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
The recent conclusion of the choreographer’s trilogy, Water Will (in Melody), employs mime, gothic imagery, and a Grimm tale, to consider entanglements of nature, the feminine, and blackness.
A theater is perhaps a kind of vise, a mechanism for durational holding. The best artists working in the form understand that whatever is placed between the proscenium’s jaws—sound, light, language, bodies, movement—is so clutched to facilitate the material’s irrevocable transformation, often via brute force. Ligia Lewis is one such artist. She has spent the last five years at work on a monumental trilogy, comprised of Sorrow Swag (2014); minor matter (2016); and Water Will (in Melody) (2018), which will have its US premiere at Performance Space New York in May. Dominican-born and Florida-raised, Lewis made these works while living and working in Berlin, and from this vantage, has made something that I can only call distinctively, brutally American. This is not least because each of the three is saturated in a hue wrung from that nation’s flag (blue, red, and white, respectively), and because they foreground transformation, illegibility, and diaspora, but even more so, because of the enormity of their ambition, itself scaled to address the vastness of the country’s immiserating project.
To borrow from Gertrude Stein, each work alone manifests “a single hurt color”; the triumvirate is, together, a spectacle and everything strange. Sorrow Swag, drawing on Samuel Beckett and Jean Anouilh, is built around the melancholy wailing of a single performer, a white boy who spars with everyone and only himself within an ultramarine fog. minor matter features three performers, including Lewis, in a fiery blaze of entanglement and exertion. Together, they are an unstoppable force in the face of an immovable object. In her most recent work, Water Will (in Melody), Lewis appears alongside three other female performers for an exploration of melodrama, demonstrative gesture, and the limits of legibility. Within the notion of will, expressions of futurity, inevitability, and desire are nestled together, however uncomfortably, with the faculties of determination and transformative action. We spoke about the power of black thought to work within and against spectacle, the possibilities of antagonism, and the urgency of collectivity.
Catherine DammanTell me about your latest performances of Sorrow Swag at the studios of the Kaaitheater in Brussels.
Ligia LewisSorrow Swag is so dark, but the last two nights made me fall in love with it again. It’s interesting to revisit this first part of my recent trilogy. I have a different performer now, Andrew Hardwidge. My twin brother [George Lewis Jr., also known as Twin Shadow], who arranged the music, joined on this occasion and played live. It was everything.
CDThis spring, you’ll be touring all three parts of the trilogy individually at different venues in the US and Europe.
LLYeah, this is the first time they’ll be playing simultaneously. Each piece attends to the theater in different ways. There are definitely overlapping sensibilities, light being the most obvious. I have a fantasy of one day staging the whole trilogy back to back, in one evening, maybe in a warehouse, somewhere slightly off the grid of the usual touring circuit.
CDYeah, you’d need a massive space. I was just watching footage of Sorrow Swag and the second part, minor matter, as well as an earlier work of yours, Sensation 1 (2011). You’re so attentive to what the proscenium does and can do, and what you and the performers can do to it. Particularly in minor matter, the use of the perimeter of the theatrical space, especially upstage and downstage, is crucial. There are these great moments where the performers come toward the audience or retreat away, staging an encounter of proximity and charge.
LLI always consider the audience when I construct a work. And I’m very busy with the feel of it, how it might be experienced. My work indulges in the sensate and operates through this field of perception. The first work I made was Sensation 1, a sculptural choreography with the gesture of singing rendered mute. The gesture of song animates the seemingly static body, giving form to an intensified interior and exterior space of the body. Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” the VH1 Live! version, plays in the dark, after the choreography is performed. I was playing with a sensorial choreography, illuminated by sight and sound, presented separately.
After that I decided to work more theatrically, fully assuming the theater as dynamic and supportive of experientially rich work. I continued with my interest in figuring the body in space and time, which is visible in the rest of the pieces of this trilogy. I’m interested in how bodies come to mean something or make things meaningful, together. In minor matter, we used the walls of the black box as another arm or leg, another body of support for us to climb. Sorrow Swag is more isolating, so the body kind of appears and disappears in the fog. My framing devices are informed by the space I have to work in. The theater, which feels distant and cold, at times overdetermining and overwhelming, also invites the potential to create transformative work. Charge and retreat, saturation and intensity, and the unruly unfolding of activities and embodiments allow me to deal with the hardness of the theater. The interplay of light and sound are crucial.
CDYour work unseats the position of mastery that a spectator in a proscenium theater might assume will be given to them. That’s achieved through these moments of illegibility, where perception and knowledge slip away. Scenographically, dramaturgically, or choreographically, movement gets interrupted or shifts midway; just at the moment the spectator is starting to get a handle on what’s happening, something dissolves or transforms.
LLI like producing a slippery relationship between the audience and performers. How do I build a fugitive choreography, one that’s always in the process of escaping itself, then coming back to reaffirm itself, only to slide away again? The act of interpreting a choreography is made live by the performers, which is the invitation in my work. I’m fortunate to work with brilliant performers, and this kind of dynamic interpretation is present in the pieces.
Alongside their interpretations, there’s a logic for how movements or embodiments unfold in space and time. Light and sound undergo a similar process. In Sorrow Swag, light and sound produce qualities of immersion, and at times distance or disappearance. And in minor matter, light and sound offer a feeling of seemingly endless unfolding. In Water Will, light is more hypnotic, fantastical. The unsettling qualities emerge out of different choreographic proposals that always include sound and light. I like when something familiar suddenly touches upon the uncanny, or a series of activities or movements is interrupted, or sonic and visual shiftiness disrupts the flow of things and creates a hiccup in perception.
I indulge in nonlinear thinking and allow myself to riff or go in multiple directions in a piece. This lends itself to going sideways versus straight forward. I’m an intense reader of my own work, but not in an analytical sense. It’s an intuitive process.
CDYour work is a kind of theoretical object in its own right. You’re a keen reader of Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, and Fred Moten, among others. How do you see your work in dialogue with the discourses of black studies?
LLThat’s an incredible bunch. Saidiya Hartman and Denise Ferreira da Silva are among many inspiring thinkers and writers who particularly move me at the moment—beyond my comprehension, beyond my possible illustration, and at times to tears. I don’t want to force a relationship between theory and dance because the practice of dancing is already producing its own theoretical framework, its own sets of rules, and its own ethos, coherent to itself.
In my work, I often start with something more obscure, like an image or a sound, or a sense of movement. Maybe later I’ll invite texts into my process as a way to elaborate further on what I’m intuiting. Having a strong political will, as I do, often sets me up for failure and lots of creative impossibility. Being able to think next to a text or another person becomes crucial to understanding how I want to be working. Within this trilogy especially, the oscillation between hope and hopelessness inspired me to think more deeply about my practice and what I wanted to privilege inside of it. The pieces work through so many of my own thoughts, experiences, affects, and impressions, and those of my collaborators. Additional texts that seem conducive to the work are also present. A key component of this trilogy is its antagonism toward white supremacist logics—the logics of empire—and their hold on the body. The audience becomes witness to this.
CDYour work is antagonistic, yet it also gives so much.
LLThank you. Last night my brother was like, “The people here are really loving your work, which is cool. It might not be the right people, but…” And I just had to laugh. I could be busy with the fact that a large portion of my audience is white bourgeois viewers. It’s something I wrestle with. But at the same time, generosity enables me to take hold of the space and try to make it mine, even if only for a moment.
CDGenerosity acknowledges that the work doesn’t have to be for everyone. You can speak to and with different audiences, beyond those in the performance space.
LLI used to have this naive and romantic idea about making work for a general public, having had a kind of populist disposition. I wonder about that now. (laughter) I think I was attracted to this idea initially because I wanted to avoid making dance only for a community that specializes in it, which is not so exciting to me. But as you said, different audiences are meeting the work, which doesn’t neatly fit into the category of dance, and all of this is important to me. Also, through my work, I’ve met other artists and folks who are really inspiring, and ultimately that’s what it’s about.
CDWho have some of those encounters been with?
LLSo many, but to name a few that ended up in collaborative processes: Nkisi, founding member of NON Worldwide (with Chino Amobi and Angel-ho), a DJ collective comprised mostly of members from the black diaspora. I joined her and NON a couple years ago on a project at Hebbel Am Ufer in Berlin, and since then we’ve maintained an artistic dialogue. She and I also contributed to the work of visual artist Paul Maheke, for a video entitled Levant. Working with Wu Tsang on the film We Hold Where Study was pretty amazing. And of course I continue to work with my brother, Twin Shadow. I joined him at Afropunk; he joined me for Sorrow Swag, and we’ll continue to work together. I have an upcoming commission at the High Line, and he will likely be part of it.
Oh, importantly, a young scholar and performance maker, Mlondi Zondi, and I have a very fruitful exchange. He wrote about minor matter, picking up on things I would have potentially overlooked. It’s rewarding to have my work interface with such brilliant people.
CDWhat were some of the things that came out of these dialogues?
LLWith Mlondi, we’ve been tripping a lot on the limits of what choreography can do and be in relationship to politics and representation. As this is all very complicated, he and I reflect together—he as theorist, me as practitioner. I’m busy trying to enact these limits; he reflects deeply on them.
CDHow does one respond to this seemingly intractable problem of institutions wanting the work without doing the work when it comes to black artists? All in the name of “diversity” or “inclusion,” with the motivation being at once exculpatory—a way to atone for previous exclusion—and rooted in the logics of cultural capital, wherein blackness is trendy or cool. This is not a new phenomenon.
LLWell, I have a kind of allergy to visibility politics. I take a pretty pessimistic view toward institutions, particularly those that don’t enter a space of self-reflection, or more importantly, self-critique, when they program work by artists of color. Friends share their stories of dealing with institutions both in Europe and the US, still having to explain things that seem obvious. Like, do people think we’re silly enough to believe that our own visibility is actually the goal? I’m critical of visibility politics because it’s in the name of inclusion, often in a bland liberal project that I don’t want to be committed to. I’m curious what will come of this moment, how it will be written about, and what else is to come. Hopefully more noise.
CDPerhaps one antidote is to luxuriate in specificity, so let’s turn to the specifics of your work. Rewatching the Bolero scene in minor matter this weekend, I was thinking about Maurice Béjart’s ballet and how you—perhaps not destroy, but definitely transform it. The movement is the original choreography, yet it also becomes a groove that’s not present in, say, Sylvie Guillem’s performance of this dance.
LLI love Béjart’s Bolero; it’s epic. I prefer Jorge Donn’s version to Guillem’s. His uniquely queer articulation is more fascinating to watch. Approaching Bolero, I wanted to imagine a version that’s not about the soloist, so my version quickly transforms into a trio, an ensemble work. Our syncopated rhythms as performers meet the syncopated rhythms of Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald’s ReComposed, Vol. 3, featuring the Bolero. Something happens when I’m busy with rhythm. Both the body and the performative situation operate together in a way that I don’t experience as autonomous or unique. CDYou’re also drawing on the tradition of stepping, among other things.
LLYes, the choreography is derived from step, which we understand in America as something performed in fraternities and sororities. But it finds its root in Gumboot, the South African folk dance that also became a protest dance. This might be the most iconic moment of minor matter; but, I think it’s great in large part because of what succeeds it—the virtuosity of Thami Manekehla’s soliloquy, precariously placed in the periphery of the black box. It’s beautiful to see diaspora enacted in real time: Thami’s performing this as something he learned as a folk dance, and then Jonathan Gonzalez, an American who studied step, is performing his version, while I dance alongside them. Its value emerges out of the process. Performers Corey Scott-Gilbert and Tiran Willemse have since joined the tour, and I’m so grateful for their energetic contributions. I see this moment not just as a cultural referent and what it signifies, but for its material potency and its blur, created by the sound score that moves from Ravel’s Bolero (Craig and von Oswald’s version)—which slides into a house track, with samples from Donna Summer to Arthur Russell—to more obscure musical inserts introduced by musicologist Michal Libera. I can’t think about this dance moment outside the sound score, its energetic push and pull. The piece was conceived through how sound would operate within it—an investigation in futurity.
CDIt becomes social, collective. At the end, you’re all wrestling and sparring, and these precarious reconfigurations of extreme exertion start to crumble and begin again, up the walls and in different places in the arena. You end on these different ways of being together, leaning on each other, and trying again and again.
LLThe last section is called “Apocalypse.” It’s my favorite part. (laughter) The house lights come up; you hear the clamor of us—jumping off one another and falling, really falling, and trying to get back up, basically building these precarious, and at times impossible, assemblages that lend themselves to falling. The clamor is important because the sound has been so active throughout the piece, and then suddenly it’s just us and our laughter and our—I wouldn’t say pain, but sometimes it does hurt. You’re like, “Damn, you just hit me,” and someone else yells, “No, you did!” And all of that becomes part of the play. This section disassembles the fantasy of the body as whole and organized. I was trying to get to the point when a body transforms into flesh. How do we read flesh versus a body? In this clamor and noise, there’s the capacity to understand flesh as vulnerable yet binding. Our bodies falling up against the walls of the black box builds this complicated relationship between us and the object we’re up against and, in part, supported by. I was interested in the instability of that.
CDThat collectivity is necessary and urgent in the face of what Hortense Spillers would call the “zero degree of conceptualization”—these kinship structures that exist outside or before the white supremacist recognition of subjecthood.
LLYes! And it’s really difficult to be together. I definitely felt that in the process of collaborating with Thami and Jonathan. It was challenging. What was beautiful was that we were all committed to the process. Consensus erases a lot of possibility. Maybe I’m posturing toward anarchy.
CDTell me about your newest work, Water Will (in Melody), which concludes the trilogy.
LLWell, it’s an ambitious proposal—I’ve reinforced the proscenium with a Victorian style theater curtain adorning the stage. It’s the opposite of Brecht’s vorhang—ours is used for its more sensual qualities, although its material presence does heighten the fiction. Reflecting on the dubious entanglements of nature, the feminine, darkness, and blackness, this piece uses the “nature” of the theater to think through such themes. It’s gothic, erotic, and borders on the absurd. A black and white melodrama ensues through mime. We basically mime for our lives. (laughter) The work is a hybrid, sort of nineteenth-century Southern Gothic meets German Romanticism meets early silent film. It uses the Brothers Grimm tale “The Willful Child” to think through notions of willfulness and when this is rendered legible or illegible. And of course, this is gendered and more importantly, racialized. The use of the fairytale was inspired in part by Sara Ahmed’s reflections in Willful Subjects. The piece departs from there and moves relationally into a poetics I’m very excited about, with the audience being the general will and wall against the four performers onstage, Susanne Sachße, Dani Brown, Titilayo Adebayo, and myself. We perform with incredible light design by my oft artistic collaborator Ariel Efraim Ashbel and sound arranged and designed by S. McKenna.
CDHow do you join these disparate elements—the fantastical, the history of terror, and the playfulness?
LLIn the first half of Water Will, everything is made explicit, exteriorized, exposed. Mime functions well for this. There’s an oversaturation of signifiers, so the work operates on excess and abundance. Overlapping speech stutters, chokes, and swallows itself, becoming a sonic screen from which our bodies are either further exposed or later veiled. Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, the primary source of music, is made unrecognizable—droned out, at times pitched and slowed down—to the point that it sounds as if submerged in water. This music plays overtop parts of the illegible speech, which is the opaque counterpart in the piece. Through these choreographic procedures, the work becomes monstrous, tragic, and strangely beautiful.
Through this trilogy I’ve been processing all of these different things in relation to race, asking how can I bend the theater to my liking in order to create space for something else? I don’t think that question will ever disappear.
The Select Equity Group Series on Theater
Catherine Damman is an art historian and critic. Her writing on experimental dance, theater, film, music, and the visual arts can be found in Artforum, Bookforum, Art in America, Art Journal, and elsewhere. She is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Humanities.
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