Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner have been dancing together since they were fifteen years old. Moving to New York from Curitiba, Brazil, in 1989, they have been collaborating for thirty-five years. At times mistaken for twins, they can seem almost body–mind melded. Officially forming chameckilerner in 1992, they made dances, films, and videos. Then, abruptly, in 2007, chameckilerner staged its own demise—the figurative killing-off of the artistic duo. No one, including the two of them, knew what the outcome would be. Lucky for us, there was a resurrection. For the past few years, chameckilerner has been primarily choreographing for the camera, making videos, and, most recently, multi-screen installations.
Eve Sussman It’s phenomenal that you’ve been working together since you were teenagers. But that’s not where I want to start. Let’s begin with an ending and what you refer to as your “creative suicide,” that culminated in a piece called Exit (2007). We’re looking at the tape; pause it there for a second—as the audience enters, they see a projection of a room in which everything is white: the furniture, the clothes, some small sculptures, and costumes of the choreographers, Andrea and Rosane. It’s an image of heaven?
Rosane Chamecki It could be.
ES Can you elaborate on what prompted the “exit,” or “suicide,” as you’ve called it?
Andrea Lerner At the time, Sarah Michelson was the dance curator at The Kitchen. She’d known our work for many years and was intrigued with the idea of us making two separate pieces. She said, “I would be very curious to see you work independently.” It was a challenge and a hard process for me personally. For you, too—
AL Rosane and I found that we were both thinking the same thing: how irrelevant we felt—
ES How not relevant you felt?
AL Yeah, not relevant. We realized that we were both in the same space artistically and we couldn’t do two different pieces about the same thing. We needed to reinvent ourselves, so we decided to do a funeral.
ES Exit, at one hour long, has elements of your previous thirty-year history, including pictures of the two of you dancing when you were really young. It includes videos of all sorts of people from the dance world talking about you, almost as if you had died. Those video interviews are quite touching and are a compelling juxtaposition to your choreography.
AL We were trapped by what people thought chameckilerner was. So we brought in this conversation of what it is to age as an artist, to be established, and have people see your work in a set way: “This is very chameckilerner” or “This doesn’t look like chameckilerner.” The idea was to free ourselves from our history.
ES Can you say what those clichés were? What did people think is chameckilerner?
RC Part of the cliché formed in the mid-’90s. We were among the first performers and choreographers who started separating parts of the body, giving each part its freedom of decision. We would manipulate one part of the body with another part of the body. We had a rough energy.
AL We were strongly defined by our early work, which was engaged with the psychological state of the body and its struggles. Our career transformed but people would still reference the earlier pieces. We could not stay twenty-seven or thirty forever.
ES Right, it’s like the Woody Allen line “We really liked your earlier funny ones.” By early work you mean Jackie and Judy?
AL The first five pieces—Jackie and Judy (1992), Butterfly Effect (1994), homemade (1995), Antonio Caido, (1996), and Please Don’t Leave Me (1998).
ES Jackie and Judy is the duet that really made your name in New York. It’s a striking piece of choreography because of the unique way you partner—you almost become one person. There is simultaneous closeness and confrontation.
RC That became a strong characteristic in our early work, not only the way we partnered ourselves, but also the way we instigated our dancers to do it.
ES When you say “very chameckilerner,” I picture intimacy mixed with aggression. In Conversation with Boxing Gloves Between Chamecki and Lerner (2009) you play that out in a literal way. It’s a video piece, not a live dance performance—you’re boxing at the camera, and you’re superimposed on top of each other. You’ve often played with “twinning.” You look similar, or you are good at making yourselves seem similar.
AL And sometimes we look like a third person, like a combination of the two of us.
ES In Boxing Gloves you literally become a third person with your faces melded. Then the boxing transforms very slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a dance.
RC Going back to Exit, faced with the challenge of doing separate pieces, I was actually scared of exposing myself without Andrea. But part of the process was to respect this third entity, or this first entity—that was chameckilerner—not only because I felt safer, but because I felt like our imaginary third person had more interesting potential.
ES You also told me that as two young girls and later, as young women, nothing bad had ever happened in your lives—but suddenly you both experienced tragedies around the same time.
AL It was at the time we made Antonio Caido in 1996. When something bad happens in your life, the first question is, “what if.” “What if the person had not crossed the street?” “What if I had …” You know, the little things in life that could have been different and would have prevented a tragedy. There’s a simple story of Antonio—he’s walking on the boardwalk and he falls into a hole and dies.
ES Is this a fictional story?
AL Yes. But the piece deals with trying to hold on to that short moment when the bad thing hasn’t happened yet. And of course there is fear—the lack of something that was there and is not anymore, the fragility of being alive. We put ourselves in vulnerable physical situations. We put our heads underwater as if drowning, we walked on the edge of a glass fish tank, we moved like fish out of water gasping for air.
ES When did you start taking yourselves out of the work and choreographing with other dancers?
RC Well, we were already working with three other dancers in ’94. Then we started getting pregnant.
AL After being pregnant, we both came back to dance and eventually there was a change of focus. I started paying attention to the overall process, realizing I couldn’t be one hundred percent responsible while performing in a piece.
ES When I see the clips, I can see that you succeeded in teaching the pas de deux structure that’s so specific to the two of you. It’s your language; technically, you had it down. It’s tight and fast with many abrupt stops.
RC It became less necessary for our material to be made for our bodies. The work became more broad and open to everybody. Still, there were moments of frustration. Not that I would do it better than another person, but I could not always explain in words exactly where and in which state or position I wanted their bodies to be in.
AL But we got to a point that we could codify and direct a person to the essence of the work. So when they were improvising, we knew what to tell them: “We need your honest physicality.” Each dancer needed to go there alone. Physical honesty was the task, and there was no room for pollution or any unnecessary movement. It took us a few years to find that clearly defined vocabulary, to learn how to give directions. We spent a lot of time creating task-oriented situations.
ES You figured out how to teach your duet method to other people—not based on movement, but based on task?
RC Based on task, yes. It’s interesting to see completely different personalities, different bodies, do our invented tasks. Exit was the hardest in this sense because the dancers were learning movement from our older pieces. That was one of the questions in Exit: When you’re dead, can your work continue?
AL The idea was also to take this material completely out of context. So we took mostly B-sides of our work, and by that I mean taking not only the most iconic, crowd-pleasing aspects of the dances. Exit is stitched together from older pieces without respecting any framework that the original work had when it was created.
ES The video interviews in Exit allow the stitching to work. They act as the glue for the disparate pieces from your history. The dances are intercut with talking heads delivering what feels like eulogies. Every now and then, the viewers can see the dancers and the audience being observed by you two from the white video screen—as if you’re witnessing your own memorial service. Which is pretty creepy in a good way. That simple combination makes the piece work; there’s nothing extraneous.
RC It’s not melodramatic.
ES That brings up the next subject: In Jackie and Judy and some of the earlier work, you’re doing what I call “pure choreography.” It’s not dance-theater, it’s not that theatrical, German, movement language made famous by Pina Bausch. At some point, with Antonio Caido, the work starts to tackle more theatrical language. Can you talk about that transition?
RC I don’t know if it became more theatrical. Antonio Caido has a bit of an arc that our other pieces don’t necessarily have. After that, in Please Don’t Leave Me (1998) and Poor Reality (2001), I don’t see more theatricality.
ES Costumes by God (2005) is quite theatrical! I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. It’s also very funny.
AL Our work until Poor Reality was all about the drama of the body itself, the physicality. In Visible Content (2003) and Costumes by God, time passing doesn’t deliver more narrative information. Those pieces just work with the idea of staying with something. But I don’t see them as having a story.
ES They aren’t narrative per se, but Costumes by God is theatrical in a way that Jackie and Judy, for instance, is not. What your dancers are doing drastically changed in Costumes by God. As I watched I realized, “This is the first time chameckilerner is making a piece addressing Brazilian culture.” There are images of telenovela, images evoking pornography. It’s relentlessly sexual. You start with two dancers naked on stage performing strict statuesque poses, taking images from antiquity: the beautiful, naked body as it would be rendered in a museum. There’s this acceptable nakedness. Then it abruptly switches to images of raunchy clothed-ness: oversexed clothed characters that are no longer acceptable when they’re not naked. That transition is really smart.
RC And we had confetti!
ES The whole stage is covered with an explosion of glitter—red and gold, glistening confetti. Then everything begins to transgress. The performers take on theatrical characters. The dancers go from being nude statues to being costumed in a way that signifies absolute bourgeois acceptability. That was a theatrical decision.
RC Can I start? In Visible Content, the piece we did right before Costumes by God, we liberated ourselves from having to generate material from our gut, from inside. We felt freer to gather information from the outside world.
AL In visual arts this happens all the time—artists reference or appropriate other material, revisiting and transforming it. But in dance, at that time, we thought that the vocabulary had to be genuinely, physically coming from us. Then, all of a sudden we decided that we wanted to use a body that has real-world references. We wanted a social body, a body people recognize. The vocabulary of the naked performers and their poses was taken from recognizable sculptures and paintings.
RC You are not necessarily able to recognize all of the appropriation, but you recognize that these poses are not coming from the performer’s body. The way the movement is appropriated turns the piece into a more theatrical experience.
AL We wanted to work with bodies that have desires. These states can float from naturalistic to pornographic, from beautifully naked to a body full of sexual connotations. The most resourceful way to get there was through our Brazilian heritage.
RC The physical culture is completely different than in America. In Brazil, the way you deal with your body, the level of comfort that you have—hugs are part of the culture. The way desire is dealt with in Brazil is more fun—not necessarily more adventurous, but it’s just less intellectual.
ES You think in America they intellectualize sexuality?
RC I do, yeah. I think in Europe they do it even more.
AL In Costumes by God, we didn’t want sexuality to be gendered. We wanted to go to the core of sexual desire. We wanted to touch the raw material of desire, to go to that place where sex makes us closer to animals, where physicality doesn’t get grotesque, but—
AL That was our intention. Trying to deal with that transgression.
RC This is a bit of a jump, but we used samba in that piece.
ES Samba is a quintessentially Brazilian dance, right? And that was your first use of samba, which is returning now in your new video work.
RC The Brazilian roots of samba are so rich because it has sensuality, sexuality, a certain empowerment, naïveté, and it can have machismo to it—the woman might be objectified, but she’s empowered at the same time. She is the queen.
ES What makes samba samba? What’s the main characteristic?
AL There’s a division between samba as music and samba as dance. The music came from Africa via the slave trade but went through a transformation in Brazil. It’s more wavy; it’s as if someone stretched out the African beats.
RC Samba is an iconic Brazilian manifestation. The movement is mainly in the hips and the feet. Anywhere in Brazil, we recognize ourselves as belonging to the place that samba comes from. But, in Curitiba, where we come from, most people don’t even know how to samba. At least we don’t. There are different kinds of samba: samba for fun, with everybody dancing together, and there is the presentational dance, done in carnival parades. The presentational dance is what’s dissected through slow motion in our new video, SAMBA.
ES Even though Costumes by God has great Brazilian music in it, you still took advantage of silence. A characteristic that runs through your work is the way you use silence and sound, especially the sound of the body.
AL People have the idea that dance happens with music. We often start working in complete silence. Eventually we will have a collaborator come in and we discuss sound—textures and moods. Movement and sound meet to juxtapose each other and create layers, but one is not dependent on the other. The dance is not subordinate to the music and the music is not subordinate to the dance—allowing both a different expansion. There’s so much sound from the movement itself that we have to measure how much music we need.
RC Neither one of us has that strong a relationship with dancing to the rhythm of music. Movement comes first, music is an addition, like the lights.
ES A lot of your sound design seems to come from the flapping of the body on the floor. It can be startling the way the music suddenly stops and one hears the sound of the dancers.
AL Because we work on the material in silence for so long, it’s always a big transition. Every time we’re introduced to a soundscape we have to readjust. In our video SAMBA, we tried many different sound textures until finally deciding the best choice was silence.
ES I want to segue into your newer video work by saying a bit about Instante (2003). The voyeurism in that piece caught my eye. In Instante, you have a stage with three projection screens that create a surveillance box where the dancers are being watched from all sides by alternate versions of themselves. You revisited that voyeurism in Exit when the two of you watch the piece from your cinematic “heavenly” position.
AL We were working with a video artist and suggested putting the four performers in three white rooms as if they were seeing themselves from the outside. The characters on the screens would be doing almost nothing, moving between a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen on each screen.
ES What’s taking place on stage is a representation of what’s going on in the heads of the people on the screens?
ES It’s a representation of teenage ennui, slackers, couch potatoes—but what the audience sees on stage is the opposite. Instante is both minimal and restrained, and continues your “aggressive closeness.” Few performers I’ve seen can perform something physically aggressive without having the theatrical tropes of emotional aggression. Your work is devoid of rage. That divorces it from the cliché of typical aggression that you see in movies or plays. You are able to choreograph an absolute closeness—whether you’re performing or your dancers are—combined with something that verges on violence. But it’s a pure violence, a violence without anger.
RC We provide very specific structures for the performers to live in, so they can physically bring that into existence without having to start from an emotional place. It’s not, Oh, I’m feeling rage for Andrea and that’s why I’m going to attack her. It’s about going to a certain place without being emotional—the body’s psychology is physically speaking.
AL Aggressive might not be the right word. I would say that it’s tension. You know, when you stretch something you can reveal all these layers that were there before it shrank. We always work with tension. When we first arrived in New York, people were doing contact improv. In contrast, we were trying to create situations to reveal a full spectrum of tension. By stretching something in opposite directions a bunch of things can happen in between.
ES Well, I’m just really happy that you guys don’t do contact improv!
AL As a technical tool it was important in the early stages of our work, but we actually have a funny story about contact improv. When we arrived at one of our early residencies, everyone was cooking naked, which threw us completely. And then they did contact-improv jam sessions at night. Rosane and I would run into our room and lock the door, “We don’t want to jam! We have no idea who these people are!” And we didn’t know where to put our beer and our cigarettes! We felt so invaded.
ES Let’s talk about you making autonomous video pieces separate from the dances. Flying Lesson (2008) was part of Exit but you also exhibited the video on its own.
RC In Exit we needed some new artistic input since using only interviews and our past dance material would have made it a documentary. We wanted something that empowered us to take this next step in our lives. We were inspired by a movie called The Bird People of China. It’s a beautiful movie in which this woman teaches children flying lessons, but they don’t ever fly.
AL But Flying Lesson also has to do with doing a piece about exiting. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us after Exit.
ES I remember hearing, “They’re ending the company. It’s over!”
AL We left our ending open to interpretation. We wanted reinvention, not just closing the door, but opening the door to something else. We started dreaming of something incredible we wanted to do: What if we had superpowers, what if we could go through objects, or become invisible? What if we could fly?
RC Phil Harder, who directed, brought a lot of humor into the piece. It was a mix of sensibilities, a true collaboration.
AL The main idea in Flying Lesson is that it takes practice to dream. It’s not just that we fly. We practice flying. And it’s not as if we’re practicing something new.
ES It’s a succinct concept: Dreaming takes practice. To dream is a practice in and of itself. In the video you actually do fly, contrary to what happens in Bird People.
RC I like the simplicity of it, the unpretentiousness—
ES The video Conversation with Boxing Gloves has a similar tight simplicity.
AL We always try to find a framework that is claustrophobic and limited. Conversation with Boxing Gloves was a commission for Performa 09. The piece is based on a 1916 avant-garde movie called Vita futurista. Nobody has copies of the film, but we know it was one of the first avant-garde movies and had eight sections. Lana Wilson, the Performa curator, assigned us one section: a “Discussion with boxing-gloves between Marinetti and Ungari,” but all we had to go on was a black-and-white picture of the two of them in a park with boxing gloves.
AL We thought it was an interesting provocation to go back to Futurism which was supposed to have been a proclamation to move forward. We looked at the paintings with all the dynamics, and the male energy with a lot of violence, competition, and a little bit of Fascism.
ES Which contradicts the kind of aggression that you work with.
AL We decided to make the film backward. The idea of something that moves forward but also backward was provocative because we were revisiting this movement from the past.
RC It’s shot from end to beginning and then played in reverse. In the shoot we start with dancing and end up boxing. When you see the video it begins with us boxing and ends up with us dancing. The energy of the reversed punches is strange—in part because the aggression is directed as much toward ourselves and our imaginary third entity as it is toward the viewer.
AL We knew we wanted to use superimposition because that was a language that Futurism used. When we saw the result we thought, This is about the two of us melding into each other. That goes all the way back to Jackie and Judy, when we made pieces where we physically became one.
ES The latest works that you’re making at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) are SAMBA and Flesh. Let’s look at Flesh. This is a video installation?
RC It’s a video performance. In Flesh, the audience is surrounded by four big screens placed in a square. In the middle, people are sitting on beanbags.
ES We’re watching a test for Flesh as you would install it as a timed, event-based installation. It has a beginning, middle, and an end. People would come to it like they would normally see a dance piece.
AL It’s a performance for screens.
ES Without live performers, the performers are on the projections.
RC But there’s not constant projection on all the screens. We choreographed the screens.
ES Right now two screens show billowy flesh in very slow motion. Is that being caused by a vibration machine?
RC Yes, we’re interested in the kind of landscape that the body creates and we shot the bodies of four different women.
ES No men? Some of the images remind me of John Coplans’s photography—maybe that’s why I thought they were men. Are the women all on jiggly vibration machines?
RC Eskasizers, popular in the ’70s. We made four portraits of four women that are two and a half minutes each—
AL Eight seconds! We could shoot only eight seconds—
RC And that turns into two and a half minutes.
ES That’s with a Phantom camera, at 1000 frames per second?
RC We shot 500 frames per second.
ES You are limited to eight-second takes.
RC There are no long takes, but the process was surprising; it had a lot of life. We thought it was going to be more abstract, but once we saw the Flesh footage, we became fascinated with the different bodies. The bodies of those four women each had such specific personalities that were revealed through their flesh and the way it was moving. The final installation starts with the portraits of the four different women and turns into something that takes you to a different place.
ES Do you ever see their faces?
RC No, never.
AL The original idea of Flesh was related to the machine. What is the machine? Something to make your body younger, healthier, better.
ES More shapely, more beautiful.
AL But we wanted to use that machine to create a dance of the flesh where you get a different perception of the body. The idea that the machine is used to improve bodies is important even though the machine is invisible in the work. The initial concept was to create a landscape of the body that is both alive and young, while also old and decaying.
RC For me, the impulse came from the desire to work with a certain kind of abstraction that I felt we could never do in our choreography. In taking these close-ups and using the machine to provoke the movement, we were able to find an abstraction that’s impossible in live performance.
ES Right. On stage, no matter how abstract the movements are, you can’t escape the figurative aspect of your body. You try to evade personality but ultimately it is impossible. The body is never without personality.
AL Yes. People would say to Merce Cunningham, “Oh, your dance is abstract.” And he would say, “How abstract can a real human body be?”
ES One has no idea where the movement is coming from but one senses there’s something electric going on. It’s almost like they’re in an electric chair! Could you have done this piece with non-dancers?
RC We could have, but all four of them are dancers. There are some issues—the person has to respond to the machine, and has to feel comfortable with where we put the Eskasizer vibrating belt on them, and feel comfortable with their naked body.
AL Naked but not in the most beautiful way.
RC But you start seeing beauty in it.
AL When we showed Flesh as a work-in-progress at EMPAC, one person felt it was so sad. It was all about decay and death and mortality. Only then did it come back to me that using the machine to reinvigorate something in the body was related to how we felt when we started this piece.
RC During the process, we abandoned abstraction, and somehow the final result took us to a place that is quite contemplative and liberating. Being surrounded by four sixteen-foot-wide screens of slowly writhing skin provides mental freedom. That’s the abstraction borne of contemplation.
RC It’s a freedom similar to where an abstract painting can take you.
ES By making a piece that isn’t catering to the idealized female form, you’re negating the beauty of the body. That’s a big deal. The voyeurism of watching gorgeous bodies is the elephant in the room in dance; the body is the thing that gets in the way of seeing the dance. That irrevocable beauty is unavoidable in live performance. In Flesh you magnify the body to a point where it’s kind of ugly, and it’s moving in ways that feel slightly horrific.
RC It may have to do with us aging, but after watching that footage so many times, I don’t find it grotesque anymore.
AL And we are deliberately taking away all personal references. You don’t know who this person is. Surprisingly, though, it became a series of portraits, through the energy, the color.
RC We wanted to make a sea of flesh. But it was impossible. Throughout the process we had to reveal the personality of each performer to be able to get to the sea of flesh.
AL So much so, that now we’ve renamed the piece: Jennifer, Hillary, Gabri, and Sally.
ES And you really feel like it can’t exist as a loop?
RC We like the freedom of people flowing in and out. But seeing the piece from beginning to end is a much better experience. There’s a certain amount of respect for the trajectory that you go through when you sit through the piece.
AL But there’s also something generous about trusting people and letting them make the decision for themselves. Letting them deal with uncertainty: Can I go? Should I stay? Will I miss something?
ES So what about the resurrection of chameckilerner? You guys came back from your suicide. Where do you think you go from here?
RC Honestly, there was something morbid about trying so hard to reinvent chameckilerner. It felt like carrying a weight, but now, working with video, it feels liberating, it’s exciting. We didn’t let go of who we were. What we do now is choreograph videos. I feel similar as when we began—almost as if we were back at the point of Jackie and Judy—we’re in this new medium, this new territory, and young. But not that young!
AL The curiosity is there, yet there’s so much unknown.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.