luciana achugar’s OTRO TEATRO began with an act of devotion. Each audience member was asked to remove his or her shoes before entering New York Live Arts’ third floor studio, bathed in cool early evening light. As we stepped one by one into the space, a kneeling figure, enshrouded in a glimmering sheet of black metallic burlap that looked at once ancient and futuristic–think early Star Wars trilogy–was positioned in the doorway like a sentry. As we crossed the threshold, the figure bowed and kissed each audience member’s feet, first one, then the other. It was a tender initiation that prepared us for the performance to come: part rite and incantation, part rhythmic exploration of the body as a route through which we might transcend its limits, to touch something larger than ourselves.
achugar’s face remains covered in the black fabric for most of the piece, lending her a quality not entirely human; in a literal sense, she looks like a small black specter, cloth draped over her head and pooling around her like a child’s Halloween costume, until you get to the white flesh of her lower legs poking out from underneath. Red lines have been drawn onto her skin, tracing lines down the center of each calf and out to her middle toe. The same pattern repeats on her arms and hands, which we sometimes see clutching the fabric.
One early section is the exception to this rule. Here her face features prominently, painted with the same red streaks highlighting eyes and cheekbones, with an iridescent lavender underneath. The word shaman comes to mind, as much from her comportment as her appearance. She makes eye contact with members of the audience, her gaze at once insistent and otherworldly, as if part of her is present in the room with us, and part of her is somewhere else entirely, unreachable. She engages in a series of movements almost like a bird or small animal cleaning itself, as if to pry something nestled inside her out into the open.
Another dark shape comes to life behind her, and they move together, shifting quickly from one leg to another to create a mesmerizing auditory patter, four feet creating a sudden storm of sound and vibration. At one point the two bodies, both faces and torsos still hidden in black, shift from side to side, one behind the other, in a wide-legged squat. It’s a seemingly simple back-and-forth movement. Underlined by the chanting vocalizations of Michael Kiley’s score, it has a hypnotic power that takes us by surprise.
achugar began working on the piece in January, improvising by herself and then gradually adding on. (The current incarnation involves two other dancers and several singers who are heard but not seen onstage.) “I think of it almost as an accumulation,” she said in a post-performance discussion led by Marya Warshaw, artistic and executive director of BAX (Brooklyn Arts Exchange).
Warshaw remarked on the piece’s ability to pull us into a different temporal space. achugar and her collaborators sustain things–an image, a movement, a vocal pattern–beyond the comfortable moment where our short attention spans would expect a shift. “I don’t know where you get the bravery, to take the time,” Warshaw tells her. “It’s something that attracts me to your work,” she added, as well as something she has come to associate with achugar’s pieces–an “identifier.”
“We make work according to who we are . . . your relationship to space and time necessarily comes through,” achugar said. She acknowledged that ever since she was a child, her sense of the latter has been especially elastic, something she now observes in her son. “I like to indulge in the experience of the moment. I have very bad time management problems,” she said, smiling, “but you find ways to use those problems.”
One audience member spoke of the piece evoking a “heightened physical experience, that has some kind of magic, or sorcery.” Another spoke of performers and audience in turn seeming “possessed”: “It got into me,” he said.
If the performance calls to mind the ancient Greek mysteries or other primal rites, it may be because achugar is attuned to the through-line that connects performance today with “this thing that comes from ancient culture, when dance and music were about nature.” She strives to create work “out of that basic need.”
The fully realized production of OTRO TEATRO will premiere at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, this August, and will make its New York debut next April at New York Live Arts.
–Olivia Jane Smith
To listen to an excerpt of achugar’s In-Process Talk with Marya Warshaw, click here.