Ligia Lewis in conversation with Will Rawls

Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the U.S., Ligia Lewis now lives and works in Berlin. Her performance work poses questions about cultural embodiment, otherness and empathy while engaging modalities of dance and theater.  For Art Basel’s Liste program [2014], she will present Sensation 1, her solo performance recently set on the dancer Martin Hansen. In this interview she meditates on her home state of Florida, serving Whitney Houston, the sadness of Simone Weil and the anthem of the future. 

Will Rawls: Hellooo Ligia.

Ligia Lewis: Helloo. Yes.

WR: Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

LL: Of course. My pleasure.

WR: So we’re in Berlin. And it’s a hot sweltering day.  It feels more like the deep south than Berlin.  Which is where you’re from? No?

LL: Yeah… Well, it’s not the deep south in the sense of a culturally deep south, because it’s Florida.  My part of Florida is more like retirement central. Lots of elderly folks.

WR: Do you go back often?

LL: Never. No. I left. When I was eighteen I turned my head and was moving forward, marching onwards.  Like, Don’t look back; nothing to take with me.

Ligia Lewis
Ligia Lewis

I did go to a kick ass performing arts high school which was amazing and probably the only way that my siblings and myself could’ve survived growing up in such a homogenous setting. It was a visual and performing arts center [at Booker High School], a magnet school, and was far away from where we lived.  We traveled everyday about forty-five minutes by car to go to school.

WR: All four of you were there at the same time?

LL: We were there at different times. My twin brother [George Lewis of Twin Shadow] and I were there at the same time.  I spent the first half of my day doing academic curriculum and the second half of my day studying dance.

WR: And when you went to college did academics and dance studies stay interlocked for you?

LL: Absolutely.  I went to Virginia Commonwealth University [Richmond, Virginia] and they had a program that was modeled after the NYU Tisch School–similar teachers, conservatory style but still inside of a larger university.  It was a Bachelor’s Degree of Fine Arts in Dance and Choreography, but I also took it upon myself to engage in other academic fields. At that time I was interested in postcolonial studies and feminist theory. So I was trying to figure out how to integrate those themes into my dance practice.  And to be honest, at that age, I wasn’t able to.  But I knew at some point that my other interests could merge with dance.  Dance was something that I kept insisting upon.  I would leave it for a while and then come back to it, thinking that there’s something in this field that enables constant learning.

WR: And this is precious to you, constant learning?

LL: Absolutely. This position of learning or, rather, process of learning. I think that if you’re interested in being a generalist and not getting trapped inside the specifications of your field then you can choose to be in a space linked to your desire and integrate it into your practice. Dance and performance allow me this freedom.

WR: Is this because dance easily absorbs or leads to other things?

LL: It can be. If you’re using dance as a process of thinking–dancing with and around things–then most definitely. Even though I might not produce dancey dance works, the process of dancey dancing [laughs] really does put me in an altered state where I am finding other possibilities. I become more sensitive to other means of accessing information or interests. It’s a process of deviation. I’m absolutely interested in being a deviant–someone that’s deviating from the norm, from normative practices.  So the process of dancing is for me a space of being in the in-between, which is where otherness lies, where deviancy lies, in these weird spaces that you have to crack open and look at and put a magnifying glass on.

WR: Now you’re in Berlin.

LL: I’ve been in Europe for seven years, Berlin for five of the seven. I’ve worked in company structures, which took me to Belgium to work for les ballets C de la B. I did the touring dance experience.  And I now freelance for other choreographers alongside my practice of making work.  I could say Berlin is a central place for me.  It is home.  It’s the closest thing to home that I’ve had since–ever, really. [laughs] I never felt at home in Florida. I felt I was being cheated. [laughs]

WR: [laughs} Cheated out of what?

LL: Out of experience, out of life, out of complexity, out of otherness. It was so homogenous and so white.  And my experience in Richmond, Virginia was quite the opposite. But I still wasn't convinced.

WR: Did you find yourself identifying more with a certain experience of blackness in Virginia than with a certain experience of whiteness in Florida?

LL: I knew that in Florida I felt like I was being cheated. In Florida, there were not enough differing narratives, not enough textures and I felt that, I’m always going to be on the outside. Then Richmond was the mythology of maybe being “inside.”  But it was very clear: No, I was still outside. And that led me to Berlin. I was like, fuck it, I’m outside in America, I can’t fuck with America, I can’t fuck with race anymore.  I’m absolutely not interested in a strong idenitarian stance, but I’m still interested in identities so long as they allow for different conversations and for carving out the nuance in lived experience. But I’m not interested in being determinate in my identity.  I need this space to be as playful as possible. Really it should be for everyone. It's a privilege not to have to think about identity at all.

$$$ by Ligia Lewis
$$$ by Ligia Lewis (Tanz im August, Berlin)

WR: A clear identity can serve as a tool to negotiate with a real or perceived majority.

LL: Basically. Being identitarian is always reductive but context is important. And who am I to say when it is important or not to be busy with identifying oneself. I see my artistic practice as a space for play: when I identify myself, for which reason, for whom and how. I try to keep it as active and complicated as possible.

WR: We’ve talked a lot about race–and you’re in Berlin, which has a very different colonial history than France, Belgium and the U.S. So there’s a different kind of difference here.

LL: It’s still present. Difference still operates here. In America you have the divisions of race and class. When I arrived to Berlin the nostalgia of a divided city was still present. You felt it when you were in the east versus the west of Berlin.

WR: Were people attached to those days in some way?

LL: It’s part of their cultural memory. It’s only been one, unified city as of the last twenty-five years.  How that plays out now is complicated.

WR: You’ve been trying to develop your voice inside of identity as a space of play. Can that play operate in the same way here in Berlin? Or have you had to find other ways of articulating it? How has it made that play more crucial for you?

LL: In Berlin, I suddenly feel obliged to have a certain voice that I think is lacking here, a reminder of another perspective because it’s too easy to forget that there’s a whole other world.  Not that I choose to identify more specifically, but there’s a lack of awareness of positioning, of one’s position of power in the hierarchy of society. People often don't acknowledge their position in relation to others, as if we are all in it together.

Ariel Efraim Ashbel inszeniert " All white people look the same to me: NNotes on the national pornographic " eine wilde diskursshow ueber westliche / weisse koeperbilder und whitezentrismus. HAU 3 , UA 30. Mai 2013
Lewis performs in All White People Look the Same to Me: Notes on the National Pornographic by Ariel Efraim (HAU, Berlin)

WR: How do you mean position? What you see, how you relate and what you value all comes from the specificities of where you are?

LL: Yes. Even simply acknowledging what you value does a lot. And there’s a total whitewash of that here.  There’s a white majority all around us. And when you’re another white figure participating in whiteness it’s so easy to become lost in a mythological sense of universality. And then you don't have to confront your position and what you do with it.

WR: I remember when I first came here last year–and I’m never in this counting mode in New York at all–but I found myself unconsciously and consciously counting how many black or brown people I saw in a day.  That’s not how I find a sense of place back in New York and it’s not what I really have to be busy with in the same way.

LL: There is an active Afro-German population here, also a prevalent Turkish community that still produces tension due to under representation in the political life of Berlin.

WR:  So, in terms of your work and research, race is there.

LL: Yes. It’s material like any other. So I fuck with it.

WR: You’re also Jewish.

LL: I’m a Dominican Jew.  Race in America–what that does to one’s sense of identity is complex.  There was never a possibility to identify with anything for me. If I was to identify with anything it was with otherness more than with any other racial category. Now that I think about it, when filling out surveys as a kid, I was always checking the “other” box in the race category. So the practice started early.

WR: How do you bring otherness into your work? What is you approach with “othering” dance?

LL: It’s actually, more specifically, othering bodies.  Well, Sensation 1–

WR: Sensation 1 is your current piece that you’re about to present at Art Basel on June 20 [2014].

LL: Yes, inside of the Basel Liste program.   Originally I created the piece for me. Now I am transferring the score and the practice to another’s body–that of Martin Hansen.  He’ll also perform for NGBK gallery here in Berlin.  I don’t even think when I was constructing this work I was aware of it’s potential to be such a definitive work for me. In the piece, otherness is a byproduct of an action that is put forward: silent wailing.

At the time I was making the work I was interested in performers like Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, even Jacques Brel or Janis Joplin and how they articulate sound.

WR: In a physical way?

LL: In a somatic way. I was tripping on this silent note that turned into a silent wailing.  While doing it I pass through multiple forms of embodiment in thirty minutes. A suspended note is silently and physically articulated through my body. It’s about putting this intense and arduous condition on my body. I imagine the concert stage and I just slow everything down. It’s aboutthat last spellbinding note that makes music pierce through the skin. You know the way Whitney hits that “I will always love youuuu.” She keeps it going. And going.  I'm fascinated by how she is able to suspend time and I was interested in how a body might be able to articulate the same thing without the voice. So it’s a score with my mouth wide open. My body is naked.  It’s full; it’s voluptuous.  It’s insistent yet vulnerable. And it's penetrating. It is full of intention. I indulge in the fiction of extending this moment in time. On top of this fiction lies a material body morphing in abstraction with the final note in mind.

Sensation. Lygia Lewis
Sensation 1 by Ligia Lewis

WR: Its also seems like there’s a tension. You’re not performing this at Radio City Music Hall; you’re presenting this in a small space, whether it’s a gallery or a black box. The scale is smaller.

LL: It’s a much more intimate experience. The proximity enables stronger possibility for empathy.

WR: And you’re reproducing this performance that is geared towards a huge audience. What is that about?

LL: For me Sensation 1 is fully bodied. I’m interested in a fully articulated body that is a super generous, available body. There’s no distance–I am the thing. I am dong this. It is intentional in its intensity and sensational despite its sensitivity.  I wanted to make my dance a felt action, somehow reducing it to affect and emotionality, which enables all sorts of empathic possibilities for an audience. But because the body morphs through both iconic and strange expressions, it makes the work pretty fucking weird.

WR: When you say sensational you mean not “over the top” but “sensing something.”

LL: It’s a play on sensation and the feeling of the sensational, of something large and grandiose in culture.  So I was interested in these pop cultural figures, Whitney [Houston] specifically. Hers is the note that appears in the final moments of the piece. We listen to Whitney Houston’s Divas Live performance of “I will always love you” in complete darkness. It is a play with the senses. First we have the visual of a slowly shifting, silently wailing body and then in complete darkness we have the aural experience of Whitney.  It’s a piece that I wanted people to experience rather than to understand in a cerebral, rational way. What happens when these textures enter people’s bodies and they feel this? It's like, Let's get intimate with this otherness. It calls for a different kind of understanding–experiential knowledge.

WR: I was watching rehearsal today in the NGBK gallery and afterwards the curators said that they had this sympathetic response–grimacing et cetera.

LL: Which is amazing for me.  It’s absolutely knowledge.

WR: Empathy is knowledge production?

LL: Absolutely.

WR: Tell me more about that.

LL: Just allowing yourself to feel someone else, to feel the contours of something else–allowing ourselves to enter the space of another figure. It’s somatic information and you carry that information with you for the rest of the day. How that translates into something clear and logical, we don’t know yet, and it’s not for me to say. But I’m interested in the possibility of dance to operate beyond the dancer’s kinesthetic experience so that maybe the spectator also experiences the sensation of what that body is going through. It’s very much like storytelling but without the words. It happens before logic. A felt experience. It’s before language. But there’s nothing primal about it. In our daily lives, we’re constantly surrounded by complicated figures, bodies and embodiments, and there’s information in all of this.  My interest is to perform this complexity. And then hopefully transfer my interests to a larger public. When I would listen to Whitney, I would start to feel her in my body.  I would be serving Whitney all day.  It happens all the time.  You see kids obsessed with hip hop and you start to see how their bodies change; bodies do that, they shift; they wear their interests. This process is deemed naive to some. I find it exciting so long as I don't get stuck in one form.

WR: Do you think that the body wants to experience new things?

LL: Yes. Or at least I want to. I don't want to ever get stuck in something. I love to make things that are very close to my own desire that is geared towards finding textures or perspectives foreign to me. So I try to become obsessed with that other thing that I want to get close to.  If I’m sincere in this I can allow myself to be transformed by it. And hopefully my audience observes or senses this and also transforms–but that's a high demand.

It’s like making love with a lover for the first time.  Someone you’ve never met before. There’s so much, corporeally, that can happen in that exchange. And I welcome confusion in the mix.  Whenever I perform, I want people to look and be confused at what they’re seeing but be seduced by it because I absolutely want to seduce my audience.  Spectacle is manipulative but it’s also resourceful.  There’s so much you can do inside of the spectacle, inside of seduction, to bring people closer to you and your interests.  I don’t shy away from the spectacle. I blow it up.

WR: And this takes on a political valence. Sometimes when I talk about embodiment I am talking about how one is physically manifesting certain concepts of movement.  And when you talk about embodiment you are also talking about a figure that is culturally situated. You talk about being “bodied,” which might be closer to my term for embodying. So embodiment for you is about being fixed within a nexus of cultural discourse and ways of identifying.

LL: For me, to be “bodied” is the action of surrendering the body to a particular condition. I want to work with bodied figures, people that are willing to surrender to a condition.  Abandon what they know and go into the not-knowing.  But then I want to see how it operates within the classifications of cultural embodiment.  How does this body operate culturally as a text?  Am I moving away from, or closer to, a certain cultural narrative? It’s always both. Moving closer to and moving away, moving closer to and moving away. And that’s where the dance happens. It’s not to re-signify the obvious but to take an obvious situation, e.g. pop singing, and then find all of this other bodied-ness that will complicate that experience.

Embodiment is active. We have to put forward a body that we think is relevant.  I’m interested in hybrid experience, “the future body” as I call it. What is that gonna look like? It’s all mixed up. The abject is just as valid as the dignified and I put that all on the same plane. Serving all of it. I do narrow things down because you need to be obvious or concrete sometimes when you’re working or directing.  You’re like, “Yeah. You need to get real hood on this.  You need to get hood.”  And what happens when you go there and then you insist, you insist, you insist?  You most certainly find another opening.

Embodiment is what I am most interested in and so this is what draws me to dance. I like to construct a condition or a situation for a body and pull out as many textures as possible.  It has to go in and out of fantasy and into affect.  I’m excited about being in Berlin because there is a good public practice of seeing things.  People are curious. You have an audience.

WR: Whose work inspires you? You’ve talked to me about Chris Kraus.

LL: Chris Kraus is amazing.  In Aliens and Anorexia she brings back to life the figure of Simone Weil. Simone Weil is the philosopher of sadness.  She’s all about empathy, which pushes her into action.  She’s fully bodied as well, to the point where she allows her own body to experience suffering to understand the plight of the sufferer. Simone Weil’s story is interesting. She comes from the French bourgeoisie but she participates in the strikes and protests of the working class. She could have been another intellectual of her time operating from the vantage point of distance, but she actually chose to get intimate with her subject of inquiry, allowing herself to touch it and to feel it. That position is so radical and it’s something that I think we lack in European contexts in which abstract thought is given so much value.

I made a joke that maybe I have to make a lecture called, “Put Your Back Into It.” What does that mean?  Get up in it. That’s a radical position now. Not only to locate the problem, but participate in changing the problem. [Singing a Lil’ Kim lyric] “You can do it. Put your back into it.” That’s the future anthem.  In Aliens and Anorexia, Kraus has this incredible quote: Sadness is the girl’s equivalent to chance.  So she’s bringing up the philosophy of chance operations that was so influential in the 60s and 70s during the development of postmodernism aesthetics.

WR: Chance operations actively try to divorce the maker from certain aspects of intentionality, of authorship.

LL: It’s deemed a humbling gesture to do something like this.  Which, OK, it’s beautiful and relevant to its time and totally a reaction to modernism.  But: Sadness is the girl’s equivalent–it places the figure of the girl against the performed, noble humility of chance, wherein sadness could be deemed pathetic. It’s not noble to be sad. But this position of sadness is being honored. Lauren Berlant writes on the idea of compassion and reflects on experiencing an emotion, searching for the political potential of receiving the emotions of others. When you actually feel something, the material of the body changes. Empathy. It's powerful.

WR: Simone Weil starved herself.

LL: As a political statement.  She wore her suffering on her body. Most people think that’s a superficial act but no, there’s nothing superficial about it.  Simone Weil’s body changed because of it. Material changed.  The material world shifted.   And this is what I’m interested in. It can’t be an abstract thought anymore–how does something infect our entire being?

This thread on empathy led me into this idea of method acting.  I was particularly interested in Meryl Streep and how she embodies all these different characters so masterfully.  So I got a research scholarship in Berlin and I took an intensive method acting workshop, which became the starting point for my new piece.

WR: When Meryl Streep won her Kennedy Center Award, the speech that honored her said something like, “Meryl Steep disappears into the worlds of her characters so that we can see the world more clearly.”

LL: That’s so everything.  That’s my everything. Full immersion. I made another joke once: We have to be more than just messengers. We have to be the message.

Ligia Lewis
Ligia Lewis

WR: Or, “let’s not talk about it, let’s be about it,” another Ligia-ism.

LL: Absolutely. The only thing I can do as a maker is insist on doing that. If I were to talk about these things, everyone would nod their head.  But when I’m actually being about it, my body changes and maybe others’ will as well.

WR: Billy Collins writes, we need to “fall in love with the sadness of another.”  And I would add, ‘the happiness of another’.  To elicit those responses, to find ways to make room for them, because they are so much a part of the fabric of life.  But somehow feeling is always the stepchild.

LL: And people really try to dumb down feeling as well. I’m not interested in that distance at all.  I don’t think that distance serves us anymore.

WR: Is that distance real?

LL: Well, how do you determine real?  A thought is just as real as breaking a nail. Your neurons change.  You have a realization, an epiphany. I don’t want to put one up against another, what’s real, what’s not.  But I’m interested in how thought can translate into material and not be left with just a thought. I want to see the repercussions of the thought in material. I don’t want anyone to suggest what needs to be done, I want them to just fucking do it.  And then I can engage. It’s all part of the real.

WR: The Return of the Real

LL: I actually have that book by Hal Foster. Compelling title, boring book. He’s looking at the Real in terms of aesthetic formalism.  Dreadfully boring. For me, the not-knowing is a really important space.  Cornel West talks a lot about this idea of radical naïveté. That we need to get witchy.  We need to conjure some serious connectedness.  It’s not scared of spirituality, it’s not scared of conviction, it’s not scared of faith–it’s with these things that we believe a change can happen. Being radically naive in West's vision is very different from being a mess, an ignoramus, flailing blindly, just being loose for whatever.

WR: Tell me the future. What’s next?

LL: I’m restaging Sensation 1, setting the material on other bodies in order for another reading to take place. I wanted the action itself to be more important that the person doing the action. I felt that was not clear enough in the original version of me performing it. How will the public here empathize more? Re-staging Sensation 1 on a nude, white male body of course proposes other problems but at the moment I am excited about transferring the material and seeing what happens. I do not want to be precious with my work.  I want it to transform with time, allowing other renderings to take place.

WR: You work circumnavigates or avoids racial essentialism but then you choose a white male body, which in that context [Art Basel], seems to touch on an essentialization of a Eurocentric experience.

LL: In relation to essentialist views it’s complicated. I’m not totally sure of the motive yet for why I’m setting it on Martin. But I actually believe it will work. Not because he is white but because he is talented and I see him wailing like a motherfucker. I want to share my practice and my work, to be in conversation and not be isolated in my own obsessions. Essentialist or not, Sensation 1 with Martin will work so long as the score is articulated clearly.

What’s amazing about performance is that you can always change the material, always. It’s a living thing and there’s no reason why another iteration can’t come into being based on the context where it’s presented.

I’m also making on a new piece for three performers for a premiere in 2015.  We’re working with melodrama. There was a first iteration in March for a solo performer at Pieter PASD [in Los Angeles] and many more to come this year before the stage premiere in 2015.

WR: M-E-L-L-O-W drama?

LL: Yes, M-E-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-O-W. Slow that shit down, make-it-hurt-type-shit. I’m restaging Samuel Beckett’s Not I and other seminal dramas. It will be a mash up of texts and embodiments I am currently interested in. I am working with a brilliant performer in L.A.

WR: Brian Getnick.

LL: Brian Getnick, a shining star in L.A. who’s really serving it.  The first part was realized in L.A. through a residency at Pieter PASD in March.  Brian performed a monologue from Jean Anouilh’s Antigone that talks about the heorine’s disdain for Creon–his insistence on a status quo of happiness. Brian also performed Beckett’s Not I, a stage monologue for a disembodied mouth.  Our version makes Billie Whitelaw, who’s the disembodied mouth in the original version of Beckett’s Not I, a character. I’m interested in making her emblematic, making her visible as a figure that has to be transformed by sadness in order to perform this dark monologue. She is the action. The body. The voice. I'm interested in how figures like Billie Whitelaw or Meryl Streep enable us to see and experience the world in other ways.

WR: That’s exciting. Are you not performing in this piece?

LL: I’m stepping out.  It’s a recent shift for me. I’ve performed with many different choreographers and directors, honing skills, to share them and to put them on other bodies.  I work in close proximity to my performers, searching together to find complex and nuanced forms and interpretations. Staying bodied.

WR: And you will all be being about it.

LL: And we’re all being, for reals, about it.

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Will Rawls

Will Rawls is a New York-based choreographer, performer and writer. His work has appeared at the MoMA and MoMA PS1; MCA, Chicago; Danspace Project; New Museum of Contemporary Art; Issue Project Room; ...
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Ligia Lewis

is a choreographer and dancer.  She creates affective choreographies while interrogating the metaphors and social inscriptions of the body.  Described by Art Agenda as “deeply elegant and subtly orche...
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