I am not asking the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Instead, I am asking, “What does it mean to be this specific human called Anabella Lenzu?” Dancing the choreography myself, I will essentially perform this question in front of the audience. For me, art is a political act. I perceive dance both as a discipline and revolt. My body becomes my homeland, and movement is my mother tongue expressing these ideas. In my latest performance presented at La Mama Moves Festival in May 2018 “No more beautiful dances”, I explored issues of identity and agency as experienced by a contemporary artist who is also a woman, mother and immigrant. It is a search to define identity in a modern context, and discern the way in which I can shape my own agency through a post-colonialist lens. In addition, I am looking for a way to use a performative language to engage with others in this dialogue.
In my latest performance presented ta La Mama Moves Festival in May 2018 No more beautiful dances, I explored issues of identity and agency as experienced by a contemporary artist who is also a woman, mother and immigrant. It is a search to define identity in a modern context, and discern the way in which I can shape my own agency through a post-colonialist lens. In addition, I am looking for a way to use a performative language to engage with others in this dialogue.
Identity is a complicated and unclear concept that nonetheless plays a central role in ongoing debates in every subfield of political science (for example, debates about national, ethnic, gender, and state identities). The psychologist Erik Erikson did much to increase our understanding of the concept of identity with his work in the 1950’s (Fearon, 1999).
Dictionary definitions have not caught up, however, failing to capture the word’s current meanings in everyday and social science contexts. As we use it now, an identity refers to either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and (alleged) characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) socially distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or (a) and (b) at once) (Fearon, 1999). In the latter sense, identity is modern formulation of dignity, pride, or honor that implicitly links these to social categories. This statement differs from and is more concrete than standard glosses offered by political scientists; I argue in addition, that it allows us to better understand how identity can help explain political actions, and the meaning of claims such as when people say that identities are socially constructed. “Identity makes a suggestive connection between two important aspects of social and psychological reality,” (Fearon, 1999, p. 37).
I am not asking the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Instead, I am asking, “What does it mean to be this specific human called Anabella Lenzu?” Dancing the choreography myself, I will essentially perform this question in front of the audience. For me, art is a political act. I perceive dance both as a discipline and revolt. My body becomes my homeland, and movement is my mother tongue expressing these ideas. The context of my life shapes the work in powerful ways. Memory and spirituality, for example, are deeply entwined with my identity. As an artist, I consider myself a worker in service of art, and it is an individual’s power and self-knowledge that starts everything. One cannot take political action or be part of any community and affect change if he/she is not actively working to understand one’s motivations.
No more beautiful dances is a completely different thematic approach from my work over the last 12 years. I have arrived at a moment where I am 43 years old, have two kids, notice my body aging, and reflecting on other changes psychologically and emotionally. This new show is about recognition, and reframing myself one more time.
Over the years, I have found out things about myself in terms of how and to whom I give: as a mom I give to my kids, I give to my students, I give to my company members. Now I am giving myself attention and care (as well as some challenges), something I have not done for a long time. I feel that this show is a testimony to all these changes and experiences as a specific woman in the performing arts. One concept I've had to re-evaluate is the idea of what a dancer needs to look like, because there is a certain expectation of physical beauty in the world of trained ballerinas. In this new work, I examine my wrinkles, my boobs and belly as if I was doing a clinical inspection. My body is a testimony to all the changes in my life and it shows the passage of time, leaving a map of my experiences.
Initially, in the early stages of the piece, I was using a flashlight to illuminate parts of my body and working with the cast shadows. My collaborator Todd Carroll suggested I try using live video streams to show different angles of myself, and when I saw the possibilities of using technology in this way, it was a kind of breakthrough. Not only did it allow another point of view, it allowed me to essentially choreograph two other movements on the stage. Using the technology in this way allows me to simultaneously physically control the audiences view while also exploring new ideas of performing for a live video stream. With this control, I play with the idea of what is private vs. public. I am using video to create a dramaturgical design of space.
One constant in my choreography is that the body of the dancer is the axis between what is above and what is below, as in Dante’s Paradise. My new choreographic material in No more beautiful dances is informed by this concept. A human being embodies this idea physically if you think of the digestive tract from mouth to anus as a kind of portal. The idea of a portal (and transformation of what passes through) is a powerful concept that inspired this piece from the very beginning stages. So there is a dichotomy between the dancer as a static container and the dancer’s body acting as a portal, capable of transformation and change. Geometrical figures with shape and volume can also be transformative portals, which is the function of the body map drawings made during the piece. The technology in the piece (laptops/webcams/projectors) can be seen as simple machines doing a job, but also as tools of change.
Also very influential to my creative process during the making of this piece was the concept of energy circles. I have used this idea of three energy circles as guiding principles in my collaborations over the last eight years with The Wooster Group company and members.
This idea is based on my reading and research by Patsy Rodenburg, and her principal idea that Presence = Energy (Rodenburg, 2008). Rodenburg began to recognize the different types of energy that a human being can learn to harness: energy of the body, the breath, the voice, the mind, the heart, and the spirit. We all give out energy and by listening we all receive energy. She identifies three basic movements of energy: the first circle is sunwards-moving, drawing energy towards the self. At the opposite extreme was the third circle, in which energy is forced outward towards the world in general. In the second circle, energy is focused on a specific object or person and moves in both directions: taking in and giving out. The second circle is intimate, and could be simplified to the old saying “The eyes are the windows of the soul.”
Rodenburg says "Presence is the energy that comes from you and connects you to the outside world. It is essential to your survival when you are threatened. It is the heart intimacy between people, and although you can live in your inner world without presence in yourself, the outer world we live in will appear dull, stale, and flat. It is when you are fully present that you do your best work and make your deepest impression" (Rodenburg, 2008, p. 14). Working with this idea as a choreographer and performer are always front of mind when I am connecting to an audience with my work.
Although not new to my work, I chose to use text in a very deliberate way in this piece. The spoken word and singing in this piece was based on many months of improvisation. By trial and error and many variations, it was finally set into a script. Sometimes the text serves as cleansing function, sometimes to invoke ritual, sometimes for literal description, and sometimes for comic relief.
Along with the live video in the show, I made a lot of self-portrait photographs while working through ideas. Sometimes I got tired of taking photos of myself, but I kept going because it is another way to approach the idea of something beneath the surface – who I am, who I really am. Performers have many masks, so this is an effort to peel them off and find the other Anabellas beneath the surface level. It’s an examination of self-recognition and all the goals we have in our head. As I developed the piece and included drawing during the performance, I returned to some of these earlier self-portraits and drew on them as well. Drawing the body maps during the performance on the paper beneath me is also another act of self-realization and creation, while exercising creative control.
One overarching idea of the show is to keep experimenting with this duality: how I look from outside and how I feel from inside, being in control and out of control, what is ritual and what is political, what is private and what is public. I love to live in this duality. It is like putting salt on watermelon!
From the early stages of using shadows from a flashlight to incorporating self-portraits and later video, all these visual exercises kept me humble and honest about who I am and what I look like. I’m going to show the very things most people want to hide when you dance. Movement is a symbol, a metaphor of another state of transformation.
Video: Anabella Lenzu/DanceDrama
Fearon, J. (n.d.). What is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)? Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/group/fearon-research/cgi-bin/wordpress/wpcontent/uploads/2013/10/What-is-Identity-as-we-now-use-the-word-.pdf
Rodenburg, P. (2008). The second circle: How to use positive energy for success in every situation: This book will transform your life, minute to minute. New York: W.W. Norton.