Light and Desire: Illuminating Anger and Transformation
Colleen Thomas examines feminist anger, compassion, pleasure, and perseverance in Light and Desire, recently staged at New York Live Arts for an in-person performance.
September 15 – 18, 2021
On September 15, New York Live Arts opened its doors, elevators, and stairwells, and welcomed an audience into an unconventional space for an opening night performance: its third-floor studio. The front row (masked, of course) settled into cushions on the floor, as the seated rows filled behind them, ready to witness Colleen Thomas’s Light and Desire.
Thomas, a dancer, choreographer, and Barnard College professor, cites the 2016 presidential election as the impetus for this work, and has developed it over the years since. Innumerable feminist cultural artifacts materialized in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, many centering female anger and protest. Books like Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad and adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism, countless blogs and think pieces, and even the vocal ensemble Resistance Revival Chorus memorialized 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 by the performers, musical score by Robert Boston featuring Jo Morris, and a film by Carla Forte.
Light and Desire features an all-female-identifying cast: an international sextet of soloists (Rosalynde LeBlanc, Joanna Leśnierowska, Ildikó Tóth, Ermira Goro, Carla Forte, plus Thomas herself), supported by a “chorus” of 11 younger dancers. For the soloists, Thomas has tapped a collection of experienced performers and creators with their own substantial bodies of work, and their costumes feel like a reward for such earned experience and renown: each woman in black and glittering silver, with tops and bottoms different from one to the next in fit and texture. (LeBlanc deviates from the group, however, with a sparkly purple one-piece.) Thomas deprives the youthful chorus of such individuality, dressing them identically in beige jumpsuits, their homogeneity reminiscent of either an ancient Greek chorus or a classical corps de ballet.
The performance works its way through a series of solos, stitched together with dancers briefly overlapping to share choreography or props. Thomas exploits the informal space, exiting dancers out of doors instead of wings and placing a solo in the literal outdoors, to be filtered by the evening shadow and viewed by the audience through the studio’s generously sized windowpanes. Having a clock on-stage may have distracted (how odd to idly track the runtime of a show!), but the other elements felt charming and could be read as a nod to the recent utilization of outdoor spaces to gather in community. At one point, we hear a collective scream issue from the hallway—an emphatic vocalization of the frustration underpinning the Trump era. While it may have grown quieter in Biden's America, the cry, heard now, resonates and reignites.
Each soloist wears their choreography comfortably, evidence of Thomas’s custom-fit movement developed through collaborative, improvisational techniques. The dancers’ stylistic differences contrast but don’t compete as they connect or trail each other on stage. Leśnierowska jolts through space hanging, stumbling, and finally crawling frenetically on hands and knees. Later, Tóth’s sharp-elbowed slashing motions and quirky concave shapes pair in a brief but intriguing duet with Goro’s buoyant reaching steps and gentle arches. Forte’s movement is less about finished shapes than it is hiccups of energy, while LeBlanc presents with feline curved paws, inscribing circles on the stage with her feet.
Thomas places herself modestly in this piece, present but not prominent in the solos and moments of unison. She caresses the space with large, rounded waves in her own movement. In a previous video conversation with Bill T. Jones regarding her creative approach for Light and Desire, Thomas expresses interest in themes of perseverance and transformation. The evolution of the chorus offers an example; they begin quietly, beige-clad and bare-faced, then reappear in vibrant floral masks by Rebecca Makus. By the end of the 55-minute runtime, the chorus mimics the intensity of a protest, with the dancers exhibiting confidence and agency as they audibly stomp their feet on the stage and repeat a militaristic phrase with punching motions and deep wide pliés. The audience shifts their focus and the soloists fade into the background, seemingly vacating the space for the chorus to 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 post-election. (It calls to mind the fraught conversation that arose with the Women’s March, with participants declaring insufficient visibility of specific marginalized communities.) The chorus itself is an effective element in the performance, though moments of visual discombobulation arise late in the show, as dancers peel away from unison with the group.
Without consulting Thomas’s commentary for context, Light and Desire would feel like a bit of a misnomer. We watch the soloists repeatedly collapsing face-down, and seemingly screaming with rage in the silent projected video. These frank depictions of anger stand in stark relief against a moment when the soloists align to deliver a seductive step-touch, staring down the audience as “Addicted to Love” blares in the background. Later, as the sextet emits snorts and grunts of frustration, Leśnierowska cuts through their truncated sounds with a satisfying, full-volume O-shaped howl, blurring the line between anger and ecstasy. Examining these scenes, the title feels perfunctory, an insufficient moniker for the subtlety and variety of energies manifested throughout the performance.
Watching this work several years past the 2016 election, the nation at large has undergone its own transformations, catalyzed by everything from political change to natural disaster. And yet many of the same injustices remain, likely to be continued in conversation and activism for generations to come. Perhaps what resonates most about Light and Desire is the necessity for improvisation and collaboration, in order to reshape our rage for growth and compassion moving forward.