Ligia Lewis

Wrestling with the idea of identity, the Dominican dancer and choreographer talks about her work in terms of “minoritarian politics,” charging it with racial signifiers and constructing unlikely associations.

 
When describing your recent piece minor matter, you used the term “minoritarian politics.” To what extent does this expression convey the role of identity politics in your work?

I generally avoid the term “identity” within my practice. When I use the term “minoritarian,” I’m considering a more embodied relationship to politics. I’m less interested in the representational politics inherent to “identity” discourse—not that it’s not relevant, but it just doesn’t suit my interests when creating work. I’ve had to wrestle a lot with this idea of “identity,” and the more I think about it, the more I am trying to run away from it, maybe even creating a space to dis-identify in some ways.

You are a Dominican-American woman working in Europe. How has this shaped your practice? I’m particularly thinking about your negotiation of race and embodiment.

I have played with different forms of aesthetic representation within my practice, constructing relationships to figures and subjects, rather than taking a more obvious position to illustrate my own experience as a brown woman. I think my commitment to a rich materiality, both physically and in terms of content, creates a relationship to aesthetics that is maximal rather than minimal, and difficult to pin down.  I like to say, “Too much is never enough.”
My commitment to embodiment, translating ideas into body through a practice that unfolds in time, is also fundamental to my understanding of dance. I’m never satisfied with one way of doing things, and I give myself a lot of freedom to experiment. Because of this, I find myself often misunderstood, but it’s often within this misunderstanding that I find myself most comfortable. I don’t necessarily give the audience what they want or expect from me, and as racial discourse is (sadly) not as present within dance, there still can be a kind of evasion of race as a topic of discussion. You would think that dance being the site of the body, this conversation would be inevitable, but things are slow. So I try my best to avoid the tokenism that comes with being a person of color working within the field of performance, while simultaneously recognizing that it’s inevitably present.

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MK In two of your pieces, Sorrow Swag and Melancholy: A White Mellow Drama, you’ve cast and collaborated with two white male dancers, Brian Getnick and Thibault Lac. What drives your choice of co-performers?
LL It’s only within the last two years that I began working with other performers, but they’ve since become integral to my practice. With Sorrow Swag, it was really by chance that Brian became the protagonist. I was interrogating this idea of grief and sorrow, and it became clear that the images I wanted to create were too dangerous or painful if folded into my body as a brown woman. I always consider the particulars of embodiment when making work. We are not all the same; images read differently depending on who’s performing. So in this case, though the work began with my own body, it was really sculpted to Brian, and then more recently to Andrew Hardwidge. Through the process of the piece, one figure wrestles with its own representation within the theater. There are clear racial signifiers in the work and, in time, I think it becomes clear, in a more subversive/subliminal way, that the piece is as much about race as it is about the theater.
With Melancholy, it was a more determined decision to work with Thibault, who’s a colleague and friend. But I felt like the only way I could do so was to address “white,” creating visible marks with white gloves and the use of light. Over the course of the piece, what is lacking within the performance—black—becomes more apparent; though black figures remain absent from the frame, blackness becomes a luminous texture felt through sound and light.
As if things weren’t already complicated enough, I later decided to have a woman, Boglarka Borcsok, interpret the piece at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The work shifted, of course, but still carried the same title. I always say that the concepts are only half the work; the rest is the process of embodiment that occurs through the duration of a creation period. With each new performer, there’s an opportunity for another body to inhabit the work.

There seems to be, in your practice, a particular attention paid to sound and music. How was it that you came to involve musicians such as Twin Shadow and WYNN?

For me, the audio landscape is integral to the work. Sound, with all its affective qualities, generates a lot of complexity. Some choreographers avoid a real engagement with it, giving a primacy to the body, but it’s a driving force for my creativity and engagement to performance. At the moment, I’m interested in putting all the elements of composition on equal footing, including sound, light and space. So I was lucky to have my “Twin” brother accompany Sorrow Swag, and to have WYNN, also a good friend, contribute a beautiful score to Melancholy, as well as an early iteration of minor matter.

 

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I’ve also noticed many literary references in your work—Samuel Beckett, Jean Anouilh, Jean Genet…

I like to dissolve this misconception that dance only consists of abstract bodies moving. My practice is very hybrid; it relates to theater, performance and history as well as the body—. With Sorrow Swag, I reimagined Beckett’s Not I based on what the performer Billie Whitelaw describes as a “primal scream,” building the work backwards from that image. With Melancholy, I twisted Genet’s The Blacks by thinking of “the whites.” When texts are performed literally, I like to create a situation in which language intersects with embodiment, be it synchronously or antagonistically, almost becoming a burden for the body to bear. In Melancholy, a phrase is taken from scholar Sara Ahmed about the “the general will”; the text is absorbed and turned into a word play that breaks down into this anguished, exhausted physicality. In minor matter, there’s an intimate moment where Hector Thami Manehehla performs a text, a kind of utterance that is as apocalyptic as it is funny, and then Jonathan Gonzalez performs a rant derivative of Richard Pryor but with pop cultural references like Kid Fury and Princess Nokia. I also perform a rant in which I refer to Kanye in the same breath as I refer to Bartelby. In general, this is how I work: By constructing unlikely associations, I play with nuance as well as meaning-making.

You still dance for other choreographers, such as Ezster Salomon and Mette Ingvarsten. What has your experience as a dancer brought to your choreography?

I enjoyed being an interpreter for each of them. For me, they as choreographers are shaping the field of contemporary dance, both with a kind of rigor and a thoughtful engagement to aesthetics and politics. Dance is generally collective: you have someone guiding the work, but the experience of performing alongside other dancers is very social and always rewarding. At the moment, I feel like I need to make my own work, to create what I see as missing in the conversation, but I could imagine interpreting others’ choreographies again in the future. I enjoy being in others’ works; it’s both humbling and generative. It requires a greater negotiation than producing your own work in some ways, because you have to fit inside someone else’s frame. You have to be clever—particularly if you don’t entirely agree with that frame, because in the end, you have to embody the piece and make it work. So I always learn a lot from these experiences.

When we met in Los Angeles two years ago, we talked about the economy of contemporary dance, comparing Europe’s publically funded system to the United States, where such support is non-existent. How vital are these differences for you and for the state of the dance world today?

I hate to expound on a pretty exhausted topic, but that shit is real. It inevitably shapes what is more “comfortably” feasible. I don’t want to negate the practices of artists that don’t rely on public funding to do their thing, but for what I want to create, I need funding of some sort. When I am in a creation period, my whole team works full-time, and I need to compensate them monetarily. Europe has (and will hopefully maintain) a commitment to supporting artists publicly. This has enabled dance, particularly in the theater, to flourish. For me, it is frustrating that the US is so far away, structurally, from realizing this. But I still love creating and sharing work there. It’s always a dynamic conversation.



Photography by Ilya Lipkin

Ligia Lewis (Dominican, b. 1983) is a choreographer and dancer who lives and works in Berlin and Los Angeles. Among other venues, Lewis’ latest work, Minor Matter, will be presented in The Tanks of London’s Tate Modern on 1 April, in the context of the BMW Tate Live Exhibition.

Martha Kirszenbaum is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles and Paris. From 2014–16, she served as director and curator of Fahrenheit, an exhibition space and residency program in Los Angeles.