Dancing in the Dark

Catherine Damman on Ligia Lewis

Ligia Lewis, Water Will. Performance View, Performance Space New York, New York, May 25, 2019. Ligia Lewis. Photo: Maria Baranova.

“GOD TOOK NO PLEASURE IN HER.” A nod or some form of unbidden recognition ran through me. She was made to die, or allowed to die; in either case, she refused her fate, punching through wet earth from grave toward unaccommodating sky. Obstinate, the hand could be mastered only by the one who had borne it; the mother was swift and unhesitating with the rod—and so the buried girl stopped moving for good. 

This story, The Willful Child, by the Brothers Grimm, haunts Ligia Lewis’s Water Will (in Melody), 2018. Water Will is the third in a trilogy of stage works, each of which wrestles with one color of the US flag; its tussle with white is preceded by minor matter, 2016, (red), and Sorrow Swag, 2014 (blue). New York audiences had the chance to see the former two at Performance Space New York in late May. Water Will opens in darkness. Far downstage, a curtain crowds us in the audience. We hear a chorus of frogs and cicadas, the nocturnal symphony of wetlands, and then the sounds of another, human animal whispering that menacing tale. Soon, that voice is accompanied by a body, irradiated by strobing light: the reedy Dani Brown, wielding every limb like a scimitar. Of the mother’s dispassionate strike of her dead daughter’s arm, the performer’s unctuous voice wheedles, “she was obliged.” Like so much common parlance, the grammar’s passive construction harbors responsibility for the violence it describes. Each vowel is pulled to its limit, a syrupy drawl that has hardened, the sugar burned. Brown hops laterally through the shallow space; her pelvis undulating, her expression an obscene rictus. Neither her movements nor her words are drawn directly from the first form of popular entertainment to sweep this nation in its youth—that is, minstrelsy—but it’s nearly impossible to separate the performed kernel from that historical, discomfiting shell.

Ligia Lewis, Water Will. Performance View, Performance Space New York, New York, 2019. Jolie Ngemi. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Something awful lurks in this theater: that inexhaustible heart, white supremacy, beating here as everywhere. What else could a letter addressed to this country contain than its violence? A knock, slow and metronomic, commands the room as the curtain lifts; behind it is the rest of the ensemble: Lewis herself, Jolie Ngemi, and Susanne Sachsse. Heretical to contemporary mores and therefore seemingly unwise, the art of mime structures the group’s movement. The recusal from language is deliberate. My unthinking, cringed reaction to mime is, of course, precisely Lewis’s point, for its presence here urges me to remember that the qualities which I find so objectionable—the way it at once overperforms and underdescribes—are also true of my every utterance, even words labored over, such as those on this page. The communion language offers is only ever a false promise; we go on speaking anyway. On stage, the dancers’ tauntingly quiet gesticulations are met with a droned, subaquatic version of Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead,” punctuated by the occasional squeak of their latex costumes. Opacity reigns. Ngemi pushes herself down, Lewis strings herself up by a rope—another one, not pantomimed, but thick and knotted, hangs from the rafters. Its gigantism is at once droll and foreboding: Is it an escape route, or reference to the collusion between fiber and gravity and terror that so often made a spectacle of black death?

At once presentational—oriented frontally so that the audience intuits a mode of direct address—and emphatically representational, the choreography puts mimetic action into overdrive. Miming requires, as does the movement of hip-hop, particularly in styles such as krump and clowning (there are tinges of both in the performance), that its performers master techniques of isolation. In a role originated by Titilayo Adebayo, Ngemi performs a captivating, semaphoric solo, each sweep of arm and stuttering lunge seemingly part of a vocabulary the audience does not have the tools to decode. The semantic effulgence of her dance could have easily been eclipsed by Ngemi’s unalloyed virtuosity: On view are the faculties of accented tension and release, the capacity to stop on a dime, and above all, the technique of fixed point isolation, in which the performer knows the cooperative physiological pathways of movement so intimately that she can maneuver each individual segment—controlling each glittering link of her body like so many jewels on a chain. Behind Ngemi, the other three make their own kind of mute Greek chorus, a glacially moving tableau. Their fingers end up hooked in one another’s mouths. 

Ligia Lewis, Water Will. Performance View, Performance Space New York, New York, 2019. Dani Brown, Ligia Lewis, Susanne Sachsse, Jolie Ngemi. Photo: Maria Baranova.

It’s been said that the tales set down in print by the Brothers Grimm are so potent precisely because they eviscerate anything resembling psychology. Their characters lack motive or cause; terrible things happen and time churns heedlessly along. There’s something of this effect in Lewis’s dramaturgy. Exemplary is the basic yet striking illusion, demonstrated ably by Ngemi, of alternating between a smile and an overwrought frown as the hand passes before the face such that the viewer misses the exact moment of transition. Does joy really sit so near to sorrow? Watching, it occurs to me that Lewis’s working method offers a compelling counterpoint to genealogy. Instead of tracing history’s fissures, she tugs at its contours, distorting them. The music of other centuries is mixed with that of ours, so too are the horrors; these infelicitous unions are effective not so much in the manner of juxtaposition, as in collage, but rather as a form of penetration or entwinement in which every element is both the thread and the needle’s eye all at once.

See, for instance, Sachsse’s kinkily depraved recitation of the fairy tale in German, her low, unholy growls swelling into a piercing caterwaul until she plummets into an inelegant swan dive that leaves her on the floor, foot sickled in the air. Later, the unmistakable, relentlessly upbeat plink of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” comes in over the speakers; its wordless disco remix sets the score for a jazzerina’s nightmare—all thrust and pivot and plastered smile. Moving through a ghastly series of eager jetés, splits, barrel jumps, and paddle turns, the quartet of dancers offer this perverse reprieve in the manner of a sneer: “Are you not entertained?”

The amusement is no sooner given than yanked away. Lewis plunges the audience into darkness, then sets searchlights upon us to a soundtrack of cascading waves. Theorists of blackness have long mobilized oceanic imagery as a powerful locus, both materially and symbolically, for transatlantic histories of enslavement and colonization. Another monologue, delivered by Lewis, quotes from Edmund Burke’s “Why Darkness is Terrible” (1757), a text exemplary as any, to my mind, of the inextricability of evaluations of aesthetic form from the racist logics of empire. Her hand at her own throat, she rubs at her larynx and thrusts her fingers in her mouth, nearly retching—Burke’s words something to expel or exorcise. Misty, granular condensation spills from above; the ensemble slides around in the wet, their mouths opened upward to receive it, like a precious benediction. The performance ends without resolution. I think of a crucial insight from recent conversations within black studies about the interminability of slavery’s afterlives, for which there can and should be reparations, but which may not permit the catharsis of narrative closure.

Ligia Lewis, Water Will. Performance View, Performance Space New York, New York, 2019. Jolie Ngemi, Susanne Sachsse. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Lewis’s interrogation of “will” is a philosopher’s inquiry. Its conceptual range holds not only desire and agentive action, but also their opposite—inevitably, or the resignation to fate. Explicit in Water Will, this analysis is also latent in minor matter, a performance no less oneiric than its successor. It too begins and ends in darkness, its core a scarlet haze. From the opening blackout, Lewis recites an excerpt from “Dreamtalk,” by Remi Raji, a love poem that figures desire as a kind of threat, not to the beloved, but to the prevailing order. As the lights rise, Lewis, keyon gaskin, and Corey Scott-Gilbert become visible in a series of angular freezes on the ground. Slowly they each rise and charge the audience, unhurriedly, moving through a succession of courtly postures. The trio comes together, entwining themselves in a private whorl of limb and effort. They move patiently, commanding our attention. Energy and antagonism soon begin to glimmer; Lewis and gaskin enter a sparring match, dodging hooks and jabs, torqueing one another into pins and stretches—wrestling’s submission holds. Meanwhile, Scott-Gilbert delivers a disquisition on being an assertive bitch.

What the audience will remember of this work, forever burned on the retina, is a middle section that reinterprets Boléro, a 1960 ballet by choreographer Maurice Béjart set to the 1928 Ravel composition of the same title. As in Béjart’s choreography, a spotlight directs the audience’s focus, its attention luxuriating on every splay of Scott-Gilbert’s fingers as he moves through a series of port de bras. Beaked palms rise and flutter, then sink down again, his fingertips grazing his chest. Then his arms flail across the spotlight’s golden disc; the music crescendos. The combined effect is of a shirred energy struggling to get free.

Lewis and gaskin join in, and the three move effortlessly in the pocket, then riff on the beat. Oscillating between partial transfers of weight, which keep the body stationary, and syncopated but full steps, which put the figure into motion, the ensemble ponies around the stage, gaining velocity and growing ever more ferocious. This thrumming, insistent core of the choreography is cut with elements of both step—a percussive dance originally associated with black sororities and fraternities—and gumboot, a South African dance sometimes used as a demonstration of protest, and from which stepping in part derives.

Around me: the quickening of pulses, the jiggle of thighs. There is pleasure in the room, infectious. I am suspicious of this arrogation of feeling, my own more than that of anyone else. This same device is so outsized as to be a caricature in Water Will’s Enya-tracked jazz dance, where the audience cannot be anything other than in on the joke. Here, however, in thrall to the boléro’s addictive throb, the question is posed at once more subtly and more gravely. What might it mean to be ravished, in thrall to the sensuous?

Ligia Lewis, Water Will. Performance View, Performance Space New York, New York, 2019. Dani Brown, Ligia Lewis, Susanne Sachsse, Jolie Ngemi. Photo: Maria Baranova.

In Béjart’s ballet, a soloist is surrounded by a herd of corps dancers, who both genuflect to and imitate her. Shot through with tinges of the cultish—at once witchy and orgiastic—the dancers end as a militantly synchronized body, moving as one. (Most often the principal dancer is female and her followers male, though a deliciously queer 1982 version features Jorge Donn in the lead role.) Lewis, however, deracinates her source material. Not for nothing does the baseline of Ravel’s composition take the form of an ostinato—meaning obstinate, stubborn—though Lewis’s version, made in collaboration with Michal Libera, mixes the original Ravel with samples from Carl Craig, Mortiz von Oswald, Donna Summer, and Arthur Russell alike. Moreover, she distributes the solo across the three performers, who each take turns leading the others, the entire trio moving in and out of synchronization. One suspects that it is the audience who plays the role of the consuming, encircling swarm. The frenetic crescendo dissolves into a bellowed solo of shrieks and slaps by gaskin. It sounds like unadulterated rage. One must take seriously a creeping fear: What if this work is not for you, but against you?

One strain of political theater insists on the rejection of spectacle, suspicious of its seductive escape from the world. Lewis takes perfidy as the theater’s essential—and therefore enabling—condition. The entire apparatus is marshaled: the proscenium orientation, lighting cues, sonic overwhelm, and movement join together to exploit every available opportunity for affective rapture. That dishonesty, a betrayal of the consensus which we might conversationally call “the world,” is a form of willfulness.

The performance ends with Lewis, gaskin, and Scott-Gilbert in a series of gymnastic configurations, each of their three bodies alternatively heaped and wrapped around the others. They are trying to make new forms of themselves, but also to tear at the structure that contains them. They tug at the light rigs and crash into the black box’s walls. Like utopia, these body piles seem both enviable and nonviable at once: erotic, jovial formations that each time dissolve with a tumble or crash. Wobbly columns, asymmetrical stacks, acrobatic balances of neck and thigh and bicep—these are contingent models of anarchic support and mutual aid. They are not without injury.

Ligia Lewis’s Water Will (in Melody) runs at On the Boards in Seattle September 19–22; minor matter will travel to Home Works: A Forum on Cultural Practices, Beirut, October 26–27.