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Jennifer Tipton

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Following graduation from Cornell University, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton (1937- ) studied dance in New York City, but changed career plans after a course in stage lighting with Thomas Skelton at the American Dance Festival, Connecticut College. Subsequently, she designed for and toured with the Paul Taylor Dance Company and gained theatrical acclaim for her work for Jerome Robbins's Celebrations: The Art of the Pas de Deux (1973) at Spoleto, Italy. Her designs were soon seen regularly in productions on Broadway and with the New York Shakespeare Festival. Tipton is widely known for her role as artistic collaborator with such choreographers as Paul Taylor, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Dana Reitz, Jirí Kylián, Dan Wagoner, and Trisha Brown, among many others. From opera productions in the United States and Europe, she has also designed experimental performance pieces such as Gandhara (1999). Tipton's work in the theater has earned professional recognition, including several Drama Desk Awards, two Bessies, a pair of Tonys, an Olivier, the American Theatre Wing Award, and an OBIE for Sustained Achievement. A professor of lighting design at Yale University, she advises, "Use what you have, and use it well and imaginatively."


Jennifer Tipton (1937- )

By Megan Slayter


Jennifer Tipton, one of the preeminent lighting designers working in the field today, has collaborated with a multitude of renowned choreographers, including Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown, William Forsythe, and Shen Wei, just to name a few. If you have seen performances by any of these artists, you have likely been affected by Tipton’s work, though like many in the audience you may not have been aware of the process involved prior to the opening of the curtain.  Picture a woman sitting at a splintery plywood table in the middle of a darkened theater, in front of a lightboard and monitor that look like some space-age command console. The glow of a blue-tinted work light barely illuminates the faces of those seated next to her. On the stage, crystalline light picks dancers out of the darkness and etches them in space. Tipton has said, “Lighting dance is an art integral to dance itself.  We see the shape, feel the rhythm, sense the passion—perceive dance on its many levels and in its many forms—by the light that reveals it” (Tipton, Lighting for Dance 192).

Born in 1937 in Columbus, Ohio, Tipton began her artistic life as a dancer. She studied with Martha Graham and José Limon in her teens, and later became rehearsal director for the Merry-Go-Rounders, a New York-based dance company that performed for high school students. In a 1996 interview with choreographer Dana Reitz, Tipton stated that it was during this time that she first became fascinated with what light could do on the stage. In 1963, she took a stage lighting workshop with designer Thomas Skelton at the American Dance Festival. Having studied astrophysics at Cornell University, she was immediately drawn to the combination of art and science that was inherent in lighting design. She became Skelton’s assistant, and soon after began to tour his designs with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, for whom Skelton was principle designer. In her early years touring with Taylor, Tipton sharpened her skills by re-creating Skelton’s designs in theater after theater. When Skelton left the company in 1965, Tipton took over as lighting designer, and was soon designing for choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, and Elliot Feld.

Through the mid-1970’s, Tipton worked primarily with dance companies; however, her design for Jerome Robbins’ Celebration: The Art of the Pas de Deux, in Spoleto, Italy in 1973, drew the attention of many in the theater community. Set designer Santo Loquasto had seen the work at Spoleto and recommended Tipton to Joseph Papp as designer for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Tipton’s outstanding work as a designer quickly won her numerous awards, including a Drama Desk Award for Ntosake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (1976); a Joseph Jefferson Award for John Guare’s The Landscape of the Body (1976); a Drama Desk and Tony Award for The Cherry Orchard (1977), directed by Andrei Serban; and an Obie for “Sustained Excellence at the New York Shakespeare Festival” in 1979. Her approach to theatrical design, however, was still firmly rooted in her background as a dancer, and she remained focused on movement. “Movement is what stimulates me.  The movement of the light has to do with the movement of the actors much more than with words” (Reitz. Interview). Though she received a Tony award for her design for the 1981 Broadway production of Sophisticated Ladies, Tipton eschewed the glitz and glamour of large Broadway productions in favor of the creative versatility and challenge presented by collaborations with choreographers such as Twyla Tharp, Dana Reitz, and Shen Wei, as well as avant-garde theater companies like The Wooster Group and directors such as Robert Wilson.

With Tharp, Tipton was able to take great risks with her designs, at times creating architectural environments that heavily influenced the impact of the work on its audience. Tharp, a demanding collaborator, illustrated in her autobiography how she visualized the production of her work Fait Accompli for the Brooklyn Academy of Music Festival in 1984.  “Suddenly three men appear directly upstage before our eyes.  All I said to Jenny and Santo [Loquasto] was, ‘I don’t care how you do it, they must just appear out of nowhere” (Tharp 306). Tipton responded with a design featuring 144 unmasked, white backlights focused through a heavy haze. While this was not the first time backlighting and haze were used in theatrical design, Tipton wielded these tools with finesse and subtlety, never detracting from the choreographer’s vision for the work. This design aesthetic is perhaps most recognizable in Tharp’s highly acclaimed1986 work In the Upper Room. Light serves as sculpture in the piece, carving the voluminous space above the dancers while they charge through the choreography. 

In 1993, Tipton worked closely with Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz on a structured improvisation called Necessary Weather; it was here that her exploration of lighting as an integral partner to choreography arguably realized its fullest potential. In this piece, light was not a secondary concern but a primary instigator; the work offered a chance to see light for its own sake, with the dance in its service. Tipton and Reitz won a joint Bessie Award for the work, which was highly celebrated by dance enthusiasts and critics alike. Tipton’s lighting worked similar to a sound score for the piece, underpinning emotional shifts and highlighting dramatic moments. “Tipton’s light created sound in the literal sense that it exactly duplicates, in another mode, the continuous swell and fall, the dynamics and rhythmic variation, of a great dance score—the slow incremental increases in ‘volume’, the sudden changes of tune…Jennifer Tipton’s lighting is music; you want to whistle the chiaroscuro all the way home” (Gopnik 41). 

In addition to her continued professional work, Tipton began teaching at the Yale School of Drama in 1981.  “It was through teaching that I started to get outside of myself, to talk about what I did and question. I began to reinforce what I was and the ideas that I had and to get better at it” (Tipton Interview). As a teacher, Tipton had to define her process, her way of thinking about light, though her process is similar whether designing for theater or for dance. “Putting lights in the space is like creating a vocabulary.  Each time I work to find the language of the production, whatever it may be, the lights are the words.  I go into the theater with these particular words and the rules, the grammar, of these words” (Tipton Interview).

Perhaps one of the reasons Tipton’s designs are so remarkable is that she brings a fresh perspective to each piece, adjusting her vision to perceive what is particular and necessary for each production. Tipton wields the force and energy of light with subtlety and grace, intuitively supporting the action on the stage in such a way that light and dance become one vision in the eye of the audience.  She is known for the clarity of her designs and her ability to sculpt stage space with encompassing brilliance or minute precision.  Though she has worked extensively in both theater and opera, in dance she is the standard by which all others are measured.            


Works Cited

Gopnik, Adam.  “Climate of Thought”. Dance Ink.  5:2 (Summer 1994): 40-1. Print.

Reitz, Dana. Interview with Jennifer Tipton. The New York Public Library for the PerformingArts Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. 28 May 1996. Film.

Tharp, Twyla.  Push Comes to Shove.  New York: Bantam Books.  1992. Print.

Tipton, Jennifer.  “Lighting For Dance: Theory and Practice”.   International Encyclopedia of Dance.  1998. Print.

Megan Slayter is an Assistant Professor of Dance at Western Michigan University where she teaches lighting design, history and management while serving as the department’s resident lighting designer. She received her MFA in dance with an emphasis in lighting design from The Ohio State University. Her research centers on the reconstruction of historical lighting designs, specifically those of modern dance pioneer Loïe Fuller, and the staging of those reconstructions by professional companies, museums, and universities. 


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles


Aloff, Mindy. “Jennifer Tipton: Designing Light.”Graphis.  55, no. 323 (Sept./Oct. 1999), 96-101.

Caspersen, Dana. “William Forsythe and Jennifer Tipton: a conversation about lighting William Forsythe”. Choreography and Dance.5:3 (2000).

Dalva, Nancy.  “Light Matters.” Dance Ink.  5:2 (Summer 1994): 46-8.

Dunham, Richard E.  “Jennifer Tipton, Distinguished Lighting Designer.” TD&T.  Summer 1998: 19-22.

Fleming, John.  “The Artistry of Light.” St. Petersburg Times.  30 Nov. 2001, South Pinellas ed., 1D.

Gopnik, Adam.  “Climate of Thought.” Dance Ink.  5:2 (Summer 1994): 40-1.

Marigny, Chris de. “Light, real time and Jennifer Tipton.” Dance Theatre Journal. London. 11:1 (Winter 1993/1994): 12-15.

Mazo, Joseph H.  “Dance Magazine Awards: Jennifer Tipton”. Dance Magazine. April 1991: 14-15.

Ostlere, Hilary.  “Jennifer Tipton: Leading Lighter”.  Dance Magazine.  April 1990: 46-9.

Shyer, Laurence. Robert Wilson and His Collaborators.  New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1989.

Taylor, Paul.  Private Domain. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.

Tharp, Twyla.  Push Comes to Shove.  New York: Bantam Books.  1992.

Tipton, Jennifer.  “Comments by Jennifer Tipton dated 4 Nov. 2001”.  Trisha Brown: Dance and Art. ed. Hendel Teicher.  Andover: Addison Gallery of American Art, 2002.

---. “DANCE; Light, Like Music, Can Help Establish the Rhythm”.  The New York Times.  26 Jan. 2003, Arts and Leisure Desk.

---.  “Lighting For Dance: Theory and Practice”. International Encyclopedia of Dance.1998. Print.

“Tipton, Jennifer: American Lighting Designer for Dance, Theater and Opera”.  International Dictionary of Modern Dance. ed. Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf.  Detroit: St. James Press, 1998.

“Tipton, Jennifer.” Oxford  Dictionary of Dance. ed. Debra Crane and Judith Mackrell.   Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

West, Martha Ullman.  “The Light Fantastic: Fuller, Rosenthal, & Tipton”.  Dance Magazine.  February 1996: 89-92.

Online Resources


Jennifer Tipton News. The New York Times.Web. http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/t/jennifer_tipton/index.html>. 

Moving Image


Reitz, Dana. Interview with Jennifer Tipton. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. 28 May 1996.

Winer, Linda. “Women in Theatre Dialogues with Notable Women in Theatre - Jennifer Tipton”. League of Professional Theatre Women. CUNY-TV, New York. 24 Oct. 2003.