As a choreographer and dancer who conceives and directs experimental performance, Dominican-born, Florida-raised Ligia Lewis is not shy about expressing her opinions, whether in an interview, on stage, or in real life. Indeed, with her most recent work, “A Plot/A Scandal,” which has its U.S. premiere in Los Angeles at the Geffen Contemporary at Museum of Contemporary Art, May 5-6, Lewis once again pulls no punches as she weaves together historical, anecdotal, political, and mythical narratives as only she can.
Based in Berlin since 2006, Lewis has staged her works in a myriad of venues across Europe and the States, including in theaters, galleries and museums. No stranger to the City of Angels, the 40-year old artist conceived and directed the film version, “deader than dead,” for Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2020;” and in 2018, she brought her Bessie Award-winning “minor matter” to Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), which was programmed as part of the Pacific Standard Time Festival: Live Art LA/LA.
Other festivals hosting Lewis’ work have included the Liverpool Biennial, Helsinki’s Side Step Festival, and the Biennale of Moving Images/Centre D’Art Contemporain, Geneva. In addition, Lewis has presented work at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, as well as at MCA Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center.
Lewis, who was the recipient of the Tabori Award in the category of Distinction (2021), a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grant Award (2018), and a Prix Jardin d’Europe from ImPulsTanz for “Sorrow Swag” (2015), has been exploring genre through different forms of physical expression and a rotating cast of performers for years.
Also making use of physical intensity and, thankfully, dollops of humor in her work, this singular artist continues to animate subjects through a process that disrupts normative conceptions of the body while navigating the spectral traces of history, memory, and the “un/known.”
Writing in Artforum in 2015 about Lewis’ “minor matter,” Catherine Damman described the work thusly: “Like the best science fiction, Lewis’ work is most successful in its insistence that the spare can be made spectacular.” This, no doubt, can also be said of the maker’s work in general.
Fjord Review had a chance to catch up with the fiendishly busy Lewis by WhatsApp from Portugal, where she was leading a workshop before heading to Los Angeles, via a stop in Mexico City to present the live version of “deader than dead” at the TONO Festival. We took a deep dive into Lewis’ work, with topics ranging from the problems of Black history and colonialism, to the genesis of “A Plot/A Scandal,” and the notion of hope.
What prompted your move to Berlin, some 17 years ago, and how’s it been going?
There were opportunities in terms of working in dance, but within a theatrical kind of context. I was seduced by some of the work I was seeing made in Europe. The things that made me leave the United States, including questions about race, representation, exclusion—all of those same things are here, as well. They’re just a little bit different. But the history of colonialism is entangled with the history of slavery, and on an experiential level, it’s a little bit different being Black and working in Europe.
My experience has always been in racially-charged contexts—like in the state of Florida. All of that was there already, and then I moved to Richmond, Virginia, the home of the Confederacy. Germany was also a colonizer [where they] committed genocide in parts of East Africa and South Africa, in pre-World War II Namibia.
Moving to Europe, I can admit that I was quite naïve. Somehow, I thought living in Europe, because of the way liberal democracies work in Europe—at least formally—at the time I came, it felt like a kind of freedom. But there are many problems here. Europe is not contending with its history of colonialism in an honest way, whereas in the U.S., it’s all on the surface. But in Europe, you have to remind everyone. I’m in Lisbon now and there’s a big statue of Columbus. It still stands; it’s massive.
Let’s talk about the genesis of, “A Plot/A Scandal,” which you’ve been touring, and will continue to present after leaving Los Angeles. It’s essentially the story of your great grandmother, who practiced Dominican palo, a form of voodoo.
It’s an opportunity for me to work on a personal story, since I’ve been approaching this question of identity for myself. To arrive at this story about my great grandmother, I realized I had to lay out some plots—to describe the difficulty of describing her. It’s a form of an Africanist tradition, a spiritual tradition that was being performed at a time of anti-blackness in the context of the Dominican Republic.
It’s a tense relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, but it’s part of the violence of colonialism, issues of colorism and the kinds of movements that the Dominican Republic made. For me, the region my family is from, is kind of a Black enclave there. I thought it was important to make a piece from there as best I could.
My grandmother was born there and my great-grandmother is from there. I started to visit this village more recently and my parents also moved back there. In Dominican consciousness, there’s sadly a willful forgetfulness that Black people are part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Black consciousness is pushed aside, and the public decided to try to erase this history: to erase Africanist threads on this island in order to create a power relationship, in part, in relationship to Haiti, which is really sad.
Without consciousness or pride, there’s no possibility then to move forward. The darker skinned people on this island continue to be made painfully precarious. They’re either getting pushed out or anti-Haitian sentiment is so strong there, that the history is entangled. It’s a colonial division, a geographic one, too, because a mountain range separates them.
I try to bring these two places closer together in this work, to stake a claim to Blackness on this part of the island, but I do it in an indirect way. I bring up historical facts about slave revolts that happened throughout the Caribbean, starting with the first one in 1521.
What kind of research did you do?
Before I started creating, for me, it includes reading and also physical practice. The creations took place over the course of two months in order to make sense of this, and how to put this all together, to consolidate this. In the end, it’s an evening-length show, not an essay. I translate facts into a performance; how to include them, but not to make it essayistic. It’s a grounding.
It’s also important [that] at a certain point in the piece, I [use] code noir, the laws that France put in place to determine how to treat its property in Haiti, to say they were put into law. It wasn’t just a few bad people, it was part of legislation. The horrors, I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the horrors of what was left on this island. [But] some things were very poignant, and they appear in the piece.
I also talk about how humor and tragedy sit very closely to one another. I’ve always worked with humor in that way, and that was my way to approach this. It’s not an easy piece; “minor matter” was heavy, but also light.
You direct yourself in this work, and are onstage for nearly the entire 75 minutes. And is it safe to assume that you’ve always been political?
Directing yourself, it’s challenging in some ways, but also easy in some ways. I performed in my other works, but then you have to care for the ensemble. When you’re alone in the studio, some things move faster, of course, but I enjoy it. I find it easier. I film myself, but I always need to have an outside eye, because I don’t want to make my work private; I don’t make abstract dances, per se. I’m conscious of my audience the whole time.
In some ways it was easier, but I don’t believe in solos—politically, I’m not interested in them. This is anti-solo, but there are many components to the piece. And yes, I’ve always been political, because I don’t know how not to be.
Speaking of an anti-solo . . .
I do have someone who joins me in the middle, my co-performer Justin Kennedy. I performed with him a bunch. The piece builds up to a personal story about my great grandmother, and I’m onstage more or less for the whole time, except for the intermezzo.
You’ve also directed works without being in them. Why did you choose to perform in this?
I’ve made a lot of pieces and started directing more than performing inside of my work. But this one, I thought, “If I’m going to perform again, it has to be purposeful.” I knew that maybe I’m kind of fearless in this way. I like to think I say something that has to be said, even if it’s what people don’t want to hear. Different audiences react differently and this is very theatrical.
I do come from dance, but I worked in dance theater. This is a very punk-rock piece. I’m very punk at heart, so is “minor matter.” It’s not a popular sentiment, [so] if people want to see Dominican palo performed, that’s not what my piece is.
The work also deals with the English philosopher and physician, John Locke, who was one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Is he part of the scandal?
John Locke is the father of liberalism, one of the four figures who introduces the right to life, liberty and property. In a playful way, I try to undermine this logic of life, liberty and property. [As for] the scandal, I want to leave it kind of open, but part of the scandal is that I’m dragging John Locke, and the scandal of property itself—the right to property.
Black people were made into property that permitted enslavement. In late capitalism, it’s that Black and brown and indigenous folk [who] get pushed off their land because of property.
I’m working with the conventions of theater, and with this performance there should be space for people to interpret the work. But I am quite literal in this one, more than in any other piece.
Is this where humor comes in?
Humor, playfulness, yes. I make John Locke the grotesque figure. For so long, that was the thing: What shaped humanism? Who decides who’s human, who’s not? Who’s made close to an animal, grotesque, hideous, ugly? Then there’s this horrible action [in that] there’s nothing more grotesque than being a master, being an owner of a slave. Nothing’s more dehumanizing. There’s nothing more monstrous than that. I made this piece in Europe, and in Europe, some people are very offended by it.
Far from monstrous, although it can occasionally be fraught, is the idea that you’re working with family members. Your sister, Sarah Lewis-Cappellari did the dramaturgy and some of the research. And the music is by your twin brother, George William Lewis, Jr. AKA Twin Shadow.
Sarah is my older sister and is getting a PhD in performance studies at UCLA. Because the work is so personal, it was clear I had to work with a Black dramaturg. It’s the first time I’m working with her [but] once everybody knows their lane—and she knew—these were my ideas and she just had to confirm them, and that I’m [going] in the right direction. She’s a researcher making sure that these claims are correct.
[Regarding] the music, it’s super, it’s excellent. It’s a mix of sax and harpsichord. The piece is meant to be very cinematic and he scored it like a movie. I tell George, “I need a soundscape,” and like in film, you work with a composer. They have to follow the concept of the work. I also work with an amazing light designer, Joseph Wegmann. It’s the third time we’re working together. The light, sound and action are given equal weight in my work.
You also wrote the text and created the set design.
Everything that’s spoken I wrote, and I do speak in it. I conceived the work and the concept of building the piece up—a prelude, intermezzo and scenography. The set is tiled pieces of wood covered in copper [and] the sheets of copper give it a kind of luminous glow when the light hits it. It’s a beautiful refraction and a mineral I wanted to look at.
I was interested in a metallic surface for visual quality and the resource itself, the land as resource and extraction. I also have a paravent [screen], where you change to hide yourself.
You’re not exactly known for hiding yourself, but when Covid hit, we all went into a kind of isolation.
I made a dance film and was fortunate that I was able to stay working. The pandemic didn’t touch me on an economic or work level. I got Covid, and I had shows that were cancelled, but I wasn’t in a super-precarious situation. It was out of sheer luck that I had commissions at the same time, and was still able to work. What Covid provided, rather than being worried on an individual level, was a lot of space and time to think.
During Covid, there were also productive social uprisings—a lot of social movement. Despite all the unnecessary death, there was this collective energy to try to change things. What’s sad now, if business as usual returns, it’s not good. It’s weird how crises offer us the most hopeful moments: We see what’s at stake and start speaking about what’s not right with the world. When things continue to go back to what was normal, this is not good.
On that note, Ligia, I’m wondering if you would say you’re a hopeful person, or if it’s even possible to still feel hope in today’s world?
Hope has to be, is inevitably, entangled with a hopelessness. Only when we can be honest as to how hopeless things are, particularly with the people [who are] the most precarious, we then need a whole different set of rules in order to really live together peacefully. And we’re very, very, very far away from that.
Of course, one needs a bit of hope or you can’t work. It gets you up in the morning to go and do your work, but to be blindly hopeful is no good, no good at all.
Hope—and hopelessness—aside, what advice would you give to aspiring choreographers, dancers and theater-makers?
They have to stay curious. To know that most of the things we’re taught in a dance school are absolutely not enough to make critical work. To be in the world, to see as much as you can, to be in the world and to know that collaboration is your best friend. That’s the beauty of performance, because all creative work is collaborative.
I always call my artistic team collaborators; it’s the way to put us on equal footing. I like the non-hierarchical approach. Yes, they’re my concepts, my ideas, and I’m directing, guiding the ship, and all of their input helps me build the world I want to create, but I consider my performers as collaborators, too. It’s a contemporary way of working.