As the Pennsylvania Ballet prepares to close its season with a trio of ballets — Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, the world premiere of Jorma Elo’s Trigger Touch Fade, and Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces — the company has enlisted the talent of Jennifer Tipton, one of the most respected lighting designers in dance and theater today.
Over the course of Tipton’s 50-plus-year career, she has worked with choreographers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Twyla Tharp, won two Tony Awards, and taught at the Yale University School of Drama. She has designed lighting for American Ballet Theatre performances since 1971.
In 2008, Tipton was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.” The New York Times has described her work as “characterized most often for the impeccability of her taste and a certain precision and a cerebral quality.”
Tipton spoke with The Inquirer about the challenges of new technology and why she’s still in love with light after all these years.
I fell in love with light when I was a rehearsal mistress for dancers. I was in charge of watching performances and critiquing dancers, and I just fell in love with light. It’s one of the mysteries of our universe. I’ve been in love with it ever since.
Having done it for so long, lighting continues to give me such profound and great joy. People take lights for granted. We expect to see, and light is what allows us to see. An audience is often not aware of the lighting at all, so it is a great privilege to me to be able to use it for painting pictures on a stage.
First, I look at the dance and the play and decide what colors of light should be used in what places. When I work with a company, like the Pennsylvania Ballet, there is usually already a plot that is in place, generally. Then I decide which new or special lights need to be added for the particular dance that is being lit.
Once that’s decided, I go into the theater and tweak the lights that have to be focused or pointed at a particular place. I also use the lights to make cues or changes as the dance goes along.
The challenge is that sometimes I may get ideas in seeing the dance that I discover are not possible to do because of scenery. This means that I am stimulated to find other ways of doing my idea or introducing new ideas.
Also, another challenge with dance is that there’s a limited amount of time that I get to work with the dancers. I’m not one to be happy with just putting the light on the stage with no one there. I need dancers on the stage to do the lighting.
I find DGV very powerful, both in terms of dance and as a piece of staging and with scenery, lights, and costumes. The challenge is that it has a lot of lighting needed to do it justice. The [Pennsylvania Ballet] already had a lot of lights, but we added lights just for DGV.
One of the most striking things about DGV is the use of a very large, bright light. I don’t need to tell the audience to look out for it. They’ll know it when they see it.
It was overwhelming at the time. I couldn’t believe that it happened. Being a lighting designer, I don’t instigate projects. I only say yes or no to things that I am offered. Lighting designers are not well paid. What the grant did was make it possible for me to do things that did not pay well but I wanted to do.
The most exciting change that I’ve seen since starting is the switch to computer control dimmer boards. In the old days, electricians had to handle dimmers, so you couldn’t ask them to do cues that were minutes long, or overlapping cues. Computer control dimmer boards have made things so much more fluid and much more natural on the stage.
There’s a whole new change now with using LEDs to save energy. LEDs are not full-spectrum light — they use red, blue, and green light to make white light — and so it’s been a real challenge for lighting designers to use them.
When gas lighting first came along to replace candlelight, people were like, “How harsh!” And then when electric lights replaced gas lighting, it was like, “How terrible, gaslight is beautiful!”
I guess I’m being the same way about LEDs. [Laughs] It can make skin look dead. It’s becoming impossible to find incandescent lights, which have most of the colors from the sun, in Europe. I’m lucky that they’re still being made here.
Pennsylvania Ballet performs the program Thursday, May 9, through Sunday, May 12, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St.