Illumination at White Light Festival

Classic Arts Features   Illumination at White Light Festival
Necessary Weather took the audience's breath away when it was performed at the Kitchen in 1994. As Jane Moss programmed this year’s edition of the White Light Festival, she knew it had to be in the lineup.


Even though the work combined the considerable talents of choreographer Dana Reitz and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, no one could have prophesized its astonishing resonance. An hour-long dance without music, with light as the dancers’ companion and no obvious theme or narrative, it seemed entirely and profoundly new. When Baryshnikov Arts Center staged a revival in 2010, the work had lost none of its magic. Still, only a relative handful of people had seen a performance. Jane Moss, Ehrenkranz Artistic Director at Lincoln Center, wanted that to change. As she programmed this year’s edition of the White Light Festival, she knew Necessary Weather had to be in the lineup.

“I’m interested in the many manifestations of illumination,” Moss says. “We tend to look out of ourselves when we think of being illuminated. But I think that concept is also about looking inward, and illuminating the self and our inner dimensions. That’s a much bigger world. I try to select art that prompts people to do that. `Necessary Weather’ is one such work. A meditation on light, it can transport you anywhere.”

Reitz trained in Eastern and contemporary Western dance, before dancing briefly with Twyla Tharp and Laura Dean in the 1970s. Shortly afterward, she went out on her own as a solo improviser. From the beginning, she primarily worked without music, creating musicality in her dances through her subtle, fluid movements and the lighting. With her interest in light and its affect on movement and atmosphere, she sought out Tipton early in her career and they often collaborate. “We like investigating how light can partner with dance,” she says. “We’re both visual artists.”

But until the early 1990s, they had not made a major piece together. Familiar with the wonderfully expressive dancer Sara Rudner from her time with Tharp, Reitz asked her to join the project. Over three years, they developed Necessary Weather in workshops at The Kitchen and Bennington College, where Reitz has long been a member of the faculty. During their experiments, Tipton tried out different lighting, alternating saturated and unsaturated light among many other choices.

Soon they were creating a score with lighting and movement, the light triggering the changes and shifts in the choreography and Tipton occasionally surprising them by suddenly dimming or brightening the stage. “But you can’t tell what causes what to happen from your seat in the audience,” Reitz says, “meaning you won’t discern whether we do something because of the light or the look of the light changes because of something we did. We want it that way. That’s why we call the piece `Necessary Weather.’ It resembles the way climate changes, going from cool to warm and back again, sometimes indecipherably. We want the climate of the dance be a living, breathing thing.”

On stage, Rudner and Reitz, wearing loose, white pajama-like costumes designed by Santo Loquasto, adjust their timing according to the lighting. They rarely touch but are always aware of one another, whether moving in unison or separately. In a way, they go through their movements as they might in normal life, incorporating unexpected variations, largely without acknowledging one another. At one moment, one dancer may be in the shadow—at another, in the light. They are sometimes shaded different tones, a rich red, pale gold or green, or appear in different bands of light or become wrapped in a haze. By these means, viewers can get a sense of depth. It’s not hard to imagine that the dancers are traveling across a landscape, with volume and contours, or perhaps from life to death.

Reitz compares their performance to singing because the dancers have to tune into the light as if they were musicians and the lighting was the score. It results in an especially vibrant and emotional work of art. “We’ve traveled a long way with this,” she says. “It keeps shifting as we get older. The friendship of the three of us only gets stronger. We’re more sensitized to one another, so we go deeper. Every time we perform this work, it’s as if we’re setting out on a new journey. Sara and I have very different temperaments and styles. But though we are very different, we create a strong bond on stage.”

From Reitz’s description, one might imagine a totally improvised work, but Tipton corrects that impression. “Dana and Sara’s nuances might change in every performance,” she says, “but we have created a very formal structure. I feel strongly about formality. I loosely based the lighting concept on cones or circles. Light comes out of a cone and makes a circle. So there are always circles appearing in the work. It might look like a pinpoint or a pool but it’s always circular. That doesn’t mean surprises aren’t possible. Dana wanted a rectangle, like a window. I was against it at first. But we now have a fleeting rectangle. It’s there to express other worlds. But if you aren’t paying attention, you might miss it entirely.”

Being in the White Light Festival means a great deal to Tipton, as, of course, light is her life. “Everyone really has a special relationship to white light,” she says, “for white light contains all the colors of the rainbow. I’m so glad that the Festival calls attention to that in its wonderful programming.”

A perfect complement to Necessary Weather, the Festival also features a Tipton collaboration with the Georgian pianist Eteri Andjaparidze: an all–Alexander Scriabin program titled Spectral Scriabin,” for which Tipton created the lighting design. The composer, in addition to being a harmonic innovator, famously believed that colors and musical keys were related. For the premiere of one of his works, he even designed a color keyboard that projected changing colors according to the scale of the spectrum. Andjaparidze will perform Scriabin’s short solo piano works, preludes, and etudes, along with his well-known Vers la flame and Fourth Sonata.

“These works are all about seeing and feeling,” added Tipton. “That’s all we want you to do—see and feel.”

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