Lighting the Way

July 24, 2007

In Jennifer Tipton’s hands, light is a living thing. Her designs have illuminated, both physically and metaphorically, the works of Paul Taylor, Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, Antony Tudor, Jiri Kylian, and most recently, Christopher Wheeldon. Her range is extraordinary, from lighting the striped figures who dance through smoke in Tharp’s high energy In the Upper Room to creating the profoundly subtle ambience of Brown’s Winterreise, which was made for a singer and three dancers. For Taylor, whose dances she has lit for four decades, she provided the dappled, shaded look of his poignant Sunset and highlighted the tawdry sexiness of his Piazzolla Caldera.


Lighting design is an art form in itself. “It’s like painting,” Tipton says. “I call it the music of the eye because [like dance] it does have theme and variation; it does exist in time as well as in space. If you don’t have emphasis, the eye keeps moving around the space and doesn’t know where to look.”


While collaborating with a choreographer, she watches rehearsal before hearing the choreographer’s ideas. This way she can “be an innocent audience.” She then helps the choreographer clarify his or her intentions and chooses what to light and how. “It’s a big responsibility because it’s through your eyes that the audience sees the dance.”


From his point of view, Paul Taylor says, “It is heavenly to work with Jennifer. She makes my dances look a lot better than they would otherwise—not only visually but communicatively.”


Tipton grew up in Columbus, Ohio, blessed with “fantastic parents,” a zoologist father and a physicist mother who loved dance. At 15 she made her way to American Dance Festival, then housed at Connecticut College, and took the Graham Christmas course her senior year in high school. She graduated from Cornell as an English major and came to New York.


Early on, she was rehearsal mistress for the Merry-Go-Rounders, a company that danced for children, often sitting out to watch so she could critique the performances. “I looked at the bigger picture, and the bigger picture was made by light. Light made the space.” And, as she puts it, she “fell in love with light.”


At the same time, another Merry-Go-Rounder, Steve Paxton, asked her to perform in his piece Proxy on the first concert of the historic Judson Dance Theater in 1962. At Judson she met Trisha Brown, David Gordon, and Deborah Hay, who were, like Paxton, just beginning to create themselves as dance artists.


But for Tipton, it was light which caught and entranced her. Though basically self-taught, Tipton had help along the way. She hung out with Gary Harris, the master of sound and light to dancers, at the 92nd Street Y and met Tom Skelton, the preeminent lighting designer for dance, at American Dance Festival. He became her mentor. (She now mentors others at Yale, where she has been teaching since 1981.) In Tipton’s memory, Skelton placed her with Taylor’s company as stage manager in charge of lighting. Taylor, however, says he hired her, “because touring with my company she could back up our U-haul without damaging anything.” At Skelton’s recommendation, she began to design lighting on tour.


Now, four decades later, she has designed most of Taylor’s lights. “What is so wonderful now about my work with Paul,” she says, “is that it has been going on for so long. And there is such variety in the work.” Sometimes, when he brings back a piece she lit many years earlier, she looks at it anew and says, “I don’t know the lighting designer who did those pieces—I’ve changed that much.”


Tipton works on no fixed agenda. “I try to find what’s appropriate to the production.” However, she often starts with the same basic idea: The center of her stage is always usually a bit brighter that the rest of the stage. She pays particular attention to side lights, because, as she points out, “Side-lights reveal the body in space.”


One of her favorite experiences in dance, she says, was a work she lit in 1973 for Jerome Robbins in Spoleto, Italy. The piece, entitled Celebrations: The Art of the Pas de Deux, was for five couples from five countries. “They each did two pas de deux, and Jerry did a beginning and an ending; the ending was just brilliant. He had each couple do a section of the White Swan pas de deux from their own company. Somehow the lighting for that—really the whole thing—was just perfect. [I made] the right place, the right landscape for each pas de deux. There’s only one thing that I would have changed—a light that was high, out of reach, that should have been a different color for one of the dances—but it was the only thing. Everything else was perfect.”


It was this dance that put her on the map as a lighting designer. She received a great deal of acclaim for it, and set and costume designer Santo Loquasto saw it and asked her to do the Shakespeare plays he was working on at the time. It was the beginning of her work with theater and opera, which has continued through the years. Tipton says she likes working with all three forms: “Each one informs and refreshes the other.”


Indeed, one thing leads to another. Tipton recently lit a program for San Francisco Ballet, which included a piece by Christopher Wheeldon. He took to her work so completely that he asked her to light his latest piece for The Royal Ballet, DGV, which premiered in November. Wheeldon says of Tipton that she can “paint my work and present it to me in a way I could never have imagined it myself.”


In a sense, Tipton has come full circle in her career. When she was involved with Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s, many of the dancers were using “found light”—daylight from windows or existing light bulbs. “All of my friends in the Judson group were anti-illusion, anti-lighting, anti-theatrics, anti-any-of-that, so our paths diverged,” she says. “It’s very interesting and rewarding to me to see that now, later in my life, I’ve sort of come back. I’ve worked with Trisha, I’ve worked with David Gordon, I’m doing a piece of Yvonne Rainer’s in the coming year; I light Deborah Hay.”


Her most recent piece with Brown was in January at Montclair State University, I love my robots with set design by Kenjiro Okazaki, marking the first time Tipton has lit robots. Tipton says of Brown, “She’s an extraordinary artist; her range of work is always growing, and my range of work is always growing.” The two have done operas together, pieces for the Paris Opera Ballet and for Brown’s company. Tipton cites in particular the 2004 O zlozony O composite at the Paris Opera, a work that, she says, “added up to much more than the sum of its parts.” For her part, Brown says, “What is alchemy? It’s watching Jennifer light the layered elements of a dance. We make magic together.”


It’s been a lively season for Tipton. Last month she lit Big Dance Theater’s new work, The Other Here, at the Japan Society and remounted Robbins’ Dybbuk for New York City Ballet. This month she is busy with the Taylor season, lighting more than 10 dances for the 16-day run. There are assorted non-dance works like the Wooster Group’s Hamlet at St. Anne’s Warehouse in March and their opera La Didone in Brussels later in the season; a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at BAM in April; San Francisco Opera’s Don Giovanni, and remounting Brown’s version of Da gelo a gelo at the Paris Opera.


Every one of those works will be enhanced by Tipton’s artistic eye. “I always feel that I communicate with light, as opposed to communicating with words,” she says. “I speak light.”


Amanda Smith is a longtime contributor to
Dance Magazine and teaches for Coe College and Hofstra University.