Lighting shares the spotlight
By Rebecca Ritzel
Sunday, Mar. 18, 2012
First, to clear up any misunderstandings, Jennifer Tipton will not be performing this weekend at American Dance Institute in Rockville. That is, she won't be performing onstage. Yet Tipton, a renowned septuagenarian lighting designer, gets top billing in "Necessary Weather," a collaborative dance piece that's credited to Dana Reitz, Jennifer Tipton and Sara Rudner.
If you must know, Reitz choreographed the piece (and also dances), Tipton designed the lighting and Rudner is a dancer who was involved in the creative process. But Reitz wishes none of that mattered.
"Everyone has been confused about this since 1992," she said, sighing after being asked about the credits for about the 100th time since "Necessary Weather" premiered nearly 20 years ago. "But I wanted Jennifer up there, just like I was. I wanted to share ownership of the piece, without spelling out who did what ...
"People aren't used to that."
Reitz calls "Necessary Weather" a "radical collaboration." All because the lighting designer, the choreographer and the performers were in the theater, creating a work of art, at the same time. And they worked on the piece together, for months.
"This is the first - and probably only - piece that I have ever created this way," Tipton said. "And it was great."
She spoke recently from Paris, where she was reproducing the original lighting for Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering" for the Paris Opera Ballet. She was already thinking about flying home to New York to work in her usual, hyper-efficient fashion. Tuesday, she saw a rehearsal for choreographer Paul Taylor's newest work, "House of Joy," for the first time. Saturday, the piece premiered at Lincoln Center. Tipton designed the lighting over a 48-hour period.
"Two days," she said. "That's all I usually get. For 'Necessary Weather,' we had two years."
The history of this piece, with its next chapter unfolding in Rockville, is part of lighting design history. In August 1992, Reitz raised enough money to rent out Chelsea's Kitchen theater for the month. Every morning, she and Tipton would lead workshops for designers and choreographers, and every afternoon, Rudner would join them to work on "Necessary Weather."
"We organized it so we could experiment with how light affects movement, and how movement affects light, and explore all those questions that we had after working together before," Reitz said. "It's extremely rare to have that much time in the theater with light. It's extremely expensive. It's a luxury, but it's really a necessity, to understand what's going on. There was continuous dialogue and a continuous shifting of roles."
At the end of that month, the women put on a demo performance for friends, presenters and potential funders. But they said it was still a work-in-progress.
"We wanted to let it finish itself," Tipton said.
They continued to work on "Necessary Weather" on and off for two years, usually during Reitz and Tipton's downtime when they were leading lighting workshops in the United States, London and Hong Kong.
"Lighting can reveal the meaning in dance," Tipton said. Working on "Necessary Weather" "deepened our knowledge of what we were doing, and the piece reflects that."
By the time "Necessary Weather" returned to the Kitchen in 1994, it was already something of a legend. That year, Reitz, Tipton and Rudner toured the work to Jacob's Pillow and five European dance festivals. Then it lay dormant for 15 years, until Vermont's Flynn Center for the Performing Arts applied to the National Endowment for the Arts for special funding to reconstruct the piece. Reitz and Rudner were game, even though both are now in their 60s.
"There was a long hiatus, and it's rather surprising that it's come back, and that we've been performing it so much recently," Tipton said.
To her, "so much" and "recently" are that 2009 Vermont performance and the New York revivals in 2010 and 2011. You have to remember that Tipton, 74, has been working professionally as a lighting designer since 1963, when she was stage-managing Paul Taylor Dance Company's first American tour and stumbled into replacing Tom Skelton, her late mentor, on the light boards. She's been collaborating with Taylor ever since. When she can, she looks to help young choreographers, as demonstrated by a 2003 project with Washington's Dana Tai Soon Burgess.
But Tipton has only become busier with age. She's in her 28th year of teaching lighting design at Yale University, commuting from Manhattan to Connecticut each Monday. In summers, she's usually working at European opera houses. And she's become a go-to designer for contemporary ballet choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, serving on the creative team for his new "Romeo and Juliet" (which premiered at the National Ballet of Canada last fall) and his "Nutcracker" (which American Ballet Theater brought to the Kennedy Center in November.)
See dance regularly, and it's easy to take Tipton's genius for granted. That's why revivals of "Necessary Weather" are so important. "Even if you already knew from many other productions that Ms. Tipton has long been the world's most remarkable creator of lighting for dance, you haven't seen her most miraculous ideas until you've seen 'Necessary Weather,' " wrote the New York Times' Alastair Macauley, reviewing the 2010 New York showing. He praised the dancers, too, saying that watching Rudner interact with Tipton's pools and points of light, "it is still easy to believe Ms. Rudner's the greatest dancer in the world."
Adrienne Willis, ADI's executive director, saw the same revival and resolved to book "Necessary Weather" for the inaugural season in her renovated theater. "It's so beautiful. You don't even realize that there is no music, because the lighting is done in a way that it's like a score," Willis said. "It's one of the best pieces of dance works I have ever seen."
Staging "Necessary Weather" was so important to Willis that long before construction crews arrived, she sat down with lighting consultant John McGovern and looked at the technical riders. They wanted to make sure the theater could handle whatever lighting tools the piece required.
That kind of foresight is rare, McGovern said. He helped Willis rent special equipment for this weekend's performances, including expensive rotating colored lights called sea changers. But they were also surprised to see that despite the importance of light in "Necessary Weather," Tipton uses fewer bulbs, gadgets and spotlights than most troupes performing at ADI this year.
She's a minimalist who never uses three lights when one will do. And yet, she illuminates dance like no one else can.
"It's like this," McGovern said. "Everything in the lighting world has already been done, just like every chord in music has already been played. But then you'll see Jennifer Tipton try something new, and it's like nothing the world has ever seen before."