Flavia Meireles in Conversation with Abigail Levine

Flavia Meireles created Temas de Dança (Themes in Dance) because of an itch she could no longer ignore. Teaching a university-level course in dance history, she came to feel that dance history was a contradiction in terms. How could the traditional historical archive be expanded to include the temporal and experiential foundations of dance? Her questions quickly expanded to a larger inquiry into the relationship of dance and thought, the body and language, theory and practice, and dance and larger social-political movements. “I am very interested in the hybridizing of languages and how this field can be both sensitive and intellectual, how feeling and the intellect can not exist in two different places but rather together in one single reflection.”

Meireles, herself a choreographer and researcher based in Rio de Janeiro, gathered a group of artist-scholars from various creative and theoretical orientations to begin to address these questions. Over the course of three years, Meireles has led the development of Temas de Dança into a multi-platform, creative research project. The work has received significant funding from the city of Rio and has conducted workshops and discussions at the Museum of Art in Rio (MAR), Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and the Choreographic Center of Rio, as well as festivals and conferences throughout Brazil. The project's website hosts videos of roundtables with artists and scholars, multi-media presentations on issues in dance history and practice, featuring materials previously unavailable to the public in Portuguese, as well as links to relevant organizations, videos, and texts. “Temas de Dança isn’t a dance archive, nor a catalog, nor does it attempt to provide news about dance today. It is another arm [of the field] that tries to reflect, starting with practice, what connections we can make with the world and some of the contexts that are close to us.” Significantly, although Temas de Dança has developed partnerships with various universities and other institutions, it has remained an independent entity.

Meireles contextualizes Temas de Dança within the current expansion of dance funding and education in Brazil, which was prioritized during the Lula administration (2003-2011). She also discusses artists' involvement in the Days in June in 2013, the most significant protest movement to emerge since the end of the dictatorship in the 1980s, and her understanding of the connections between artistic production and progressive, social change. “[T]he field of art did not stay out of the movement. We artists, struggling to improve our situation in the arts, came together to work with other struggles... I think that it is really a debate within the arts about the supposed place of art as a way to reform the ties of a broken society… I think that the place of art is to fit in that unexpected place that you don’t have control over. If not, art is problematic, no?”

—Abigail Levine

Abigail Levine: Let's talk about your project Temas de Dança. We can bring in context—the history of dance in Brazil, arts funding, its place in larger social-political concerns—and also your path through dance and choreography, but begin with Temas de Dança as a focal point.

Flavia Meireles: Ok. Temas de Dança came out of an concern that I had in my experience as a teacher, also as an artist, but more as a teacher. I have taught dance history at the Escola Angel Vianna for the past ten years. A colleague and I began to discuss the contradiction of trying to talk about dance history; there's something that isn’t very compatible in the idea of an archive of dance—the archive in the traditional sense. Not just in the historiographical sense, but also because of the very nature of dance as a live, temporal art, a durational art that doesn’t leave an object and that is linked to an act. I wanted to talk about this with other peers, other artist-researchers, mixing it up in a way that avoided a distinction between theory and practice. Or at least, trying to situate the relationship in a different way, a theory that comes out of a practice, not theory as a place of endorsement or justification, or theory and practice as two things that are completely disconnected from each another. How can theory and practice encounter each other without either flattening the other?

AL: What did you build that addressed these problems?

FM: I approached two other researches: Mariana Patrício; she has experience with Flamenco and is a professor of literature here in Rio, and Ana Kiffer, who is a professor of literature and works on Artaud. We started by creating a study group. The first year, we read a lot of texts, we watched things, we discussed things. We talked about how to use these ideas in the classroom and in artistic practice and scholarly writing.  Each of us tried to approach these three issues: the history of dance, theory, and practice. So that first year was a cauldron of discussions and readings. We established a partnership with two video libraries, the Videoteca de Panorama de Dança and the Acervo Mariposa in São Paulo, where we could show videos, see things that we were discussing, and hold conversations with artists, bringing our own experience as artists into the more theoretical conversation.

At the end of that year, we applied for a grant from the city of Rio and received the funding. We are the first grant to a project like this, a dance research group that doesn’t create any concrete product in the traditional sense, a performance or a seminar or a workshop. At the end of that first year, we put on a free small workshop, and made the website, Temas de Dança. The site has become an interesting way to register, or leave a trail, of our research. In other words, Temas de Dança isn’t a dance archive, nor a catalog, nor does it attempt to provide news about dance today. It is another arm [of the field] that I think tries to reflect, starting with practice, what connections we can make with the world and some of the contexts that are close to us. So we found the site an interesting way to connect traces of our research through hyperlinks. In other words, you can enter the site from any point and see short texts and videos that are in dialogue with one another but can also be seen separately. We thought that this provided a useful counterpoint to the history, and even the format, of the book—notions of beginning, middle, end, linearity, a hierarchy of information, etc.

Workshop "Itinerant Studies Group," Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Bárbara Fontana
Workshop "Itinerant Studies Group," Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Bárbara Fontana

AL: So, for this project, you brought together a group that wasn’t composed of dance scholars? People came from literature and theater.

FM: From the beginning, it was an intersection of dance researchers and non-dance researchers. I joined as a dance researcher, Ana Kiffer as a literature scholar, and Mariana somewhere in the middle, as she is an experienced Flamenco dancer and also a scholar of literature. So from the start, we were already between languages.

AL: And how did this affect the directions of your inquiry?

FM: Well, in the first year, we realized that the research we were doing wasn’t about dance history. It was the relationship between thought and dance. So it was already much broader. I am very interested in the hybridizing of languages and how this field can be both sensitive and intellectual, how feeling and the intellect can not exist in two different places but rather together in one single reflection.

AL: Is this idea in the air among artists in Rio, or in Brazil, in general? Is it something that people are experimenting with?

FM: I think more and more. In recent years, I have noticed that many artists… I think it has something to do with the fact that since 2003, so many university dance programs have been founded all over Brazil.

AL: Someone told me that the number of bachelor’s degree programs in dance quadrupled since the 1990s. Now there are forty or more.

FM: Yes that’s right. It has to do with the Lula administration, Lula and Dilma. Their governments allowed for the creation of new universities and dance departments where people could get degrees in dance and build this dialogue together, this dialogue between theory and practice that was previously limited to very few places in Brazil.

AL: But the funding for the project doesn’t come from a university, correct?

FM: No it doesn’t. I think that is an aspect of Temas de Dança that is very important, that it is independent in the sense that it doesn’t have an institution, public or private,  that is behind it. It is not a university initiative, but we do partner with universities in order to have a conversation with the academy. But being independent, we have the freedom to establish our own parameters for our work. It isn’t limited to determined rules, whether set by a university or any other type of institution.

AL: But the money comes from the government, yes?

FM: Yes, the money for the two editions we have done and for the third that we are going to do is public. It comes from a grant from the city of Rio called I Fomento à Cultura Carioca

AL: And it is the only project of its kind among those supported by this fund?

FM: With this particular research focus, yes.

AL: That is interesting to me. What did this funding support cover?

FM: We employed, let me see, the three of us as scholars, a producer, Leo our filmmaker, a research assistant, at the end we had a publicist, and in the administration, we had an accountant. So let’s say we 8 people involved, with different degrees of involvement. But really there were 5 core people, the three researchers, a producer and the filmmaker. The grant allowed us all to work part time on this, because full time doesn’t exist in Brazil.

AL: It doesn’t exist here either.

FM: Less and less in the whole world really. So they worked part time, several hours each week to meet and produce and edit material for five months.

AL: Continuing on with the history, what was the next phase of the project?

FM: The second edition happened last year and this year. We thought that it would be very cool to share the things we had discussed and practiced beyond what was already on the website.

Seminar "The Body's Limits," Museu de Arte do Rio. Photo: Bárbara Fontana
Seminar "The Body's Limits," Museu de Arte do Rio. Photo: Bárbara Fontana

So we created something called Temas de Dança Estudo Itinerante [Themes in Dance Itinerant Study]. This helps clarify how the project functioned in relation to an institution. We chose three groups of dance students. One was a group of young people, 15-18 years old, in the state of Rio. Another was a group of college students who studied dance at UFRJ [Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro], and the other was a group of guides from the Museu de Arte do Rio, which is a public institution of the city of Rio de Janeiro. We went to these institutions and said: we have this material, and we would like to hold a workshop with the students and with the museum guides. And from there, we built the curriculum. We chose content that linked the programming of the institution with what we had to offer in terms of discussion. We eventually held three workshops, within the larger course, with invited dance researchers—Silvia Soter, Beatriz Cerbino and Paola Braga, giving lectures on their own research. This was a way for us, as a closed group, to have an outside perspective, someone who would engage with and problematize what we were developing in our group. We also wanted an audiovisual component to accompany the text so we asked a filmmaker, Leo Bittencourt, to work with us. Two of the talks can be seen on our site.

At the end of the workshops, we put on a seminar at the Museu de Arte do Rio on May 10, 2014, and we invited 15 scholars from all over Brazil to consider these questions together. The name of the seminar was Bordas do Corpo: Dança, Politica e Experimentação (Borders of the Body: Dance, Politics, and Experimentation). There were three focuses for debate. The first dealt with the relationship of the body and dance, the second focused on the body and the written word, and the third was about the body and politics, or rather how the body is situated in the protests starting in June 2013 in Brazil—a period of intense social justice movements in the streets of Brazil. We wanted to see how dance is considering and reflecting this. The seminar is available on our site as well.

AL: This opens up space to discuss the conversation between political art—Can you discuss the current political context in Brazil, giving a bit of historical background or personal perspective?

Temas de Dança program
Temas de Dança program

FM: I think that we are in a very important political moment in Brazil for the arts, but also for society as a whole. I think that last year was a moment when many political fights became visible that were “under the rug," as we say in Brazil. Of course they were there, but they weren’t as visible, so I think it is an important moment for people to see what demands society is making.

AL: Are artists in Rio or Brazil organizing?

FM: It’s difficult to speak for the whole country because it is so heterogeneous. Maybe I can discuss circles, different circles. I think—I feel that art in Brazil has a lot of space for invention, and there has been so much of that recently, interesting things, interesting artists, interesting artists in dance, more lasting developments in terms of resources that can allow artists to work more and consequently produce more. And at the same time, I see that from outside the art world, from the social and political side, last year (2013) was really crucial in terms of social movements that put together various types of struggles: public transport, indigenous struggles, housing, corruption, education. The protests were known in Brazil as "the June Days". This social mobilization connected the arts, culture and politics in a very lively way. We saw many performances that were somewhere between social protests and art. And the field of art did not stay out of the movement. We artists, struggling to improve our situation in the arts, also came together to work with other struggles.

And this leftist government that has been in power 12 years means many things for Brazil in terms of social advancements, the huge impact of being taken off the poverty map for the first time in the history of the country. Even so, Brazil is extremely reactionary in some arenas, such as race and women's issues, and this “leftist” government hasn't really paid attention to some important problems, such as the environment (the controversial construction of Belo Monte hydroelectric plant), food (the increasing use of GMO's) and the terrible genocide against indigenous peoples because of land conflicts. On all these issues, Lula and Dilma have been silent; they have been more right wing then the right wing. We built up a social pressure that led to huge outpouring of the June Days, just before the World Cup. Can you believe we have political prisoners—protesters— in a country that has as a president, a woman who was herself a political prisoner during the dictatorship? This is unbearable, and some artists are tuning into that.

AL: When I was there, I felt that there was a lot more communication between the fields of art, activism, and the academy. People accepted the idea of an artist-researcher or a political artist. In your work, do you situate yourself in one field or another or do you really want to cross disciplines?

FM: I really want to be able to cross these borders.

AL: I don’t know whether that is a fair question or not but are you thinking of art as having power to effect social and political change? Or is that not part of the equation?

FM: I don’t have an answer for that question. It is a question for all of us. Actually, I was just reminded of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière who says that the only thing that art brings is the possibility of an experience, but whether that experience will bring about a collective social movement, that is something that can’t be determined beforehand. So I think that it is really a debate within the arts about the supposed place of art as a way to reform the ties of a broken society. But I think this topic is quite complicated because I think that nothing guarantees… I think that just because you struggle with political or social questions, this doesn't guarantee that you are making potent art. I think that the place of art is to fit in that unexpected place that you don’t have control over. If not, art is problematic, no?

AL: For you personally, why were you interested in creating new gathering places rather than creating new dance works?

FM: That is a great question.

AL: You started as a dancer and choreographer.

FM: I think that.. it’s not as if I am going to say “I’m not going to make more pieces” or “I’m not interested in making more pieces.” But I think [it has to do with the situation] of presenting work here in Brazil, and I don’t think that it's any different abroad because we see similar issues at festivals. There are a few places that are offered to artists that proscribe the form that the public will receive the work, that define the type of encounter. I started thinking about how I could propose an artistic action that furthers a process. Also, I think my place is more in performance, and I already had that desire to open other contexts that were more quotidian, that didn’t need a theater or a festival or an audience. I am really interested in conversation. I even think of my dance pieces as conversations, but maybe Temas de Dança is a place where the conversation is a little bit more open because it is based less on the actions of others.

AL: So at least in relation to methodology, you are coming from the idea of art as open inquiry, starting with things and not knowing where they will lead.

FM: Yes yes, certainly. And now what interests me, even in my personal research, is the study of the constitution of experience itself. And I see that this was already an interest  when I studied dance at the university, and it has been my motivation for dancing and for why I spend time with people. And for being able to be in experiences that transform me as well.

AL: How do you see this project in dialogue with an international dance community or with artists and projects outside of Brazil?

FM: I will talk about inside of Brazil to be able to address outside.  Temas de Dança has gotten a great reception in Brazil. Since we formed the group, we have participated in numbers of festival and events around the country. I also get the sense that, inside Brazil, there are other interesting projects that aren’t quite in the same vein but have a similar approach and use other formats for presenting ideas that are really innovative. In relation to the broader international scene, in Latin America at least, we have received an invitation to go to Montevideo and establish a connection with people there. And speaking of the countries to our north, which is the geographic north but also hegemonic in terms of culture and thought…. In relation to an institution of traditional Western thought like that which exists in Europe and the US, we don’t have that weight of tradition. We never had a period of Modernity as it was in Europe and, actually, this was an advantage. We started, as a nation, from the point of precariousness and mixture. I think it’s really interesting that we come from place that is kind of "incorrectness," let’s say. The medium is already mixed [Flavia performs a dodging movement with her body and arms].

AL: I think that that movement is an important part of what you mean.

FM: It’s a ginga. So there’s Paola Bernstein, who is a really interesting architect who wrote a book called Estética da Ginga (The Aesthetics of Sway). And she speaks about that ginga, that has to do with the way that people climb up the hills where favelas are, the way that people have to always balance on very precarious things. Both concretely and subjectively, we are always supporting ourselves on precarious things, when compared to structures in the US and Europe. So I think that we already place ourselves in a different place. It’s not that we are approximating another tradition, rather we are inventing a different place.

AL: We need different places.

Seminar "The Body's Limits," Museu de Arte do Rio. Photo: Bárbara Fontana
Seminar "The Body's Limits," Museu de Arte do Rio. Photo: Bárbara Fontana

FM: Yes! And this tradition isn’t really a return to roots or a type of nationalism, it doesn’t really have anything to do with that. So many of my references are European or North American; I make an effort to read things from South America and Africa, for example. This is already a reversal of post-colonial thought. So I think that we, at least us at Temas de Dança, are working well in Brazil and now a little bit in other South American countries. I think that simply the fact that it is only in Portuguese, that limits certain partnerships, but for example, this conversation with you will open a new field, that of the English language. We are addressing things as they present themselves. There isn’t an overarching plan. As we go about finding spaces to enter, it is more like infiltrating rather than planning.

AL: I think it’s a good model.

FM: It is!

*Translated from Portuguese by Meg Weeks

Flavia Meireles is an artist and researcher. She holds a Masters degree in Visual Arts from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (EBA/UFRJ). Her research focuses on the body, dance, and the notion of experience within the arts. She creates performance works (Trabalho para Comer, FADA grant 2012; Sem nome, tudos os usos—Klauss Vianna Prize 2008) and collaborates with Brazilian choreographers Paulo Caldas, João Saldanha, Marcela Levi, Gustavo Ciríaco, among others. Meireles was a resident artist at Centre International des Récollets (Paris, 2010) and is the recipient of the 2010 ZKB Patronage Prize at the Festival Theatrespektakel Zurich for her performance in Em redor do buraco tudo é beira. She directs the group Temas de Dança with Mariana Patrício and teaches dance history in at the university Escola Angel Vianna (Rio de Janeiro). Temas de dança has held events in Rio de Janeiro, Petrópolis, São Luís e Recife and has received support from FADA 2011, Fomento à Cultura Carioca 2014 and 2015 in the area of dance research. In addition, Meireles produced the events “Uma noite com Yvonne Rainer e amigos” (RJ, 2009), ABI PENSA A DANÇA (2011) [Brazilian Media Association Discusses Dance], Práticas do comum (2011) [Common Practices] e Ciclo de Encontros: a Dança Carioca no Centro Coreográfico do Rio de Janeiro (2012) [Series of Gatherings: Rio's Dance Artists in the Choreographic Center of Rio de Janeiro].

Abigail Levine is a New York-based dance and performance artist. Her works bring together dance’s bodily specificity with performance art’s experiments with time and human action. They have been shown in the US, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Canada and Taiwan, recently at venues including the Movement Research Festival, Dancespace Project, Mount Tremper Arts Festival, Center for Performance Research, Roulette, Art in Odd Places, Judson Church, Foro Performática, and SESC São Paulo. Abigail was a reperformer in Marina Abramović’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and has also performed recently with Carolee Schneemann,  Clarinda Mac Low, Larissa Velez and Mark Dendy Projects. She holds a degree in English and Dance from Wesleyan University and a Masters in Dance and Performance Studies from NYU. Abigail was a 2013-14 editor of Movement Research’s digital performance journal Critical Correspondence.

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