Ligia Lewis’ stage work is marked by a deep visual quality. Layers of movement superimposed with aesthetic idioms and imaginations appear in front of enigmatic landscapes and create new spaces of possibility. In her trilogy ›Sorrow Swag‹, ›Minor Matter‹ and ›Water Will (in Melody)‹ the choreographer and dancer dealt primarily with the aesthetics of romantic, modern and Victorian theatre from a Black perspective. The subsequent works ›deader than dead‹ from 2020 and ›Still not Still‹ from 2021 let ›the world fall out of role‹, so to say, by artistically adapting the concept of ›corpsing‹ as it was described by David Marriott in his essay ›Corpsing; or the Matter of Black Life‹. Lewis mixes imagery form the late middle ages and sound material with performative aesthetics and American westerns to create a fantasy of futility in which not only death finally wins but also the longing to do away with something obsolete by means of exhausting its energy as precisely as possible.
There is a quite well-known essay ›On Difference Without Separability‹ by Denise Ferreira de Silva which she wrote in 2016 for the catalogue of the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo. In this text she argues for a world where neither our »legal identities« nor differences are defined by territory and borders. When you work with a diverse cast—which ideas of difference are leading you?
All my pieces are built on difference amongst difference amongst difference. Even if I work with a full black ensemble! That’s the misunderstanding in Europe, that difference amongst black folks and within blackness is not recognized. So, I still work through a kind of black lens that critiques a world being built in the image of white people. I always try to unsettle certain preconceived ideas about race because I think that we all have to go much deeper. And the deeper question is: What is human? What has been determined to be human and what is outside of that? Representation—the sheer act of stating something on stage—does not save us, because the world, as we know it, is built through a racial hierarchy. My piece ›Still not Still‹ tries to deconstruct that to a certain degree, but it also surrenders to the continuous falling into a dark abyss, into a poetics of nonsense and a poetics of darkness. I’m not a social scientist, I’m an artist and at the moment I am interested in creating resonant images. I think we need to build a whole different world, because this world is . . .
Are your aesthetics forays into the unknown a way towards a different world, then?
I think it’s a search for other possibilities. Going into darkness, into deep poetics, is maybe fantasizing about finding a way out of this system, these logics, where power is always at play. I am looking at how much violence is embedded in the human. In ›Still not Still‹ the power is shifting across all the bodies all the time. Power is inextricably tied to being human. And when it is performed it comes together with a certain form of mastery and so many traps. The performers are always showing that, which makes it in a way more cruel because you know, before they do it, that it is going to be terrible. So, maybe, yeah, I play with the cruelty as much as I am longing to get beyond it.
How do you create images and movements? Your references seem to be routed in art history, in music, with a preference of sampling old classical music, in visual arts and performance, stage as well as film, especially silent film; meanwhile social history seems to be situated more in the conceptual framework of your pieces than literally performed. Do you take bits and pieces of known or lesser-known art history and queer it in order to create the movements or is it the other way round: that the movements lead you towards the references?
I think, it is a combination of the two. I start with thinking a lot about the concept. This often makes me dream in images. In the case of ›Still not Still‹ I got obsessed with recurring falling and the idea of moving images. The dynamics but also the poetics of it—like: what if we all surrender that we are in this horrific dystopia and we don’t try to save anything, we don’t try to recuperate anything, as my friend Mlondi Zondi says? Instead, why not try deaden the dead ends of history even more? This question made me work with recurring dying, which dramaturgically led into a loop structure. So finally, the piece is built on a loop, you see things coming back in a heightened form, in a more plastic form, either more funny or darker . . .
For what concerns my physical influences: besides looking at painting, I saw this really interesting film by Carmelo Bene called ›Capricci‹. I love his aesthetic sensibility! It created the base for a few scenes and on top I created a situation or a meditation like ›Me seeing you seeing me die or suffer‹—and then of course the performers created a lot of material as well. This way our stage world started to appear. There are similarities with ›Water Will in Melody‹ from 2019: the slapstick humor, the plasticity of the performativity and ideas concerning the framing of the space. ›Still not Still‹ has a feeling of a medieval village but also a messed up American Western. My work is always a hybrid of influences and sensibilities.
The topics of ›Still not Still‹ are condensed in the video piece ›deader than dead‹ which you created for the biennial Made in L.A. Why did you choose to bring the theatre version and not the white cube version to the Berlin Art Week?
I think the HAU Hebbel am Ufer was interested in presenting the stage version. I am happy with both. The theatre version is obviously much longer and requires a different attention. The audience is more exposed to temporality. I like the challenge of this experience.
The theatre as a space of experience is also based on a specific representative power construction—for Tino Sehgal, for example, that’s one of the reasons to move dance out of the theatre and into the museum.
Well, I like the theatre and I use the theatre for what it is: it’s a place for seeing—according to the etymology of ›theatron‹ which I learned from Bojana Cvejić’s book ›Choreographing Problems‹. For a marked body this is a very interesting place to create from, thinking through the conventions of seeing, while working with and through the sensorium. And maybe sight or a certain regime of seeing is privileged in the theatre, but many artists working in theatre and dance are also challenging that.
You enjoy working with the depth of theatrical space. And by that I mean creating layered images with probs and lights, varying from something that is comparable to an impasto oil painting, to impressionist or even rocked-down realist landscapes, but also providing you with the space for what you call »fugitive aesthetics«—a space to escape from sight, from being fixed in the image.
I like the apparatus of the theatre, the imagination and fantasy that is permitted within that space. It is very challenging though. You can draw your vision in that space. And I try to build layers upon layers in order to escape the capture of knowing—like: this is about this . . ., about a transparent politics or about white identity or . . . attempts at reduction. To produce something that goes beyond meaning is what I am sincerely interested in. I sincerely mean it when I say that I am interested in what emerges out of nonsense, not as an escape, but as another possibility out of reason. What the theatre allows me to do is to dream—but my dreams also hold on to the nightmares of what we call reality.