Reports from TBA 2019: Ligia Lewis

Obfuscation and illegibility in artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis's "Water Will (In Melody)"

by ELLA RAY

As the culminating part of the BLUE RED WHITE trilogy by artist and choreographer Ligia Lewis, Water Will (In Melody) distorts canonical configurations of body and language by taking up the project of illegibility. Presented by PICA’s 17th annual Time Based Arts festival (TBA), Water Will (In Melody) opposes neoliberal progress and dominant categorization, rejecting the physical and conceptual articulations of representation that are projected onto the Black subject in exchange for something dark, something defined outside of whiteness. Lewis, accompanied by Titilayo Adebayo, Dani Brown, and Susanne Sachsse, presents a two-part performance that uses the four figures to investigate individual and collective ability to escape expectation, both of the theater and of themselves. 

While the puppet-like characters contort and twist their plastic and silk dressed bodies against the black stage, swampy sounds of crickets and trickling water fill the spaces between us and them. The scene is set in a way that references the outdoors and exposes the logistical aspects of theatrical production: off-stage is visible, the curtains are slightly too short, and the lighting equipment encroaches on the stage frame.  The mood is still marshy and gothic as if the theater is amidst a southern swamp. 

“Water Will (In Melody)” Photo courtesy of Sarah Marguier and PICA.

As the performance progresses, the women share the stage through choreographed moments that rely heavily on a combination of mime and bodily movements to reference physical anguish and personal pleasure. The dancers fold over themselves and writhe across the stage bumping against one another against  a loop of layered sounds and parts of speech. The corporeal aspects of Water Will are interjected with monologue spanning from excerpts of Grimm’s Fairy Tales during the opening sequence to a lengthy German speech by Sachsse. In the moments where language is foregrounded it is then disrupted, muffled, cut off, or drown out. This interruption is most obvious in a moment when Lewis spoke while she shoved her hand down her mouth, gagging herself in both a sexual and violent manner that made it nearly impossible to understand her. 

The disruption of intelligibility via the hand is a thread continued throughout the performance. The hands, central to mime gesticulation, are used in Water Will to unveil the interiority of the subjects. The palms and fingers of the performers are used to scratch, please, and undo almost as if their insides are begging to escape their predetermined forms. In exposing the exterior (including the audience, the theater, and each other) to their interiors, we could ask who they are performing for and what are we bearing witness to? 

Between the first and second act, there is a brief breakdown in the proceedings. A spotlight floods the four dancers and they begin what feels like pop-princess choreography set to the sound of an uptempo remix of an Enya song. While forming a straight line, the dancers thrust their pelvises, cross their arms with cheerleader energy, and evoke a familiar feeling of  “positivity.” The sterility of the breakdown deeply contrasts the stickiness of Water Will as a whole. On the Saturday iteration of the performance, the audience responded by laughing and clapping in approval of the breach in plot. In this abrupt and concise interlude it is  apparent that the spectators are complicit in the unfolding of the performance. While the material preceding and following this interruption concentrates on the subtle horrors of desire and possibility, this section antagonistically points at the audience and acknowledges them as part of the larger system that wills some to act on those feelings while denying others. 

The crowd is addressed multiple times throughout the performance. During the second act an intense strobe light turns on the audience. The flashing of various patterns of neon white jolt you into position and disrupt the theater experience. This happens again later with a searchlight that roams the theater, stopping briefly on audience members and then continuing on its path. Although this section of the work lasted a mere 2 minutes, the usages of this kind of lighting amplifies the role of the omnipresent voyeur — possibly referencing militarized and colonial surveillance mechanisms that the gender and racialized body is incessantly subjected to. 

“Water Will (In Melody)” Photo courtesy of Sarah Marguier and PICA.

Throughout Water Will, Lewis is central both in place and attention. This disrupts a multitude of established hierarchies of contemporary performance that attempt to flatten Black femmes, uncomplicating their relationship to the theater and to being watched. As Brown, Adebayo, and Sachsse periodically appear and reappear onstage, they emphasize that the theater is an actual theater, there is an unbridgeable gap between the performer and the audience. Lewis, however, challenges the gap by, getting close to the audience and entangling us again and again in her obsessive pattern. As water begins to rain down from behind the curtains, washing over the jerky yet sensual choreography, the performers appear like towels being wrung out — holding form but seeping from the inside as they glide across the stage and ground themselves in pooling puddles. In this section, Lewis’s distorted face and masturbatory gestures have a pulse of their own. On many occasions Lewis’s movements felt like a mashup of Velvet Rope-tour-era Janet Jackson and Kayako from The Grudge

The 60 minute production ends with Adebayo singing a church hymn while the Lewis, Brown, and Sachsse melt into the darkness of the stage. As the wrestling comes to a halt and water puddles on the stage, Adebayo’s voice sounded as if someone passed her the mic by surprise. Lewis revealed in a recent TBA and PICA sponsored conversation with scholar and curator bart fitzgerald that the song is titled “I Won’t” — playing again with the concept of will and concluding their guttural meditations of escape with rejection of everything that came before. The show closes with language the clearest its been through the entirety of the performance. With no movement or distortion, Water Will (In Melody) asks the audience to listen to what happens after the storm. Eventually the performer turns her back on us, simultaneously acknowledging the audience’s gaze and rendering visible the facade of the theater. In negating the physical gaze and audience expectation, Lewis solidifies Water Will (In Melody) as a mission in obfuscation. 

Ella Ray an art historian, facilitator, and arts-worker whose practice focuses on the Black contemporary art and process. Ella earned a BA in Art History/Critical Theory from Portland State University in 2018 and currently works for the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art doing work around public engagement and decentralizing dominant culture. 

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