Photo by Gene Pittman Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.
Skilled at the art of conjuring anarchy, luciana achugar’s most recent choreographic endeavor, OTRO TEATRO, is a detailed construction of unruly madness. Achugar revolts from the inside out, confronting capitalism’s obsession with consumption and immediate gratification by indulging in pleasure to an almost grotesque extent. OTRO TEATRO is generated from a forty-five-minute daily practice of giving into pleasure through the body. Through a process of melting the brain into flesh, skin, bones, marrow, and fluids, an acute awareness of bodily desires emerges. When removed from the studio and situated in the theater, this practice takes on a life of its own. It is an invitation for the audience to get lost in time, to join achugar in a rite of passage that leads to heightened senses while rejecting objectification. As Achugar says, “Pleasure is the ultimate resistance to capitalism.”
For many years I have fought for the liberty to feel comfortable in my own skin and to embrace the power of my sexual body. Studying with achugar has given me the tools to channel this power, to experience the strength that has been perpetually squeezed from me, concealed by shame and manners, neutrality and kindness. Luciana’s teachings have been, quite plainly, the midnight burn of the utility pole, leaving me bare and stripping me of my signs. From here the power-lines run far and wide, creating a horizontal web of connectivity.
Nikima Jagudajev I wanted to first hear a little bit about what you call the “Practice.”
Luciana Achugar The Practice is a way to develop a method. It comes from asking myself, How do I find the method to make the kind of work I am doing? When I am improvising, I feel more free, or more in a state of free-association to ideas, a brainstorming way of working. Whereas when I am making a phrase of movement, I shift into my mind, and end up making things in a “cut and paste” world. I teach something to a dancer and there is a lot of thinking involved, a lot of repetition, or the same with slight variations. With this process, I wanted to do something that had more space, where you don’t have to be in your head, or at least as little as possible; where you can be in a more intuitive state.When I let myself teach from an improvised place, I find I end up using more poetic language. Images come up that are more deeply connected to the way I feel when I improvise, and how I connect to my body. I began to realize that technique is connected to the language you use to speak of the body. It is the imagery and how that relates to the doing of that experience, the being in your body and the anatomical connections. Through that process I came to realize that pleasure is what I am always interested in.
When I see people connect in a certain way with their body, in a way where they seem to be in pleasure, that is what I am searching for—pleasure meaning, a mixture of being empowered by strength and sexuality and just enjoying “being” in a body. With no holding back, no rigidity, it is something about searching for the freedom of not being contrived. I am really interested in those who seem as if they are just lost in their experience, in an almost ecstatic state. By ecstatic I don’t mean it has to be heightened, it could be a minimal thing of just sitting there. When someone seems totally connected in their body and not so needy of attention, just being themselves, I am drawn to that, because it feels connected to why I make dance. It is more about the experience and about being fully present. Dance and dancing in the body can be in itself a resistance to capitalist society that wants to push you all the time towards production and the value of money, commodity, and technology. Dance has a connection to the softness of the body, to nature, and the sensuality of experience. Pleasure to me is the ultimate resistance of capitalism; being in the moment and being in pleasure in your body.
NJ That daily practice of pleasure is so personal and intimate, there is something so comforting about the intimacy of the studio. But you have mentioned to me in the past that the work doesn’t truly come together until the performance. How is it to share something so private with an audience, sitting there staring at you? How do the eyes of the audience influence what you accomplish in the Practice?
LA You become what you practice. The practice of pleasure is building yourself a body that is empowered in that way, that is connected to that and to the connective tissue. This practice, doing it day after day builds a specific kind of body, so as you age, you have it as a history. You have built something, literally in your cellular tissue and in an energetic way. It is in your cells, not just in the mind or in the body memory, and it effects how you move.
When you have the eyes of the audience on you, new aspects come into play. Am I making an object out of myself? Am I ignoring that they are looking at me? Performing is simply asking the audience to “Look at me,” so in every piece I’m asking myself the question, Why am I here or, Why do I need them to look at me? It makes me want to perform the Practice, to be more rigorous with it. On stage this takes a risk—you’re being looked at. The structure of the piece in the beginning is really hard for me because I have to practice dropping in and finding pleasure in things that feel painful. I guess that sounds masochistic. It is the depth of the physical experience of being—only when something is hard, like giving birth, you go through pain but the result is so amazing that it’s a different pain than when you hurt yourself. If you give birth, the pain is almost like pleasure. I do it so I can transcend to another level.
NJ You are in the piece, paying your dues and doing this repetitive beginning section that is really hard, and then you arrive at this transcendent place—can you talk about what that is, what place do you reach?
LA Physically it feels like—I’ve never run a marathon, but it’s similar to what is known as “getting past the wall.” It becomes easy again. When I do this there is a moment in which it becomes extremely hard and I’m only doing it because the audience is there. I feel like I’m doing it for all of us, for us all to get to a deeper place—
NJ All of us meaning … ?
LA Meaning everyone in the room. I’m saying, Let us all go to another place, I am going to take us through this together. I’m going to put myself through this really hard experience, but I am making you see me go through it, so for you it is also hard in a way.
The other place that I go to is for myself, physically, past that place of hardship so that I don’t care anymore. That’s what I mean by talking about marathons, you hit a wall, but once you push past it you feel like you could run forever. I do feel like that happens after a certain while, I only stop because I want to continue. When you take your body through something difficult, you go to a little bit of an outward state.
NJ And you take the audience there with you?
LA Of course I can’t say they’re having the same experience as I am having in my body—some people resist it, get bored or annoyed and react negatively, but people do react, something does happen to them. You come to a performance and you ‘expect’ something to be given to you, but once you realize that what you expected is not going to happen, my hope is, and what I have heard from some people is that they let go of those expectations and view things for what they are. Just “being”; which is what I’m asking, can you just “be” and let go of your sense of time? What I am hoping is that their relationship to time passing shifts a little bit. I’ve shifted energy in the room so that you get a little lost and you don’t know how much time went by. Has it been a really long, long time? Has it the performance just started? This sense of being lost in time, not being sure about things, is what I’m interested in because it opens up to a way of seeing things in an altered state; kind of like when you’re having an acid trip and time gets warped.
NJ Earlier you talked about “The Practice” accomplishing a sort of warmth or animalistic way of being. How does the transcendent state that you bring the audience to relate to that way of being?
LA When we talk about the practice of being in pleasure, I feel that if you really drop into that way of being in your body, you fall away from time as a quantitative thing; that time is something you count. You are in more of a place of flying or a rhythm. I considered at one point that instead of doing this piece, I would come in and talk the audience through a completely participatory experience where I would take them through the practice; invite them to come on stage and guide them through a “class” and have them practice with us. In a way that feels like the true realization of what I’m trying to do. I guess in the end I am still interested in designing an experience for the viewer, and making theatre, or speaking to what it is to be in the theater together. To completely erase everything and do a participatory experience together, although I think it’s beautiful, it feels almost like an easy way out of these other potential ideas. I am more interested in the challenge of bringing the audience in without literally inviting them in. I feel like doing it this way is me saying, I want to inspire you to find pleasure on you own.
NJ I am wondering, how does having the eyes of the audience on you effect your presence?
LA When you have all the eyes on you, there is a power that you feel, but I shift within states of dealing with that. People are paying attention so it’s finally time to say something, but because I’m not saying anything with words, every moment is important just by being. Every joint is charged. I feel that I can be more myself than in any other time. I feel like I don’t have to apologize any more for being fully strong. That is why sexuality comes out a lot—this sounds very new age-y—but when all eyes are on me I feel all of a sudden that my vagina is really strong! (laughter) It has all this space and potential inside and I don’t even think of it, I feel it. All of a sudden you feel the energy coming out and the power of that, and people want to get in there, you know—that sounds terrible. (laughter) There’s just a plain energetic, sexual organ power to that area, and when I have all the eyes on me, I become really aware of it. I become aware of how my feet feel—everything just feels like you go through a tunnel and all of a sudden my cells and my nervous system are more on: I guess it’s the adrenaline.
At times I want to be a seductress and at times I want to be a witch. I go through feelings of becoming things, not that I want to name them because if I start to name it, it becomes reductive. It is more abstract; like shape-shifting. Also because I’m an older woman now, I chose to be naked particularly because for myself I don’t feel like I’m as hot as I used to be—because I used to be very hot. (laughter) I don’t give a shit, I’m still being as sexual and sensual and am more connected than ever before. It makes me feel even more freed up. As a younger woman you sometimes feel apologetic about the energy because it’s easily turned into an objectification of yourself. When you’re young, on or off stage, you often try to tone it down and you think you have to apologize for it a little bit because in our society, that behavior can be mistaken as being “slutty” or being overtly sexy. The sexiness gets mistaken for you just wanting to fuck or something. I’m sure you have experienced that. (laughter) But you know, somehow it’s connected to sex. Mostly I try to connect to that power and that power is connected to sexuality and being in a body is a sexual thing.
The other thing that’s interesting is that it shifts around, sometimes I do feel objectified, and then I feel rebellious and anger toward the audience, a desire to reject their gaze. I feel angry at their expectations. So doing the Practice on stage is a way of rebelling against that. I’m trying not to let the pressure of the audience’s expectations take away from what we have been doing in the process of this practice, and say, this practice is important enough to share and to see how it can shift the experience of viewer and doer. It is an experiment to do this practice on stage and not just do things that I think will entertain you or that you think are interesting or beautiful enough.
NJ Is it possible to practice that when so much of the creation of this piece happens on stage during the performance, with the audience?
LA In the studio, a lot of it is imagining the eyes of the audience. A lot of it is a projection of what that moment will be, when we meet. The work gets completed with the audience but I think The Practice can be itself without the audience in the studio. It is kind of an impossible search—my longing is to collapse the process and the moment as much as possible … that moment of when the audience does complete the work even if they don’t consciously understand it. All those hours of improvisation … they’re getting the whole process. That’s maybe very poetic but I do think it’s true on some level.
I’m trying to make this work not be a product. Strongly I keep questioning myself, “Am I really making something for producing?” I’m resistant to product oriented work. I’m on this quest to make work where the dancer is not the in service of this product, but where the work is in service of the dancer. How come the whole time in the studio, all I’m doing is working on that moment when the audience gets there? So I’m trying to figure out, am I product oriented? Not necessarily, if I treat the performance not as a product but more as a sacred moment. That is how I ended up in the idea of ritual; I’m preparing myself for the moment of the experience. I thought of a wedding when people prepare the meals and their vows and the wedding is not a product but there is a preparation. It is a ritual where everyone is going to join together and celebrate these people and their love, but there is preparation needed so that you design the experience of the guests. I want a performance like that, where I am designing how I want it to go and it will be filled out by the audience. It’s not a product to present to them, it’s a preparation of the sacred coming together. The Practice in the studio is practice for us to be together but its also in preparation for this charged special moment of coming together, and to hope that we bring them along with us.