Sebastián Solórzano Rodriguez, A question of light
Jennifer Tipton has been called “an equal opportunity designer” because of her versatility as a lighting designer for dance, theatre, concerts and opera, throughout the United States and Europe. Her protégé, Sebastián Solórzano Rodriguez, based in Mexico City, views lighting as a wide-ranging avant-garde art form, rooted in the visual arts. He says that experimentation is important to both of them, and that he believes that Tipton chose him as her protégé because, he “conceives of lighting as an art, not exclusively as design”.

Rolex Arts Initiative: How did you become a lighting designer?
Sebastián Solórzano Rodriguez: A sequence of events led me to choose light as my artistic medium. I used to think I was going to be a painter, an experience which trained my eyes. Then a close friend brought me to a workshop where I discovered installation and performance art, and I became interested in these contemporary forms of expression. Years later, I thought it would be useful to learn about stage design for installation art, and I found a school for it. There I learned how to translate a play’s multiple meanings into scene designs. For me, this process is the same as in conceptual art and understanding it has been really important for my artistic process.
Meanwhile, Trinchera Ensamble, an artists’ collective, invited me to make light projections. With them I learned how to manipulate light to create live cinematic pieces; that is when I fell in love with light, searching new ways of approaching its expressive power. After that experience, I became an assistant to Angel Ancona, a well-known Mexican lighting designer.

Why light?
The short answer is that light is the most subtle of all the materials that you can use to work with, either on stage or as a piece of visual art. There is a magic in working with light and making it express complex feelings and concepts.

How was your first meeting with Jennifer Tipton?
I met her in New York last winter as one of the finalists for the Rolex Arts Initiative programme. She took us to see two plays – Cry, Trojans! at the Wooster Group, with lighting designed by her, and The Glass Menagerie, with lighting designed by someone else. Then each of us had two hours to discuss what we saw with her. The light Jennifer designed was sometimes kind of invisible, but powerful. The silence of the light was really interesting; also how she used colour and how she worked with the video designer to use video as a source of light. In one very long scene, the light was subtly going down and down, and then going up and up. You didn’t notice it, but just like that you had the feeling that you were going all through the night to the dawn. To me that was wonderful.

Is her philosophy of light different from yours?
Yes and no. Our difference is not one of philosophy exactly, but practice. I also work in installation art and performance art, and that’s a different world, with a different language.
In terms of stage lighting, we both understand that light is just one of the many parts of the theatrical experience. We both know how important it is to adapt what we want to the necessities of a play.

What has it been like observing her work in London, Paris and New York?
I have learned about her creative process, how she makes decisions and works with technicians; part of Jennifer’s work with lighting is to establish a dialogue between work and the space in a scene. Afterwards we talk about what I have seen. I am like a shadow and I am happy with that. It is an opportunity to see her work in a large frame and also to see how its rhythm differs according to the country.

Our first time in London, everything was fast, but there was a lot of time to do the play [The Testament of Mary, directed by Deborah Warner]; the director worked closely with her. In Paris, she had a short time to make the light for choreographer Jerome Robins's Dances at a Gathering; she worked almost alone because Robins had died years earlier and she was trying to remember what the he had told her. Then in New York, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the lighting was different than it was for the play or ballet. For The Etudes [solo piano compositions] by Philip Glass, the light was really simple – it runs in a parallel line with the music. It was wonderful to see her different ways of making light.

What have been her most helpful responses to your work?
She told me something that I will never forget : “Lighting is a composition in space and time.” She told me that a play for which I had designed the stage and the lighting was hard to understand, that the light didn’t help the audience to understand it better. She said that I had to learn how to differentiate the necessities of the director, my own necessities and the necessities of the play. The audience’s understanding comes first and you have to discover how to encourage it.

For an experimental dance piece, you created a lighting fixture that you held in your hand as you moved among the dancers, so that the light seemed to be dancing with them.
Months before I was nominated for the programme, I started a research project to mix light installation art and stage design. A dance performance was the first step of that research. During the dance, I was on stage holding the light, following the dancers. Dancing with light helps me to understand how the performers feel on stage, and also to find a new way to make light. Jennifer told me that it was a very particular experiment and because of that she wanted me to continue my research before saying something about it. But she did say that it is not important which fixture or light source you use – it is important not to distract the audience from the dancers. I agree with her, but, well, this experiment was about a lighting designer becoming a performer for a while!

Now I have invited her to see a new experiment, made with my collective, Luz Y Fuerza. It is our most ambitious performance so far. Its emotional inspiration is the classical Walpurgis Night section from Goethe’s Faust. Rather than tell a story, we are creating an audio-visual experience. The audience will stand and walk through the stage and auditorium of a big theatre, where the light projections, and technical resources of the venue will create different atmospheres, effects and spaces along with contemporary music.
I’m also going to show Jennifer lighting that I created for a children’s musical. It’s really important for me that she can see these two things, one really experimental and the other traditional. I want her opinion about both.