Strange Action (Utopia)

Isabel Lewis throbs with fantasy for contemporary dance. Dance in her fantasy does not strive for a physical, formal or conceptual ideal but instead the simultaneous precision and confusion germane to physical existence. It exists with no supplementary verbal or image-based information and thus external to market logics. It showcases what dance can do rather than pointing out its failures. The disclaimer: “You will not find this in my work.”

Of course not. Isabel no longer makes dances, and utopia can by definition never exist. It is a place with no place and no time, and surviving as a utopian in the present requires relieving oneself of the pressure of seemingly unrealizable desires from time to time. What you do find in Isabel’s work is wild play with fiction. I saw Strange Action (Florida) at For the Time Being, a DIY performance festival co-organized by her and a group of artists at Flutgraben in Berlin. It was the second installment of her most recent project, Strange Action, which had its New York premiere last fall at P.S. 122.

After exploding hypercolor, citrus scent-filled plastic bags and erecting a wall of fog, Isabel spun an improbable tale about the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in posthumous rehearsal at Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project in Florida. In pristine white unitards, the dancers moved to pulsating teeny pop. Three fake birds stood on their perch above fake green grass, when suddenly their skin was ripped off and fake blood fell from the ceiling, soiling the beautiful dancers below. Causality remained tenuous in this narrative. Everything felt synthetic. All we got was mention of the failings of a hard to locate, yet audibly creaky pulley system. Employing narrative while tending to the non-linear atmospheric, Isabel’s story flirted with the improbable.

“That Cunningham story reflects my current feeling about dance” she says, “I am in love with what it could be, but hate what it is. Contemporary dance is a failing art form. There is this pretense of a neutral body that makes it so far removed from what it thinks it is doing that as a generator of meaning it negates itself. The Merce fantasy is not meant to shit on Merce at all. It’s a fantasy projection of what dance could be if it would let itself be that awesome. It is about defiling the ‘purity’ of dance in some way, not making fun of it or putting it down, but wishing for it to go beyond its current stagnation. I am fully working within this problematic.”

Isabel studied dance and literary criticism, and like many in our generation, she has grappled with what her training has to do with what she actually ends up doing. Insistent on the value of live, body-based work in culture, Isabel proceeds by making solo work she more readily, though with some hesitation, aligns with the idiom of performance. All the better: these days categories have more efficacy when skidding against each other rather than containing something graspable.

It is not coincidental that somebody busy with concocting fantasy-inflected strange actions would point out dance’s fundamental utopian impulse. Over coffee on a sunny weekday morning, Isabel explains to me the potential of the field: “Dance creates sympathetic bodies, the ability to actually sense concepts and ideas. Imagine if everyone had a sympathetic body!” she exclaims, continuing, “Dance is a stronghold of a utopian vision that can never be.” Historically, utopia has found its home in fiction, with sweeping political theory as a kind of second home. Unlike Moore and Marx, however, dance exists outside of the hierarchy of language-based cultural production, going unnoticed as a site rife with the endlessly reimagined.

Isabel was active in the downtown New York scene when I lived there. I had seen her perform at The Kitchen in Ann Liv Young’s The Bagwell in Me and at P.S. 122 in Freak the Room, the first piece in a more long-term family collaboration she and her three siblings call Lewis Forever. They will be making a film this summer in Berlin with the help of a MAP Grant. Berlin is currently her base, but she’ll be back in New York this spring, where she will show excerpts of Strange Action (Florida) at Performance Mix. In the meantime, she writes a monthly performance column for Berlin Art Link, invests in building a happy, local community and can be seen around town DJing supremely danceable sets as Diamant.

“What is contemporary anyway?” I ask.

“’What is contemporary is being steeped in references while willfully and naively attempting to find something new in the face of highly probable failure.”

– Timothy Murray

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