INTERVIEW: Fabian Barba

 

Photo by Dieter Hartwig

 

Fabian Barba was born in Quito in 1982. He began studying modern dance at the age of 12 in Ecuador. From 2004 to 2008 he studied at PARTS school for Professional Training in Contemporary Dance in Brussels, where he works and resides today. Recently, he was invited to perform his solo work A Mary Wigman Dance at MoMA in conjunction with the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910 - 1925.

Interview by Josh T. Franco

 

We met in the context of the collective Modernity / Coloniality / Decoloniality (MCD). The particular occasion was a two-week Summer course convened by Walter Mignolo in Middelburg, Netherlands. You were searching for company in thinking about particular questions you had of your discipline, dance, that you had not yet found. Did you find what you were looking for in Middelburg?

During the last three or four years I’ve been trying to make sense of my experience as a dancer who first trained in Quito (Ecuador) and then continued studying dance and working as a dancer in Brussels (Belgium.) In a way I see myself as someone who, through training, came to belong to two different dance traditions, two dance traditions that are not completely foreign to each other but that have established very complex and puzzling relations or non-relations.

During the summer course special attention was dedicated to the question of “decolonizing aesthetics,” a conversation that put into my horizon questions I had not even considered and that I could suddenly discuss with artists coming from different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds. To be immersed in that dialogue was an extremely exciting experience that I haven’t finished assimilating; a very disturbing experience as well, because it further upset the already shaken ground I was and am standing on.

And yet, it was not only finding a common interpretive frame for thinking about different though related experiences that produced my disturbing excitement. It was also the sensation that my personal experience and the personal experiences of the people I met were placed first. We were talking theory, but only because in different ways we need that theory to make sense of our disparate yet related stories.

When I met María Lugones, I met a person first, a person whose voice was present later that summer when I read her Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes, a book that I’m sure won’t leave my thinking untouched. When I met you and you told me the story of Marfita, I was just amazed because even though our life experiences are quite distinct, I could somehow recognize in your story something like my dislocation working in Brussels, trying to make sense of two different and seemingly unrelated worlds. Then I also remember talking with Rolando Vazquez in María’s hotel room, telling him about my struggles to establish a relation with past and history that wouldn’t deny my former experience as a dancer in Quito, and he saying with his kind smile “so funny, I’ve been writing about it for a while now and here you come with this,” then of course I got to read what he was writing and that brought into my practice a perspective I haven’t been managed to articulate, a perspective that carries the kindness of his smile, a kindness that dissolves the discomfort that often accompanies the word “colonialism” when it appears in conversation with my colleagues in Brussels. Then there’s also the sensation of understanding something of the political commitment of Walter and his project of decolonizing epistemology, a political project that involves him fully as a person.
So yes, I think I found the company I was looking for. A very warm company. And yet a very disturbing company for the questions it raised. For example, what does it imply to “decolonize aesthetics”? We certainly didn’t have the time to get to the bottom of that.

 

On February 1 of this year, you performed your work A Mary Wigman Dance Evening as part of MoMA’s ongoing series, Performing Histories: Live Artworks Examining the Past. You were invited to perform in conjunction with the exhibition Inventing Abstraction: 1910 – 1925. Can you describe this piece, and give some history of Mary Wigman herself?

Mary Wigman is an important figure in the history of dance. She is recognized as a main character in the development and consolidation of Ausdruckstanz or “dance of expression.” She started to create her dances in the mid 1910’s and continued working all the way into the early 1960s, passing through the Weimar period, WWI, the interwar period, the rise of Nazism, WWII and the years after 1945.

I will just briefly point out that at the beginning of her career she engaged in an artistic practice that sought to strongly challenge the predominant values of the bourgeois society from where she came. In many aspects what she did must have been shocking: an adult woman (she was almost thirty at the time of her first public performance), single (maybe engaged in a love relationship with another woman), seeking a career of her own, doing dances that lacked gracefulness and that sometimes were performed even without musical accompaniment… She didn’t have it easy the first years. However, from the early 1920s on, she gained recognition and an important place within the dance field in Germany. In 1930 she made the first of her three tours through the United States, where she was received as “The Goddess of Dance,” a real diva whose work seemed revolutionary while enjoying wide popular acclaim. From 1933 she continued working in Germany under the bureaucratic and ideological machinery of the National Socialist party. Her personal stand in relation to nazi policy is a heated subject of discussion. For now, I will only note that a clear change in her artistic production can be noticed – how much of it meant resistance or accomodation to the regime is to be analyzed calmly. You can find a very exhaustive and compelling study of Wigman’s work in Susan Manning’s book Ecstasy and the Demon: The Dances of Mary Wigman. For my work I focused on the first tour of Mary Wigman in the United States. Her performances resembled a music concert, something like an MTV unplugged. The evening was composed of about nine solo dances, each of them had a length ranging from three to seven minutes. Each dance had a different costume, there were two live musicians accompanying the dance. Some audience members would know Wigman’s dances as we might know a pop song, and they would ask to the theatre to include this or that dance into the program, which they did.

A Mary Wigman Dance Evening is a theatrical proposition to imagine how one of those evenings might have been like. I learned three of her solos from video and I re-created the six other dances of Wigman’s recital with the help of archival material (photos, texts, music scores…) I also studied principles of movement developed by Wigman with three of her former students who worked with her in Berlin in the ’60’s.

 

I am thinking about your performance in the context of the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925. Based on our conversations this summer and since, the history of abstraction seems like only half of the story in your thinking about A Mary Wigman Dance Evening. Your other, primary concerns have to do with your particular appropriation of her work in the 21st century, as a male-identified body from Quito, Ecuador, who has lived in Brussels for significant portion of his adult life as a dancer. And all this specificity is perhaps at odds with the premise of the exhibition. How do you see your concerns in relation with the history of abstraction?

Reading texts on decoloniality and post-colonial theory, I became familiar with the critique of un-embodied, abstract Reason and Knowledge. That is, the detachment or abstraction of the thinking subject from the situation s/he studies, as if s/he was placed in a privileged a-temporal, out-of-space point of view.

As far as I know, Wigman and her contemporaries referred to the work they did as pure, abstract dances. At first, that sounded as nonsense to me. To my understanding and sensibility, those dances were anything but abstract. Through my education I had come to recognize abstraction in Merce Cunningham or in Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. Wigman dances had too much emotion, too much of a pretense for transcendental meaning for me to grant them the status of abstract dances. However, later I came to understand that abstraction for Wigman meant that her dances, or most of them, tried to do without recourse to narrative: there was no story-telling, no pantomime, no identifiable characters. This is how I now understand Wigman’s understanding of abstraction.

At the same time, Wigman was doing a new German dance (Ausdruckstanz). However abstract she claimed her dances to be, they were supposed to express a way of feeling of the German Folk, a Teutonic German Soul, a belonging to a German Soil. There was a strong nationalism in Wigman’s work from the 20’s on that I think doesn’t give much room for the kind of abstraction of the detached, disembodied ‘thinker.’ (This kind of nationalism of Wigman’s early work shouldn’t be immediately conflated with the nationalism of the nazi regime. A great majority of modern dance practiced in different European countries and in the United States was unmistakably nationalistic, including Martha Graham’s work who later forcefully participated in a boycott of a dance festival sponsored by Goebbel’s ministry.)

Certainly, my work focuses strongly in the relation between a dance practice and the cultural context in which it is produced. In a way, contemporary dance could be understood to be a very abstract artistic practice, detached from any specific location. Even if it tells a story or depicts characters, contemporary dance might be understood as a “universal language” as if thanks to its independency from spoken language, everyone could access it. If contemporary dance would be indeed a universal language, it wouldn’t be attached to a region nor to a community of practitioners nor to a specific history; everyone could do it, everybody could join either as a dancer or as a spectator. And this is not false: anyone can join, but at the price of inscribing oneself into a specific dance tradition. A dance tradition that is historically and geographically specific. Contemporary dance is not a universal practice, though it might pretend it is.

Or, there are several traditions of contemporary dance. When I was in Quito, I was doing something we used to call contemporary dance and then I decided to go to Brussels to improve my contemporary dance technique; I thought I would learn to kick my legs higher, that kind of thing. However, through my technical education in Brussels, I noticed later, I inscribed myself into a different dance tradition than the one of which I was a part in Quito. Through learning to use my body differently, I also learned to think of my body differently, and also to think differently about the role of the dancer and of the definition of dance itself. I didn’t improve my contemporary dance technique in the abstract; I became part of a different dance tradition, a very concrete one.

It’s the relation between these different dance traditions that interest me, dance traditions that are practiced in very specific cultural contexts. They’re not artistic practices that dance freely in the air, nor that are despotically rooted to a nationalistic soil.

 

You have spoken repeatedly about the relationship of time and place playing out in the fields of Modern and contemporary dance; how work from non-European, non-metropolitan companies is often relegated to an elsewhere time. You have been struck by comments like “that’s so 80’s” from prominent dance critics in regard to some of this work. Johannes Fabian called this the “denial of coevalness,” when geo-politics are articulated temporally, relegating a group or activity to a primitive status. It’s a way of maintaining legacies of coloniality to the benefit of those in old power centers. But you have argued that if we look to the specificity of experience and production in these sites instead of reading them through the terms of these centers--so that they appear merely dated--we might arrive at very different conclusions and possibilities. What might we achieve through such an examination, specifically?

I want to make something clear. When I talk about contemporary dance I refer to a specific kind of dance: artistic dance that is created for the theater (as institution and/or physical space). Thus, the epithet contemporary (which I write in italics) names a kind of dance which has to be differentiated from the adjective “contemporary” when this refers to the belonging or occurring of something in the present situation. So contemporary dance (without italics) could be any kind of dance practiced in the present situation: ballroom dances, street dances, etc. The curious thing is that contemporary dance, at least nominally, claims the present for itself excluding from it other kinds of dances. To my understanding, contemporary dance not only says that it belongs to the present, but that the present belongs to it; contemporary dance places itself in the ‘now,’ it colonizes the ‘now.’ Nominally, modern dance wouldn’t be contemporary, and it risks being placed as part of an overcome past.

Modern dance in Quito is not the same as contemporary dance in Brussels. The kind of modern dance I practiced in Quito could be accurately described as modern dance in that its technical, aesthetic and ideological premises filiate it to other modern dance traditions as they have emerged in different parts of the planet. To say that the dance I practiced in Quito is modern is not a problem by itself. The problem is when the contemporaneity of modern dance is denied. The main problem with this, is that if modern dance in Quito is an anachronism, then the only thing left for it to do is to “catch up” to the present exemplified in the work created in the centers. This thinking parallels this sentence by Marx quoted in Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: “[the] country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” This would annihilate the capacity of dancers in Quito to define their own artistic project, subjugating their practice to the assimilation of a project designed elsewhere: coloniality at its purest!

Something important I haven’t made clear this far: I became interested in Wigman’s work when I was in Brussels because in a way it referred me to the kind of dance I used to practice in Quito (mainly due to the central place given to emotion and intensity in both dance traditions: Ausdruckstanz and modern dance in Quito). The problem that appeared from the start is that I set an equivalence between a dance tradition that belonged to the past (the 30’s in Germany) with a dance tradition that belonged to a place outside the boundaries of Europe and the United States (Ecuador in 2000). It was as if traveling outside of those metropolitan centers meant traveling back in time!

The master narrative of dance—before it starts to be critically rewritten in the early 80s by dance historians—said that in the beginning there was ballet. Then early in the 20th century early modern dance appeared in opposition to ballet, with dancers like Ruth St Denis, Laban, Wigman and Graham. Then starting in the early 60’s, Cunnhingham and the dancers of the Judson Church in New York propulsed the post-modern dance (in clear opposition to modern dance) that gave place to the effusion of contemporary dance.

Although this almost caricatural presentation of the master narrative of dance history can easily make me target of harsh criticism, I think that that master narrative, however contested, remains operative in a surreptitious manner. It is this historicist, stagist account of dance history that creates the conditions of possibility to say that modern dance is not contemporary, an anachronism because modern dance came before contemporary dance, and in historicist thinking we’re faced with a sequential logic instead of an additive one: contemporary dance has to displace modern dance, they cannot exist at the same time – thus the denial of coevalness operating in the fight for the ‘true present’ in dance history.

When I started working on A Mary Wigman Dance Evening, I related the kind of modern dance I used to practice in Quito to a tradition that was not recognized as a living dance tradition in 2000 – as far as I know, there’s no one actually practicing Ausdruckstanz in the way it was practiced from the mid 10’s until circa 1965. In that sense, the shortcoming of my thinking was that I related modern dance in Quito not only to a past dance tradition (exemplified in the work of Wigman in the 30’s in Germany), but also to a dance tradition that lacked vitality.
However, even if Ausdruckstanz couldn’t be considered a living dance tradition in 2000, it did influence enormously the development of different traditions of modern dance, which maintain a living practice that is not relegated to the past even if they are very aware of their genealogy. Thus, when I was considering the filiation between Ausdruckstanz and modern dance in Quito, I could have focused not only on this genealogy, but also in the relations that modern dance in Quito could establish with other contemporaneous modern dance traditions as they’re practiced in different parts of the planet. Examining the specificity of modern dance in Quito doesn’t mean to deny its filiation to Ausdruckstanz nor to isolate it as if it has come out of a vacuum, it can allow instead to recognize its autonomy and capacity for agency in relation to different living modern dance traditions as places that are presently inhabited by dance practitioners that need not, should not, be relegated to an archaic, objectified, detached past.

 

I am frequently struck by your use of the phrase “embody dance” in regard to dancers you hold in high regard. To the untrained, it seems redundant. Is dance not always embodied?

I usually talk about the embodiment of images, ideas and ideals when referring to the kind of dancing exemplified in the body and practice of a dancer I appreciate. I like to stress the embodiment of ideas and ideals to make clear that these do not exist only in abstract thinking and language, but that they have an existence and a way of transmission that passes through the body.

The dances of Wigman were at first foreign to my body; they existed in videos, photos, textual accounts and exercises I had never practiced. Much of their work is done through verbal language. My approach was the bodily re-enactment of those dances that didn’t exist in the traditional archives. To embody those dances meant to inscribe them in my body, to host them, to give them a bodily existence.