A smiling woman opens her mouth to speak, but before the words get out, she stops. Some invisible force, apparently internalized, has silenced her.
This occurs at the start of “Light and Desire,” a new work by the choreographer Colleen Thomas, and it’s a sequence or pattern to which the work keeps returning. This is a dance, created and performed by women, about how their voices are muzzled and how they might express themselves more freely.
The pandemic has added another layer to this theme. “Light and Desire,” which had its premiere at New York Live Arts on Wednesday, opening the theater’s in-person fall season, was originally scheduled to premiere in March 2020. At the delayed debut, the sense of pent-up release was strong, in several ways.
The work has an implicit answer for how to get around the forces that silence women: Women must band together. That’s not just what happens in “Light and Desire.” That’s what it is: a collaboration among veteran dancers who have known one another a long time.
And since the cast members are international — Joanna Lesnierowska from Poland; Ermira Goro, who is Greek and Albanian; Ildiko Toth, who is Hungarian but lives in Germany — they have been separated by travel restrictions. Performing for a live audience after a protracted wait, they were also having a reunion.
There was joy in that, and in the work’s droll humor. It was presented in the theater’s upstairs studio, and Thomas first appeared beyond the glass doors to an outside patio. Further muted by the glass, she whirled her arms in a way that was half cool dance move, half SOS. Lesnierowska stepped outside and threw her a life buoy.
In solos and group sections, the women kept falling on their faces. In a line, they archly inhabited the swaying shuffle of the anonymous women who flank Robert Palmer in the video for his “Addicted to Love.”
But the main running gag involved a mic stand, removed just before the woman who stood in front of it started to talk. Late in the 55-minute piece, the thwarted communication exploded in a cacophony of strangled and inarticulate sounds, with Rosalynde LeBlanc making a darkly humorous speech composed entirely of polite qualifications.
Before that, two avenues of escape had appeared. One was a film — by Carla Forte, who also performed, more wildly than the others — in which the women, in beautifully lighted close-ups, acted out a kind of verbal dictionary of primary emotions, all that bottled-up grief, fear and rage.
The other was an 11-member chorus of younger women, all alumnae of Barnard College, where Thomas teaches. Coming and going through “Light and Desire,” they seemed at first to be caught in some of the same traps, posing seductively or stuck in the Robert Palmer swaying shuffle, even while wearing face-covering floral masks (a Magritte-like effect).
But at the end, Thomas yelled “Stop! Let’s start over!” and the older women ceded the stage to the younger ones. Joan Jett’s defiant rocker “Bad Reputation,” interrupted at the beginning of the show, finally had its say (sample phrases: “It’s a new generation,” “A girl can do what she wants to do”). The younger women stomped and punched. As a final gesture, it wasn’t a bad start.
Light and Desire
Through Saturday at New York Live Arts, newyorklivearts.org