix. I work with a collective, Luz y Fuerza, which means “light and force,” and we work in a horizontal way to create experimental installations and performances, so in one way they are kind of chaotic. But when I see the Wooster Group and think about my group, I see how chaotic we can be. The Wooster Group is very…systematic. [laughter]
Tell me more about your year of collaboration.
TIPTON: When Sebastián became a protégé of mine, we set up a calendar. Then Rolex gave him a budget, which he has to divvy up among the places that we chose.
RODRÍGUEZ: I first went to London to see The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, a really interesting contemporary play, which was the first time I saw Jennifer working. It was interesting to me to see how she discussed ideas with the director, Deborah Warner, who was really interested and involved in the process of the lighting. They tried to arrive at a middle point between two opinions.
The second meeting was in Paris, and it was a ballet by choreographer Jerome Robbins, Dances at the Gathering in the Palais Garnier, which is a really amazing place. The dancers were really, really good, and the light was kind of invisible. It surprised me, because in London the light was really present; in Paris the light was really silent. I realized it changes when she is looking for a specific cue, and it changes really fast. I was like, “Whoa! It really changes.” I began to notice the subtlety of the changes, how silent it could be so as to not distract the audience from the dance. That that was one of the things the choreographer wanted: nothing to distract from the dance.
Then it was Barcelona. I saw a couple of rehearsals of an opera Jennifer had already designed the light for, and then it was London again with Age of Anxiety, which is a dance by Liam Scarlett, a young choreographer. Then in December I came to New York for a Philip Glass piece. It was amazing to see him play piano, and all the pianists he invited—9 different pianists from all over the world. The light was really minimalistic, but it was always there with what was happening with the music. Like when things become synethestic. It was really simple but really strong.
You’ve gotten to see Jennifer making work in so many different countries. Is there a particular method of hers that struck you?
RODRÍGUEZ: I have to learn about how to be systematic. I admire the order that Jennifer has in her papers and in her head. I work with chaos, and I have to learn to keep that chaos in a safe mode. I wasn’t able to do that in the last piece I did, which was a musical for children. Its premiere was one night before that of another piece I was working on—an experimental performance with my collective—and I was in two very different processes; the chaos just involved me. The results weren’t bad, but the musical could have been better if I had just held my horses.
TIPTON: I would say, in Sebastián’s favor, that the musical was quite complicated. Scenically there was a lot of…stuff. I felt that I would have difficulty lighting it myself.
What are the particulars of your method?
TIPTON: As I have said to Sebastián, basically you light any space from the front, the side and the back. The only place you don’t have front light on the stage is close to the background—you don’t want front light spilling on the background. So in addition to the front, side and back light, you light the stage in general—and you have ideas that are specific to the production, the dance or the play.
RODRÍGUEZ: I need to review everything that I’ve done and how I’ve done it. When I say I am chaotic, it doesn’t mean that I don’t follow some lines—I always do. I always make some aesthetic decisions about the lighting of a play and I try to take that line to its ultimate consequences. Maybe my method is too open—there are no rules inside. It’s just to follow a goal. If the text and the actions are very complicated, you need to help the audience with the light to make it easier for them to understand. Your light shouldn’t make the show harder to comprehend.
TIPTON: I explore in just that way, too, but I always have front, side and back light—it’s always there as a possibility if the director really hates what I’ve done. So you can do something else.
RODRÍGUEZ: Even if you don’t use it.
TIPTON: Right—it’s there.
RODRÍGUEZ: I learned in speaking with Jennifer that lighting is only there to support what is happening in the scene. It is not about lighting. So if it is necessary to break your own rules to help the stage, you have to do it! It’s not about your work.
TIPTON: It is about your work [laughter]! I also feel strongly that one shouldn’t put on the stage something that one doesn’t believe in.
Eliza Bent is a former senior editor at American Theatre.