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Luciana Achugar
Photograph: Kevin MonkoLuciana Achugar

Luciana Achugar

The choreographer feels her way through the form of a new dance


FEELingpleasuresatisfactioncelebrationholyFORM—the title of Luciana Achugar’s new dance—is a mouthful—but the idea behind it is almost fundamental: an exploration of the relationship between aesthetics and ideology. Achugar, who most recently choreographed a duet for herself and Michael Mahalchick (who composes the sound scores for her work, but is not a dancer), has returned to an all-female cast in FEEL…FORM. She’ll be joined by Rebecca Brooks, Jennifer Kjos and Melinda Lee. In the work, a coproduction of the Chocolate Factory and Abrons Arts Center, the Bessie Award–winning choreographer searches for the point at which her earthy, primal side comes up against form.

Did you want to create a new work specifically for Abrons? Were you thinking of the space before the dance?
Because it’s presented by both the Chocolate Factory and Abrons, It wasn’t like I had Abrons in mind when I approached [artistic director] Jay [Wegman]. After I created the piece for the studio that took place in front of a mirror [The Sublime Is Us], I was done—meaning I made a choice to go back to a regular proscenium scenario. Not that I rejected what I had done before, but I wanted to continue to explore what I was interested in. In a way, you’re always working on the same ideas or the same goals. I realized that I didn’t need to reconfigure the audience or the seating arrangements, and that I really do have a deep love for the theater and its tradition. What I keep returning to is the ritual between the audience and performer meeting in the theater. I’m fascinated that these spaces—theaters—have been built with that in mind. Theaters like Abrons are the spaces that I want to show my work in. And it’s challenging because we are in a moment where it feels old or passé to have that distance between the performer and audience. I really feel, deep down, that the spirit of what I’d like to do is to have everyone in the same room in a circle around us. But I find it more interesting to be within the traditional theater with its lighting equipment, with curtains, with what it evokes and with its history. I try to explore what I’m working on within that—and even to speak about that in a way in the work. Even though I think Abrons is a hard theater to suit certain things—it has a very specific audience perspective—I do love the history in the theater. I don’t know if it’s 100 percent confirmed, but I heard that even Isadora [Duncan] performed there. There’s so much history. Alwin Nikolais had his company there. I am very interested in placing myself within that history. I love what it feels like at the Chocolate Factory, but I don’t feel like that’s where I am. I am much more interested in being inside a theater.

It’s true. The gallery atmosphere is starting to be limiting.
Yeah. I mean there’s also a freedom in not having the raised stage and in just being in a room with the audience—you can put them wherever you want. But the floor is really hard on the dancers at the Chocolate Factory. So if you want to actually do a lot of dancing…

Right. Actually, I think the theater is coming back. Everything’s starting to look the same in an open space.
Yeah that’s the thing: The choice as an artist to reconfigure the relationship to the audience is becoming the norm now. You’re not saying so much by doing that anymore.

How do you deal with ritual in this piece?

I intuitively go to [ritual] when I’m choreographing. It sneaks up in the process. If I think about it from a conceptual place, it is interesting to me; that’s why I want to make this about the relationship between aesthetics and ideology. My politics of where we are and what society we’re in relates to dance being placed inside the theater. I’m also interested in dance as something primal. Sometimes it seems cheesy or a simplification of dance, but ultimately dance is a celebration of being alive. That can be a very superficial thing, but to me, it is extremely deep. And then in this piece, when I go to a place of really designing the dance, I get very mathematical about it. [Laughs] I get very nerdy.

Is that new?
No, I’ve always been like that. But because I am interested in speaking about dance from a place that is very intuitive or visceral, in the creative process, I’ve often rejected designing too much. I feel like I’m learning to let myself just go for what I like or for what feels right, and at the same time let myself be kind of nerdy and geeky about space. I get really into spatial design with choreography.

Can you talk about the movement in FEEL…FORM?
I wanted to make a lot of vocabulary. In the past, I have had so much to say that it’s become a little bit too representational in the end. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but I wanted to try to speak from more the aesthetic side rather than just making a piece be a statement. I wanted to challenge myself to not let go of concept, but to be able to work in a more abstract way. I do feel like I have a particular way of moving. When I improvise, I’m interested in indulging in the experience of what it feels like to follow a path of movement in the body. That’s a lot what dance is to me. So that’s how I got to this idea that the style of movement always relates to pleasure. It’s about trying to be in a constant state of pleasure and trying to communicate that. I don’t know if, in this day and age, I could say that I have an original style; but I feel like I could find connections to [choreographer] Neil Greenberg—moments. Or something that could connect, very obliquely, to [choreographer] Sarah Michelson.

I associate your work with a particular way of moving.

Well, I’m trying to go more there. I feel like when I started making movement, it was kind of assumed that there was no way you could have your own style of movement. Like it’s all been done. So I was more interested in, What is it to make a dance? What is dance? Why am I doing it? Now, I feel like I made a decision. At a certain point, I thought, Am I just going to become more conceptual and more minimal to where it almost doesn’t make sense to dance? If I went in that direction, I would end up just doing installations for eight hours or building a situation in which the audience comes in, and I’m just having an experience improvising with no design. I feel like I was either going to go in that direction more, or really realize that I am a choreographer and that I do think of designing movement in space and time. I can’t help it. That’s what I’m doing.

When did that realization hit you?
I think it was before the last piece, Puro Deseo. There’s not much dancing in it, but I thought of it like that.

It was formal though.
Yeah. Even though [Michael] Mahalchick is not a dancer or a woman, and I keep making movement that seems so feminine, he has that quality. And he understands the quality that I’m talking about. In a way, I could speak more clearly to what I was trying to do even though he is not a dancer. In the piece I’m doing now, there are certain things you can only do if you’re a trained dancer. In the piece with Mahalchick, I felt I couldn’t have him stand on one leg or explore things that were very subtle and sophisticated in terms of the articulation of the body. It just seemed to be a natural continuation of what I was doing, but it did feel like a liberation from [working with a] group of women. That felt like it had reached its end for me.

Now you’re back working with all women. Why?
I know. [Laughs] I had a really hard time figuring out if I should go back to women. I kept thinking that I shouldn’t, that it’s going backwards. But I just decided that I should go for the images I had. This is a quartet, but it isn’t about four individuals. They’re almost the same. That seems like an idea that I’ve explored before. This is a more formal extension of that.

How so?
It isn’t the power-of-the-group thing that I’ve done before—angry and morphing. It’s more about replication. It’s mirroring. I use the mirror idea more in the place of a kaleidoscope. I keep flipping the mirror, so it’s not in the same place. I also use canon a lot. I think I talked to you many years ago about how much I love Busby Berkeley. In some ways, that’s the ultimate. It’s so beautiful, and I was like, Why not go toward that? It’s that kind of replication that has a falling quality. It’s something that gives me pleasure, and I hope that it gives the viewer pleasure. The hard part about this process has been that, unlike the other dances I’ve made, I really know what the piece is. Instead of being last-minute about making decisions, the problem is there’s a lot more craft involved, so it’s taken a long time.

It takes a long time to really choreograph something, right?
Exactly. And I have to say at the end—not to say that things that are not designed and crafted and choreographed are less good or meaningful, but I do have so much respect for that. Even though I have a completely different aesthetic than Sarah Michelson, for example, every time I’ve gone to see her work I feel very inspired. I’m so motivated by her commitment to craft and to movement and working hard. And there are other people that I’m very motivated by; I also feel very much inspired by RoseAnne Spradlin and Melanie Maar. Of course, I have the good luck, I guess, of being in a relationship with someone [Chase Granoff] who also understands dance, so that helps a lot. Before, I was making work that spoke very much about what the role of the dancer is. All of those pieces with women had a lot to do with the anger or resentment or rage that I had about how hard it is to be a dancer. I got that out of my system. I still have the same feelings, but I’m dealing with them in a more abstract way. I also remember I was in a conversation during the French Institute’s Crossing the Line festival. They invited some New York artists, including Trajal [Harrell] and Sarah.

Didn’t that have something to do with [choreographer] Jérôme Bel? What happened?
I made a big faux pas. I said that Raimund Hoghe’s piece with Faustin Linyekula [Sans-titre] was racist. I felt really bad. I didn’t want to make [Hoghe] feel bad, but I got pissed off. Jérôme Bel is obviously really smart, and I do respect his work a lot, but he likes to provoke, and he was talking down craft. To me, what it brings up is actually more related to issues of colonialism. I am from South America, and a lot of the things I do in my work are related to the power of first-world countries. I feel that injustices keep repeating themselves even within the dance world: The Europeans are thought of as so much more because they are not doing craft. It feels so chauvinist. It’s as if they’re talking about women’s work, like, “Oh, they’re just knitting.” I think that experience also helped my decision to go deeply for craft.

Just so I have it straight: Didn’t Jérôme Bel dismiss his own work as being created by formula or something?
I think he was playing. Because afterward I talked to him and he said, “Oh, I’m so glad you were saying that, because these conversations are so boring.” I mean he goes around the world and does so many of them, and he’s so over being asked about his process. He was saying that he made the Cunningham piece [Cédric Andrieux] as a formula: “You know, like Coca-Cola. Just something easy, so I can sell it.” So it sounded kind of disgusting, but I could tell that he was just trying to provoke and say, “I don’t do craft.” I was pissed off. There were a lot of young artists from New York just sitting there listening to Raimund Hoghe and Jérôme Bel. And the thing had been set up as a conversation, and I just felt like I needed to say something to shake it up so it wasn’t just us in awe of them. I had just seen—the night before—the piece that I thought was offensive. I thought it was racist. I’m not looking for that in a paranoid way: What’s racist, what’s not racist? It’s that I couldn’t help but see that. And I was annoyed that people weren’t saying anything about the piece.

It’s so strange, because Sans-titre didn’t seem racist to me—not that it wasn’t, I just didn’t go there.
When Raimund said what it was, I understood. What bothered me was how the piece got commissioned. He said he was approached by French producers who asked, “Can you make a piece like the ones you do with great dancers with an African dancer?” And it was made in three weeks. That’s maybe what I read into it—to me, there was this European, intellectual, conceptual, minimalist choreographer, and he is making a space for this African dancer to dance in. And he made the African dancer seem very exotic. I know that he didn’t mean it that way. I think I was trying to bring up the fact that how you see the work depends on where it is being made, and what your cultural references are. There’s not one way of looking. I mean, I tend to look too much; if anything, the tint that I have in my lens is this kind of colonialist thing that I can’t let go of.

I just think Hoghe is making the same dance over and over again. It’s like, now what? That’s where I’m starting to roll my eyes.
Yeah. That’s the thing: Whoever commissioned it for him did it like that, like a market. I feel like the European world—I’m definitely not in that market obviously, and maybe I have too many opinions because of that—but it looks like such a market. It is so based on what piece sells and tours.

It’s a tour market.
It’s such a tour market. In dance, I always thought, Oh, we’re free of this thing the visual-art world has: Am I going to make work that sells or not? But in dance, it’s the same.

For your new work, how did you come up with your title? What were you thinking?
It is one long word that has many things in it, but they all relate. There’s something about the rhythm within it. And it’s a lot about sensation and indulgence, which is how I think of movement. And then, there are the key words or the shorter version: FEEL…FORM. It’s just very simple and conceptual: “Feel form” is really what the piece is. It’s the relationship and the tension between designing a form for the audience and the feeling, for the dancers, of being inside of it. To me, dance is both.

You have other words in there, too.
I have holy in there. I thought, Is that too much? But it’s there because of that relationship to ritual. Sometimes I feel like I end up referring to something religious in my dances, but it’s not because I’m religious—it’s because if there’s any little religious or spiritual side to me, it comes out in my relationship to dance. And I feel like dance is that: It’s that almost religious celebration of the body and of life. We’re going back to that cheesy thing. [Laughs] I like to brush close to cheesy. But not really. It’s a self-aware cheesy.

Luciana Achugar is at Abrons Arts Center May 11–12, 17–19.

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