Jennifer Tipton and Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 4)

Throughout the mentoring year young Mexican lighting designer Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez sat alongside Jennifer Tipton, one of the world’s greatest exponents of the art of lighting, as she lit up rehearsals and performances in London, Barcelona, Paris, New York, Houston and Madrid. Rodríguez also invited his mentor to Mexico City, his home town. They had a concrete plan of action at the beginning of the mentoring year, the results of which, Rodríguez later said, were that his life “has changed forever”.

Jennifer Tipton and Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez

A year of mentoring

First impressions (Chapter 2 of 4)

May 2014

Light – “a poetic, living performance”

Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez made his mark as a stage-lighting designer in Mexico City, where he co-founded a group that makes handmade lighting devices for art installations and live performances. He reflects on how the play of light in daily life inspires him, and how he plans to soak up everything he possibly can from his mentoring year with Jennifer Tipton, who has been hailed as the “Queen of Lighting”.

Lighting design is always collaborative, and every time is different. Some directors are very specific about their requirements, while others give me free rein to experiment – they’re happy for me to surprise them.

Getting started is the creative challenge. Confronting the technical reality at the start of a lighting project can sometimes be tricky – but the beginning is often the richest part. Once I have spoken to the director and worked out his or her objectives, I can start using my imagination to produce some poetry to the eye. It’s similar to when you first enter a kitchen. You have all the ingredients, you have a recipe, but it’s only then that the fun begins – you test, you taste, you see what works.

I get my ideas from many areas. My work with Luz y Fuerza: Cine Expandido, experimenting with audio-visual effects, helps me discover light as a matter that you can handle to play with the eye. This feeds into other aspects of my work. Dance has always influenced me too. I was very impressed by the performance of the Japanese dance troupe Sankai Juku when they came to the Palace of Fine Arts here in Mexico last year with a production called Tobari. The lighting was subtle and very powerful. Not only did the dancers oversee all the lighting themselves, but they worked together in such harmony they seemed to become a single unit.

A form of meditation

I love to dance myself. Sometimes I do it alone at home in complete silence, and sometimes I dance like a whirling dervish. Dance is a form of meditation for me, and it helps me understand the work of choreographers. I also enjoy walking in the streets or in parks, listening to music. That’s when ideas come to me. Walking around a city, with its artificial lighting is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. I watch how light works in day-to-day situations: the way sunlight hits the same street corner in different ways depending on the season of the year and the hour of the day, or the fleeting reflections on a car window. Sometimes these things are so subtle, we don’t notice them.
When I work with light on stage I think of it as poetic, living performance in itself, not just a technical element of the production. Also, I have just started to use handmade lights for dance project; the technical element becomes a living part of the whole poetry of the scene. These devices can be reproduced quite easily; you don’t need a factory to create them. That comes from imagining alternative ways to use and produce technology, something we know how to do here in Latin America.

Real chemistry

When I first met Jennifer Tipton, it was February in New York. It was snowing and the city was white – the first time I’d seen snow. It was an extraordinary, new sensory experience for me. Inside her apartment, I looked out at the city from the window and saw how the snow changed the light. I felt a real chemistry with Jennifer, as we talked about our work.

The mentorship is going to be a deep experience. I aim to absorb it all and learn. When I was invited to apply for the mentorship, I couldn’t quite believe it, and I didn’t grasp the enormity of it all, what it involved, and what lay ahead. Since then, I have had time to reflect and put it into perspective. I’m curious to learn about Jennifer’s creative process, how she works with others, how she enters into discussions with directors and choreographers, and how she establishes that secret dialogue between performers and light. At this stage, I have no clear idea about a project I want to work on, because I am open to the new ideas that come being exposed to Jennifer’s knowledge. First, I’m heading to London, where I’ll watch Jennifer work on The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. I will be there for about two weeks, taking it all in.

Jennifer Tipton and Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez

A year of mentoring

Six months with a mentor (Chapter 3 of 4)

May 2015

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 Rodríguez: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, andThe 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'sDances 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. ForThe 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 classicalWalpurgis Nightsection from Goethe’sFaust. 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.

Jennifer Tipton and Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez

A year of mentoring

After a year of mentoring (Chapter 4 of 4)

November 2015

Landscapes of light

By observing legendary light artist Jennifer Tipton's work in several forms and on two continents, Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez is experiencing the full breadth of lighting's unique power to unify and clarify the performing arts

By Amei Wallach

St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn. A technical rehearsal is in progress for the Wooster Group's Cry, Trojans! - an experimental take on Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.

On a thrust stage in a high space still evocative of its industrial past, actors in improvised costumes mill about a set consisting of a makeshift teepee, an inner tube, a wagon wheel, a pail. Every once in a while the actors pause to take their places and say their lines for a sound check.

Part way up the rows of seating, facing the stage, Jennifer Tipton sits in the dark. "I sit in the dark and make my own sunshine," she likes to say. Her lighting for theatre, concerts, opera and dance has become so legendary that hers is one of the rare household names in the field.

She sits quietly through the starts and stops, re-cueing the lights during the hours of controlled chaos. She laughs, she waits and she watches. She is looking at the actors, how they talk and how they move, so that she will best be able to light every aspect of their faces and their bodies.

Invisible but powerful
Two rows behind her Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez, is writing in a notebook. "I keep notes of my time with Jennifer," he explains. In his travels with Tipton, he noticed how "the light Jennifer designed was sometimes invisible but powerful." He had become intrigued with "the silence of the light", and her use of colour. The Wooster Group often integrates video into its staging and at the rehearsal he is transfixed with how Tipton works with video as a source of light. "In one very long scene," he says, "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."

When Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte announces: "There are a lot of changes, so Jennifer is very happy," I really don't have influences in the usual sense. I guess I must say natural light. Paintings - all paintings. I find it fascinating to see how different painters render light in two dimensions. Turner is a special favourite. Different painters have different techniques for composition as well which I find provocative and stimulating. Tipton chuckles. For every change in staging many lights will have to be changed, then changed again.

"Sebastián, you could move closer," Tipton calls, setting to work in earnest. Her method of mentoring is to invite her protégé to observe, because only in this way will he be able to take in all phases of a production rather than focusing on a single task.

"She knew it was going to be hard for me to just be there kind of doing nothing" says Solórzano Rodríguez. But he has benefited hugely from Tipton's approach.

Like a shadow
"I have learned about her creative process, how she makes decisions and works with technicians, how she establishes a dialogue between the 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."

Tipton's is a multifaceted international practice, and Solórzano Rodríguez has watched rehearsals and performances in London, Paris and Barcelona, as well as a season of Paul Taylor dances in New York. He has watched her work with directors who wanted hands-on input into the lighting and recreate the lighting for a choreographer who was dead. He has watched her create lighting that appears simple out of the most complex combinations of timing, colours and lights.

She has taken him to myriad plays, operas and dance performances that she thinks would engage him. And she has studied his work and delivered incisive critiques.

"She told me something that I will never forget: 'Lighting is a composition in space and time.' 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."

Solórzano Rodríguez also attended a few of the classes Tipton has been teaching since 1 981 at the Yale School of Drama, rising early to meet her at the 7 a.m. train out of New York to New Haven. "Use your eyes," Tipton told her students, as they lit a moment between Mimi and Rodolfo in La bohème, when Mimi holds a lighted candle and then blows it out. Tipton pointed out how the quality of the light changed with the colour of the shirt, with the height of the actors, with the shape of their faces.

Her protégé has drawn a crucial lesson from these sessions: "Light affects everything you see and how you see light is affected by everything."

Like a colt
Solórzano Rodríguez is long and lean. His hair is long and black and caught at the nape in something too elegant to be called a ponytail. He is gracefully awkward in his movements, like a young colt finding its legs - or a dancer offstage. He talks with his hands and from his heart.

"Jennifer loves to teach. That is something very important when you are teaching," he says. "She really loves to spread information. It's just incredible how she works and how she sees."

Tipton is tall, and at once composed and imposing. She wears her hair in a single thick braid down her back. She is a woman of few words, and those succinct and to the point, with long pauses between phrases. There was often a comfortable silence between mentor and protégé.

Solórzano Rodríguez was eager for Tipton to come to his home town of Mexico City, not only to see his work in dance, theatre and visual art, but also because he wanted her to experience his world in context: the sidewalks with their ad hoc snack tables of tacos or sushi; the bright modernist buildings shoulder to shoulder with dilapidated wrecks; the exuberance of colours in clear, vivid light. He took her to see the Aztec excavations at the Plaza Mayor.

Light unites
They discussed his use of contrasts and shadows to illuminate the central character's split personality in the play Las pepenadoras (The Garbage Collectors), and how light alone cannot clarify themes for the audience if the acting and the direction don't. "Light is the glue," is how Tipton puts it; light unites all the other elements.

She returned to Mexico City in March, to see a children's musical that Solórzano Rodríguez lit and an ambitious avant-garde visual art production inspired by Goethe's Faust, for which he both did the lighting and acted as director. His method is to begin with a plan and then respond intuitively during rehearsals. Tipton's emphasis is on starting from the basics.

"It's funny, she always says things that are logical and should be obvious, but sometimes the easiest things are hardest to catch," he says. "The basics are the real starting point from which to create, because if you forget them you are lost."

Tipton praised some lovely moments in the musical. "But it was clear to me that the light at some moments was kind of a mess," he says. "She told me that you have to have a system, a method that will give you a way to find new ideas and solve ideas that you don't know how to solve."

Technical grounding
By the time he returned to New York at the end of the month, it had become clear to Solórzano Rodríguez that, except for a period as an assistant to the well-known Mexican lighting designer Ángel Ancona, he'd never really had much of a technical grounding in the niceties of the form. He'd learned by doing, by contemplating and by tapping his resourceful imagination.

As he continued his travels with Tipton, to Madrid and Houston, he began to recall their first meeting, when he told her how much he admired her work for the stage, but that he also wanted to make visual artworks with light in the manner of Dan Flavin or James Turrell. "And she told me: 'You have to choose one path,' ” he remembers.

"I think she's right... But after seeing the sensitive way she uses light, the sensitive way she uses colour, all these things that are artistic, I am thinking it does not matter if it is visual art or performance. I have always worked in groups, but now my priority is to make my own artistic statements. Of course, I will keep working as a lighting designer with a team and with my art collective, but I want to find my own path between scenic art and visual art. Whatever I do, light will be my starting point.”

Amei Wallach is a New-York based arts writer and film-maker. She is president emeritus of the U.S. chapter of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d'Art).