How Learning Lighting Design Made this Dancer a Better Choreographer

July 2, 2019

When Sophie Sotsky moved to NYC in 2011, she was fresh out of college and hoping to sustain herself as a dancer and choreographer in the big city. That’s when a production internship at New York Live Arts caught her eye. The company, formerly Dance Theatre Workshop, had just merged with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and was about to begin its first season at NYLA. It needed interns to help with all the behind-the-scenes technical work that makes a show happen, from running cables to hanging lights to laying marley. Stotsky didn’t have experience with any of that, but she was game to learn.

“Somewhere along the way, I became pretty enamored with technical production—especially lighting design.”

Since that first internship, technical production has become integral to Sotsky’s career. In addition to choreographing for her own company, Tyke Dance, she spent two years as a technical director at Mount Tremper Arts in the Catskills in New York, where she provided basic lighting and sound support for artists during their residencies. Currently, Sotsky’s the production manager at Danspace Project in NYC, a role that allows her to tap into her technical production background while also assisting with lighting design for artists’ shows. “It’s a great supplement for choreographers because it’s imaginative, creative work, so it feeds a lot of the same parts of you,” she says. “It’s not just an income source.”

Sotsky performing (Eric Bandiero, courtesy Sotsky)

Growing up in Washington, DC, Sotsky’s first teacher was her grandmother, who danced with Anna Sokolow. She taught Sotsky the basic principles of modern dance when she was 4. “She would teach me dances that she had learned and we would perform them together for my family,” Sotsky says. For a while, Sotsky focused more on taekwondo than dance, eventually becoming a black belt. She attended Georgetown Day School, where she worked with Dana Tai Soon Burgess and started exploring choreography, before going on to study dance and psychology at Wesleyan University.

The creative aspects of lighting design have shown Sotsky new angles from which to approach her work, helping her better consider the visual aspects of dance as well as the kinesthetic. “A lighting designer wants to frame the work, whereas a choreographer wants to craft what it feels like to watch it” she says. “A good lighting designer can give a sense of what the director or choreographer wants the audience to look most closely at in any given moment, and help to direct the viewer’s eye there without them even realizing that it’s happening.”

Playing different roles within the creative process has also given her a new appreciation for collaboration,and for the perspective each lighting designer brings to a piece. Because of this, Sotsky doesn’t do the lighting for her own choreography. “For me it’s really important not to wear both hats at once. I think each of these roles asks something different of the person,” she says. While in her early days as a choreographer, she might have met with a lighting designer and given them a list of requirements, her current approach is more about trust, and giving each member of the team a chance to be creative. “Being a designer has helped me understand that a multiplicity of perspectives is a big part of what brings a piece to life and gives it a three-dimensionality,” she says. “It’s made me want to work with other people who have opinions, and who have their own frames to bring to my work.”

Sotsky performing (Chelsea Robin Lee, courtesy Sotsky)

There’s also the satisfaction she gets from supporting other artists, and using her skills to give back to the dance community- something she does every day in her role at Danspace Project. “I help people bring their ideas to life onstage,” she says. “I help them gain the tools they need to make the technical side of their work as strong as the dances that they’re bringing in.”