Light Show
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Light Show

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

In his foundational mystical text, “Sha’are Orah” (Gates of Light), the 13th-century Spanish kabbalist Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla used light as a metaphor to stand for the essence of the divine. For composer David Homan and his wife, choreographer Ariel Grossman, light is a symbol of human energy and striving. Their new work, “Ori” (My Light), premieres next week at a festival in Chelsea that also features the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Carolyn Dorfman Dance Companies.

Eight years ago, Homan and Grossman co-founded the Ariel Rivka Dance Company, which often uses Jewish texts and themes to create bold new works. Last year, they presented a well-regarded feminist version of the Book of Esther, in which both Vashti and Esther played a central role.

Homan, who serves as executive director of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, told The Jewish Week that three days after he and Grossman had their first child, Eva, last spring, they started thinking about the theme of light. “We were seeking something more experiential than we had done with ‘Esther,’ something less driven by words and storyline. When you wake up early in the morning with a new baby, you see different aspects of light than usual.”

In studying the symbolic aspects of light, the couple sought guidance from Homan’s father, Sidney, a Shakespeare scholar who teaches at the University of Florida in Gainesville. They also read Romantic poetry by Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley along with the work of 20th-century bards like e.e. cummings and Carl Sandburg. They concluded, Homan recalled, that there is “no such thing as absolute darkness or light — there are always shades in between. If something is too dazzling, then you’re blinded; if it’s too dark, then all you look for is the light that filters between the cracks.”

The lighting designer, Marika Kent, decided to illuminate the dancers from the back, so that their faces and gestures would not be immediately visible. And Homan decided that the music would also “blur the boundaries” between rock and classical; he was inspired by the Finnish band Apocalyptica’s ground-breaking 1996 album of four cellists playing Metallica heavy metal songs.

Lighting, Homan reflected, is almost always an essential element of dance performances. He cited David Parsons’ signature 1982 work, “Caught,” in which a strobe light flashes only when the performer is leaping in mid-air. But light is especially symbolic for Jews in particular, he said, and “Ori” seeks to convey, in symbolic terms, the experience of “what one goes through when one doesn’t have enough light,” and needs to find a way to leave the darkness behind.

“Ori” will be performed at New York Live Arts, 219 W. 19th St. Performances are Thursday, May 28-Saturday, May 30 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, $30 (students $15), call the box office at (212) 924-0077 or visit newyorklivearts.org.

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