Sometimes, art and politics are a clusterf***. Performers in Ligia Lewis's 'minor matter', showing at On the Boards (alongside a re-envisioned version of 'Sorrow Swag') this weekend. Photo by Martha Glenn.

Ligia Lewis’s Unexpectedly New Piece, at On the Boards this Weekend, Is About as ‘In the Moment’ as It Gets

A last-minute obstacle, courtesy of the United States government, derailed the visiting choreographer’s planned performance of Sorrow Swag, one of two shows Lewis was slated to present at On the Boards this weekend. In its stead, Lewis has re-envisioned the piece — and, with help from her musician brother, will dance the work herself.  

 

Imagine traveling to Seattle from Berlin to present a live work of art, only to be told the most important physical aspect of your performance — the dance soloist himself — won’t be making the trip with you.

According to On the Boards, that’s what happened last week to Ligia Lewis, a Dominican American, Germany-based choreographer and dance artist, who was scheduled to perform two separate pieces there this weekend. Although the performances will go on, one changed radically when Ligia was informed, shortly before the shows were set to go up, that the lone dancer in one of her two full-length works wouldn’t be allowed to perform in the U.S.  

I don’t have the expertise to get into the weeds of immigration law here; but you can read a message from On the Boards here, and reporting from The Stranger here, which fill in some details. All indicate a surprising barrier to entrance, and a bummer for the artists involved.

And so, unexpectedly, audience members in Lower Queen Anne will now see a somewhat different work, in something that’s about as “in the moment” as it gets: the established piece (called Sorrow Swag) re-envisioned, created for a very different body, and performed by the artist more accustomed to seeing it performed by another rather than embodying the role herself.

It’s quite a trip.

And it’s a sorrowful one — for the dancer, who is deprived of the opportunity perform the work here; for the choreographer, whose piece will not be seen here in the form it was intended; for the organization, who had to pivot to a new plan (and all the PR and bureaucratic hurdles that brought with it); and, more squishily, for art itself, which seems forever under attack from a new and exciting direction.

But if I’m going to find the happy note in all this — it’s also kind of exciting. How often does it happen that a planned work is so thoroughly undone, only to be built up again with this level of immediacy? How often is something truly the product of its host country’s schisms (in which, though it might purport to be pluralistic and invite in the arts and culture of others, it simultaneously obsesses about its borders and is fearful of the outside world)?

In that way, whatever this new piece turns out to look like, it will arrive with an orientation that’s not only “in the moment” but “of the moment” as well — a piece brought from overseas, attacked by American protectionism, undercut by a bureaucratic failure to understand or appreciate art forms and creative processes, but rebuilt by the strength of those very same creative powers. It’s a movement piece made of a time and a place in which, as On the Boards Artistic Director Rachel Cook puts it, “the movement of bodies around the world is being contested by our government.”

In a statement, On the Boards Executive Director Betsey Brock summed up beautifully the landscape into which this piece is born:

The United States government has made it impossible for an artist, one who has held a significant role in Ligia Lewis’s works, to enter the country and perform his role. We are responding, and committed to making art happen, even in the face of obstacles — in that spirit, Ligia will generously create a Sorrow Swag for us. What we’re doing is an experiment. It might not work. It has always been this way here, but sometimes it is a bit more pronounced than others.

The piece is an exploration of race, representation, abstraction, and gender, and was to be performed by a White male body. By taking it on herself, the re-created work — now performed by a Black, female body — is unavoidably changed. And so Lewis’s undertaking is a significant one: remaking the work, in an “altogether new adaptation,” which will feature both herself and her brother, Twin Shadow, who also supplies music for the performance. It will be a new angle of exploration for the artist — and a brand-new, unique work for the audience to experience.

As Brock notes, it might not work out as intended.

But it will be inherently interesting to watch this new work unfold.  

 


Sorrow Swag (Sat. & Sun.) and minor matter (full weekend) run through 5/19 at On the Boards, in Lower Queen Anne. Tickets are $30, available here (Sorrow Swag) and here (minor matter). The two pieces will be performed live, plus artist conversations, live music, and an archival screening of the original Sorrow Swag. View the updated weekend performance schedule here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: a sliding-scale performance is held on Sunday.

R. Barron reviewed arts behind the scenes (awards, grants, etc.), before writing for Seattle Gay Scene & NWTheatre.org. Passions include theatre, new works, and arts showcasing underrepresented voices.