I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Born and raised in the circus, Ieva Misevičiūtė cooks up some rare and extraordinary blends in her performances. She combines clowning with collective exorcism, improvised street dance with sexy butoh, and comedic animality with psychedelic academia. Once sidetracked by a master’s degree in political studies, she trained in various performance styles, practiced untamed street dance, and performed one-night stand-up at the sassiest level. Misevičiūtė studied the Japanese dance and movement form butoh, which is known for its “playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, and extreme or absurd environments.” She has since taken butoh to Slow Loris Youtube, philosophical pantomime, and beyond.
Misevičiūtė’s major solo pieces have titles like Tongue PhD, Lord of Beef, and Nihilist News. With the latter she dove down into the New York City subway on the country’s coldest political day. Last September she presented Tongue PhD as a black-box theater production at The Kitchen, addressing all the hot stuff about new academia and showing how to learn drooling. Lord of Beef, performed at MoMA PS1 and Centre Pompidou, among other venues, is a series of impersonations of humans, nonhumans, objects, and ideas. This past January, she collaborated with painter Rita Ackermann on La vie en Rose, a performance at Hauser & Wirth, where they offered the audience an Ontological Deep Tissue Massage.
This spring I hear Ieva is making very long arms and is training with rabid lords. When Ieva and I met a few years ago in New York City, we immediately hit it off, spending long days roaming the streets, talking, dancing, and eating carrots. Timidly, I have been following her shadow during some of her street performances, slipping from embarrassment into the greatest joy—on the beat.
Ieva Misevičiūtė I’m here.
Melanie Bonajo You told me recently that you haven’t really been working. So what have you been doing?
IM Ha! I am busy updating my methods right now. But in that sense I work all the time. My work is really about studying myself: my body, my psyche, my mind. Performing in a way is a test of how well I have studied myself. For example, Tongue PhD was about “vertical research,” accessing the knowledge archives that are stored as our deep cellular memory. I think that could be a new academia.
MB Would you define this as a new period in your work, like a period of reflection and renewed focus? How do you go through your days studying your body, and how is that different from before?
IM The biggest change is that I moved away from the four hours of daily training that are typical to dancers. I am not as romantic as I used to be about the artistic process. According to the latest athletic research, dancers constantly over-exhaust their bodies and nervous systems. I’m just not into that lifestyle anymore. You see it with young dogs or cats; when they don’t know how to preserve their energy yet—they really go for it! (laughter) Older cats know better how much of themselves to use and when to rest. That’s where I’m at. I try to do everything in smaller portions of time but switch between things more often. It’s hard but it’s a dance.
MB If there were an exercise for your new way of working, what would you offer as an instruction to me now? Is it like, “Put your finger out and move it really slowly through the air while you switch emotions every couple of seconds”?
IM (laughter) Yes, that’s a good one. Switch between radically different modes every five seconds: emotional, object-oriented, seductive, aggressive, tender, etcetera. Do simple things, but do each one intensely and then change to another.
MB I’ve been on the streets with you—for instance the boombox trip when you danced in the middle of Broadway, stopping traffic and making the pedestrians jam in with you. It was almost like a mini-rave naturally occurring on a Saturday afternoon. I was hiding behind a trash can for the first song before a more confident, extroverted side of me was able to join in. You connect to all people on the street from this joyful place of freedom and innocence. But I’m also interested in your introverted side and in your self-study. You seem to enter a mystical place through the body.
IM Performing on the street to me feels like jumping off a cliff, where you have to free yourself from the opinions of other people. By the way, apropos of your question about working, last week I was performing in the Union Square subway station.
MB I knew you would be like, “I am working!” (laughter) But I am interested in how you went from this intense practice of combining modern dance with butoh and with more academic gestures and actions to arrive in a space that seems more silent, even blank, where there is a different form of control.
IM I am learning different qualities and adding new experiences to my previous training. It’s challenging for me to perform using a softer flow of energy, or to express only the most necessary parts of the act or movement. I’ve had to be a bit quiet to find that. I think I moved past the silent phase now.
MB How did you experience performing before this transition?
IM A few years ago, a good performance to me was like mad fireworks of actions shooting in unexpected directions, creating a pressure cooker environment where the brains of the performer and the audience got rewired. I was convinced that one had to be physically exhausted for it to be a good exchange. Honestly, I wonder if this is some Eastern European “hard work equals good work” paradigm. (laughter)
MB I mean we are living in this time of high stimulation, where the more expressive, assertive side, which is archetypically masculine, is pushed forward in almost everything. While the more internal, reflective, subtle, cyclical, patient, relational—the archetypically feminine side—still doesn’t have much space. In order to claim that space as a place of power within ourselves, and to practice it without fear of losing the grounding and the pragmatic side, is really one step further away from convention. For example, your Tongue PhD, to me, felt like a cultural catharsis. You were kind of cleaning the collective wound shared by all of us sitting there in that space by entering into a shared energy field. To me, it tapped into the field of ritual, in a good way.
IM You saw the early version of Tongue PhD where I went into a state of trance during the show. In the later version, I added more humor, shortened the acts, and with the help of lights, music, and a perpetual shift in modes I tried to create a hallucinogenic environment for the audience instead of going into a trance myself. That “karmic cleansing of archetypes” of the earlier version didn’t make me happier or healthier.
MB And why is that?
IM In my experience, if such leaps are meant to happen, they will happen collectively. I probably should not put such an exaggerated humanitarian load onto myself. That is where I grew skeptical toward butoh—because in this line of work it is expected that you dedicate your performative efforts toward the collective transformation of habitual thinking and behaving.
MB It seemed like you were sacrificing something for all of us. I also sensed that not everybody in the space was feeling it that way and that made me want to protect you. Because you were dealing with something that is not part of our culture anymore; it belongs to a sacred tradition which has its own language and its own forms.
IM I think if a performer or a shaman goes into a state of trance, everyone present has to be supportive, it has to be a collectively agreed-on journey. In contemporary theater, this is not the case.
Also, every good shaman is first of all a clown. You lighten up the space and seduce participants by clowning. Once I noticed that butoh training was starting to erode my inner clown, I had to reroute immediately.
MB Hallelujah. (laughter) Every religion that doesn’t have a sense of humor seems highly suspicious to me. I’m also a huge advocate of funny feminism and fighting for equal rights with a good sense of humor. Your aesthetics are often completely absurd and mock the cliché of beauty. Can you talk about how these aspects of clowning are integrated into your practice or your life?
IM Generally, I have a hard time taking things seriously. I think there is a punch line to everything. If I start doing some sexy belly dance moves, I just know that in twenty seconds I will have to destroy them by sticking my tongue out and drooling.
MB Yeah, humor and laughter to foster connection and collectivity are the ultimate form of rebellion. I think being a clown is a form of activism. Commenting on culture makes sense when your nose is two meters long or when your tongue sticks out for twenty minutes during a performance about academia.
IM Clowning is also the ultimate test for how much the audience is holding onto their dogmas. It’s the Alice in Wonderland strategy of the rabbit: you constantly lure the audience with the signifiers that they recognize so they go with you into those rabbit holes that are less recognizable. Once they get lost you again give them a few recognizable things so they can rest.
For instance, I use moves that signify showmanship, like imitating Liza Minnelli’s arms in an open V while wearing an arm extension. Then I slide one of the arms down and begin to lean on it, gradually transforming into a shaking creature resembling a deer. Again, it is important to keep in mind that I am a female performer.
MB And why is that important?
IM It’s where I find my power. I’ll give you an example. For one of my performances on the street, I used to wear a white suit. It has an obviously masculine look, right?
MB Yeah, I know that one.
IM For the last iteration of it, I decided to wear a red dress instead. And the program director who had invited me said, “You know, I really prefer the white suit. It was neutral and we could distance ourselves and watch you do a sequence of movements.” And I said, “Yeah, but then I wasn’t challenging any paradigms.” Moving like an insect with a Beyoncé butt shake, or a lizard with Michael Jackson skids, or a drooling baby that moves like a measuring tool—the red dress definitely made it more awkward to fit all these identities into one body. The director agreed with me that it called more stereotypes into question.
MB It shows just how much judgment there is for the ultrafeminine. I also feel that with all the identity politics and transgender and gender-neutral discussions going on, this ultrafeminine side has been pushed to the background. I don’t identify much with it, but I think it’s not really fair to put it at the end of the line or outside the discourse.
IM To me, it is very basic—first and foremost, I am a woman and within that I shift between multiple identities. Occasionally, I am an artist or a dancer; other times I’m an insect, or a slow loris. For examples of a good type of feminism, we should organize tours to Sweden and go to the weightlifting rooms in the gyms. There you can see how different it feels to be around real feminist men!
MB How is it different?
IM It just feels like you have space there. It’s hard to describe but I’ve never felt more equal than there. The men, of course, notice you are a woman and might flirt, but they will never patronize. No one helps you pull a weight off the rack.
MB Does all of this relate to the fact that you don’t believe in sublimation?
IM I don’t believe in substituting sex with creative work. They are not related.
MB To return to what you said earlier, why do you think there is so little or no humor in butoh?
IM Oh! No, it’s rather that there is a tendency to forget humor in the Western interpretation of butoh. Western metaphysics is based on Christianity. There is a lot of black-and-white fundamentalism, whereas I’m not sure that butoh came from the same place. Butoh training has a lot to do with endurance, with sustaining and overcoming physically and mentally difficult states. It’s called the “dance of darkness.” For Christians, you know, pain is a virtue and they tend to lean toward masochism.
MB Are pleasure and fun a motivation for you to do performance in the street?
IM Yes, and I think pleasure should be a motivation for any work. I always admire the humor and lightness in the way you do your work. How do you balance saving the world and having fun?
MB I think that’s where a real form of activism takes place. You can say many critical things about certain sensitive subjects while still talking in an inclusive way. Depending on your style of address, this can be done aggressively or by pushing boundaries, but there is always space for nonjudgment and empathy, which are portals to the other person’s view. How do we establish empathy through doing things together that we enjoy, even though we are so different? In the end these things are very similar—like dancing, singing, eating, having a nice conversation, having intimacy or something that we share. And as we share this reality, our humanity overlaps. I always try to avoid dogma. I believe in collectivity and friendship and supporting one another, but within love and compassion, there can be a lot of twisted stuff because nobody’s perfect.
IM I like the shadows and forbidden places, the hidden pockets of society. My questions about street culture, street dance, sex, rituals, and femininity cannot just be mine. I am a product of what’s around me. For me, these are essential parts of life: freedom of expression, joy, happiness, sex, and feminine seduction. And each is subjected to a complex system of control in our society and within our psyches. When I realize that the simple act of dancing in the streets feels like jumping off a cliff, I suspect that my liberation from this fear must go beyond a personal victory. I’m moving toward eradicating more and more of these pockets of oppression within myself and, because my work is public, I share this process with others.
MB I also think creativity is part of every person and it is our direct connection to the matrix, or to the divine, but also to our personal limits in terms of what others construct for us or what society subjects us to. That’s why creativity is considered dangerous. What I love about these mass demonstrations happening on the streets everywhere at the moment—they are such a celebration of human inventiveness and creativity.
IM True. It’s wonderful and it’s also a form of emancipation. Fake news, for instance, is helpful in learning to rely on yourself, first of all.
MB Empowering your autonomy and trust in yourself. How would you describe the role of the more spiritual or transcendental aspects in your work?
IM I think they are byproducts.
I communicate in states of being—
I think most artists do—and it’s my responsibility to ensure that these states allow for recharging, transforming, transcending, adding, and expanding. If that state is concerned with or fixed on a particular result, then it is ego-driven and narrowing. I’m mostly concerned with being as expansive as possible, and humor is an important part of that. If you want to affect a situation or a political climate directly, there are concrete actions to be done, and art is not always the right form for them. I’m dancing for more fluid and open-ended reasons. Sometimes you end up with something that could appeal to the opposite camp. Think of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
IM I heard it’s a gay anthem.
MB Oh really?
IM Yeah, I like to think that Freddy Mercury was saying, “We gay men are the champions of the world.” It’s ironic that it turned into such a macho song. (laughter) Many Queen lyrics can be read like that. “I Want to Break Free”—
MB Everybody wants to break free from something.
IM Yeah, and everybody is a champion.
Melanie Bonajo is an artist working in film and performance. Her work has been exhibited at MoMA PS1, Tate Modern, De Appel Arts Centre, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and many other venues. Her films have been shown at the International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), the Berlinale, the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and Treefort Film Fest.
Li Young Lee