Water Will (in Melody)
Concept, choreography/direction, and performance by Ligia Lewis
Co-creation and performance by Titilayo Adebayo, Doni Brown, and Susanne Sachße
Dramaturgy: Maja Zimmermann
Lighting Design: Ariel Efraim Ashbel
Sound Design: S. McKenna
Stage Design: Eike Böttcher
Costume Design: sowrong studio
January 30-February 1, 2020 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
images by Michael Courier
*response edited by Ellen Chenoweth
In my memory those four women barely looked at each other. They shared space precisely. They knew exactly where the other was, they shifted around in order to take up their own space(s) accordingly, but never at the expense of someone else’s space and rarely did they turn their heads to look directly at the other. It was as if they didn’t need to, their relationships were beyond that. Or, they had practiced their navigations around one another for so long that their grooves were deeply worn. They were entrenched.
Which also maybe indicates that they assumed they knew exactly how the other would move. Which is to say they think they know enough about the other to safely predict how to work around them. Which means they never have to change their intended facing and actually look at the woman in black / the woman in white standing right next to / in front of / behind them. There is no risk of collision if everyone stays on her own path.
This precise staging brilliantly mirrors a current state of inter-racial affairs. Many of us [white women] have become just “woke” enough to be able to cohabitate in a way that attempts to ensure we don’t stumble and disrupt another’s path while making damn sure we don’t disrupt our own first. So this expert weaving of choreography without collision, without eye contact, could almost look like support. Like solidarity and ally-ship. Almost.
But not quite because “there’s a lot of shit we have to work out” Lewis stated, twice, in the post-show discussion.
“Whitey must die” was projected on the back wall.
As was “will is generic” and “lose form.”
“Lose form” was a command and a description. At certain points they told us exactly what they were doing. “I’m going back,” they said as they traveled upstage. “This is a phone,” she said as she did the phone gesture with her hand to her ear. “I fall” she said, then fell. “Lose form” and they exited the stage.
The melodrama was intentional; the sound of pounding footsteps or a beating heart, the swelling of music reminiscent of 1920’s-30’s black and white films, thunder and lighting, the Fosse-esque postures and costumes, the German cabaret-meets the French Moulin Rouge meets- the creepy-ass American carnival fun house. The performers each had some sort of plastic in their costumes, suggesting latex, suggesting kink, suggesting futurism. Maybe also suggesting toys, dolls in particular. Dolls with detachable limbs that could be mixed and matched to create a gruesome hybrid of a girl that could be wrapped around the hanging rope upstage and swung side to side like a metronome, a metronome marking time that won’t advance. It seems to me that these performers were stuck there, indefinitely.
Speaking of limbs and being stuck, the piece was inspired in part by the 1812 Brother’s Grimm tale “The Willful Child.” They told us this in the marketing material—this was a source we were allowed to know and explicitly consider. The tale is about a girl who would never do what she was told and therefore lost the love of her mother and God so God made her die. But she wouldn’t even die! Her willfull arm sprung back out of the grave (remember that final scene in Stephen King’s Carrie?). Her mother had to go to the graveyard and smack that arm with a rod. Then, finally, the girl could rest. “And everything went back to normal”(Grimm).
So in this piece I couldn’t help but imagine we were witnessing what happened next in the tale. We were seeing the underground world where the child was finally at “rest.” And guess what? There were others down there too. What unfolded throughout the performance was a performance of whatever the fuck they do down there to pass (kill) the time. This is too simple and too literal an interpretation I’m sure. But I wanted this narrative. And Lewis said she was interested in exploring good-ole storytelling after all the emphasis on abstraction and deconstruction over the past half-century.
“To be filled with will is to be emptied of thought: as if speaking about injustice, about power, about inequality, is just another way of getting your way. Those who get in the way are often judged as getting their own way. It is a way of diagnosing critique and opposition as self-interest (having too much subjectivity, being too much.)” — Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 2017
Those women were totally, perfectly, too much. They knew that this would scare you. They were trying to be grotesque. They took it a step further and made fun of you a little by doing (and then aborting) a lyrical dance to Enya. Later—or earlier—Lewis splayed her legs and circled her clit with long spidery fingers. She wasn’t overly turned on by it. It was just another thing that happens down there to pass (kill) the time. But she knew you were watching and all the women watched you watch. Secure in their power, secure in your fear.
She told us in the post-show that she was deeply interrogating The Gaze. Gaze with a capital “G,” gaze referring to Whitey’s gaze, Whitey referring to white, patriarchal society, to white supremacy. So yeah, Whitey must die.
I’m not gonna sum this up. I don’t want their world to end, I like thinking about their performance continuing in a parallel universe. A perpetual scene of swelling amplification and rain induced pacification on a transverse plane while we keep trying to function in the real world.
She gave us a theater within a theater. She made us see the lights, curtains, and wings. She shined the light on us. And she made (let?) those women be disastrous and childlike, fatale and stark. She made it mist.
It got damp. It felt like we had shifted to a sewer system, dripping and dark. Rats would have been welcome. Is this when they piled on top of one another? Or was that in the first part?
Here my memory gets foggy. I started to zoom out and I can’t tell you what happened. But I wasn’t unengaged; I was in a sensate place. My brain stopped tracking the performance and I was in their trance of time and rain.
The word sad comes to mind but, yeah, too simple. Is this what kicked off feelings of despair this week?
In the post-show she told us about the intentional use of dystopia as a way to undo. She told us about the condition of feminine being relegated to white women, not black women. She was considering how intimacy can be emancipatory.
She said that people who know her well know that she is generally full of rage. She said she wanted to underline the problem sections in the work.
Lewis is incredibly well read and researched. She rattled too quickly through the list of scholars she had studied while developing this piece. She did it the way that people do when they are trying to demonstrate humility around their knowledge. Like they don’t want to bore us with the particulars (cause it’s boring?) or because they (falsely, fakely) assume that we have also read everything they have read and so we will catch on quickly.
It was a scholar (have) vs. audience (have not) moment.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking water will what? Water will:
Water is willful, no god or mother can keep it down.
“Will is generic.” Well shit. Isn’t generic one of the worst insults?
Is this a call for more interesting wills? Answer.
Joanna Furnans is a Chicago-based dance artist and writer. She is co-founder and managing editor of the Performance Response Journal. www.joannafurnans.com
Ellen Chenoweth is the Director of the Dance Presenting Series at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. She is also a writer and editor with thINKingDANCE