New York Living Arts
September 15 – 18, 2021
On September 15, New York Live Arts opened its doors, elevators and stairwells, and welcomed an audience to an unconventional space for an opening night: its studio on the third floor. The front row (hidden, of course) settled into cushions on the floor, while the seated rows filled in behind them, ready to assist Colleen Thomas. Light and desire.
Thomas, a dancer, choreographer and professor at Barnard College, cites the 2016 presidential election as the impetus for this work, and has developed it over the years since. Countless feminist cultural artefacts materialized in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, many centered on the anger and protest of women. Books similar to Rebecca Traister’s Good and crazy and adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism, countless blogs and musings, and even the Resistance Revival Chorus vocal ensemble commemorated the rage felt by feminist bodies across the country. Light and desire offers a thoughtful, movement-based contribution to this ongoing conversation, layering choreography with vocalizations from the performers, a musical score by Robert Boston with Jo Morris, and a film by Carla Forte.
Light and desire presents an all-female cast: an international sextet of soloists (Rosalynde LeBlanc, Joanna Leśnierowska, Ildikó Tóth, Ermira Goro, Carla Forte, plus Thomas herself), supported by a “choir” of 11 young dancers. For the soloists, Thomas has brought in a collection of experienced performers and designers with their own substantial works, and their costumes feel like a reward for such experience and fame: every woman in black and glittery silver, with tops and stockings different from one to another in fit and texture. (LeBlanc walks away from the group, however, with a shiny purple one-piece.) Thomas deprives the young choirs of such individuality, identically dressing them in beige combinations, their homogeneity reminiscent of either an ancient Greek choir or a body. classical ballet.
The performance weaves its way through a series of solos, stitched together with dancers briefly overlapping to share choreography or props. Thomas exploits the informal space, bringing the dancers out to the outside instead of the wings and placing a literal solo outside, to be filtered by the evening shadow and seen by the audience through the generously sized glass windows. from the studio. Having a clock on stage might have been distracting (how odd it is to lazily follow the length of a show!), But the other elements were lovely and could be read as a nod to recent use of the outdoor spaces. to come together in community. At one point, we hear a collective scream in the hallway – an emphatic vocalization of the frustration that underlies the Trump era. While it may have gotten quieter in Biden’s America, the cry, heard now, resonates and reignites.
Each soloist comfortably wears their choreography, proof of Thomas’ tailor-made movement developed through collaborative improvisation techniques. The stylistic differences of the dancers contrast but do not compete with each other as they connect or drag each other on stage. Leśnierowska jumps in space, suspending himself, stumbling and finally crawling frantically on his hands and knees. Later, Tóth’s sharp elbow-edged movements and original concave shapes come together in a brief but intriguing duet with Goro’s floating steps and gentle arches. Forte’s movement is less about finite forms and more about hiccups of energy, while LeBlanc presents with feline curved paws, inscribing circles on the stage with his feet.
Thomas places himself modestly in this piece, present but not predominant in the solos and moments of unison. She caresses the space with large rounded waves in her own movement. In a previous video chat with Bill T. Jones regarding his creative approach to Light and desire, Thomas is interested in the themes of perseverance and transformation. The evolution of the choir offers an example; they start out quietly, dressed in beige and face naked, then reappear in vibrant floral masks by Rebecca Makus. At the end of the 55-minute duration, the choir mimics the intensity of a protest, with the dancers demonstrating confidence and agency as they audibly stamp their feet on the stage and repeat a militaristic phrase with wide and deep fist movements and plies. The audience changes focus and the soloists blend into the background, seemingly freeing up the space the choir must occupy as the next generation.
The floral masks themselves are aesthetically interesting, as they both unify and anonymize the dancers who wear them, echoing the feminist protests and marches that swept the country after the elections. (This is reminiscent of the tense conversation that took place with the Women’s March, with participants reporting insufficient visibility of specific marginalized communities.) The choir itself is an effective part of the performance, although moments of visual confusion arise late. in the show, as the dancers take off in unison with the group.
Without consulting Thomas’ commentary for the context, Light and desire would seem a little improper to me. We watch the soloists repeatedly collapse face down and seemingly scream with rage in the silent video being shown. These candid representations of anger stand out sharply from a moment when the soloists line up for a seductive touch, staring at the audience as “Addicted to Love” rings out in the background. Later, as the sextet makes sniffles and growls of frustration, Leśnierowska cuts off their truncated sounds with a satisfying sound full of volume. Oin the form of a howl, blurring the line between anger and ecstasy. Looking at these scenes, the title seems superficial, an insufficient nickname for the subtlety and variety of energies manifested throughout the performance.
Looking at this work years after the 2016 election, the nation as a whole has undergone its own transformations, catalyzed by everything from political changes to natural disasters. And yet, many of the same injustices remain, likely to continue in conversation and activism for generations to come. Perhaps what resonates most in Light and desire is the need for improvisation and collaboration, in order to reshape our rage for growth and compassion to move forward.