Anabella Lenzu in conversation with Shannon Elizabeth O’Brien
Anabella Lenzu’s book Unveiling Emotion and Motion (or Revelando Movimiento y Emoción) offers memories, wisdom, and advice collected from over 20 years of teaching dance. Anabella is an Argentine choreographer living in New York City, and founding artistic director of Anabella Lenzu/DanceDrama. She sat down with me at a café near Peridance, after her barre à terre class had ended, to feed my curiosity about her bilingual book and her recent performance In Pursuit of Happiness at The Alchemical Studios in Manhattan.
S: In your book, you talk about teaching in NYC versus in other cities. With the drop-in culture that exists here, the success of a teacher seems more based on popularity of the class. How did you build a consistent following of students?
A: It’s 10 years that I’ve been here. At the beginning, I was testing the waters. Now, I do what I want. I started teaching ballet and modern in colleges. I had a very strong foundation in ballet and then I have folkloric approach and theater background that compliment that, but I have a very strong technical foundation. The most important thing about teaching is to teach how to look at dance, not how to do it. It was interesting for me, coming to America, and finding that people start dancing at 19 or 20 years old. In Europe and in Argentina, you start at 3, 4, or 5. But, you can still become a good dancer because you have this critical eye at 20 that you didn’t have when you were 3, 4, or 5.
You need to see it from the outside and inside. There’s two realities – I talk about this in the book – it’s like the outside movie and the inside movie. There is your architecture, your history, your movement, your emotions. This is technique. It’s not just outside, superficially – especially in America. For me, everything seems plastic, in a way. “Okay, you look great, but what about your art? You are fit, oh great! And what?” It’s a learning curve for me to understand this diverse population in New York.
I like to teach at a university, because then we can spend an hour just on how to do grand pliés. I spend the time, and I say, “I don’t want to see you in open dance classes doing this horribly, please.” Here [in my barre à terre classes], I give a topic every month. That’s how I teach. This month is all about the spine; we’ve been working a lot on isolation. September was all about the hip in turn out. October was all about parallel, and especially the front part from the hip flexor and the psoas. Everything is isolated. Before, we worked on all the arms and spine. Now, for November and December, we have the goals, the resolution. Even if it’s an open class, people have been following my class for 2 years. Now, it’s like everything’s connected. You are here, you are not a salami on the stage.
S: I have a few questions for you about both the performance, and also the book. I want to start with the book, because hearing you talk about your experience of being in New York for 10 years, and about how to educate dancers, I’m wondering what your impulse was to write a book. I know that, in your marketing, you’ve said it’s a resource for dancers. But what made you feel like this was something that needed to be written rather than taught in class?
A: I have students all over the world—between Italy, Argentina, Chile, and the United States—that I continue receiving messages from asking, “Can you record yourself in class?” I’m not going to do a 101 tutorial in a studio with a model. That’s not me. I don’t want to do that. When I moved here, I was guest artist for a different university. Then, when I had my kids, I’m here in New York. Before, I was a visiting artist.
This is my second book. When I sit, and I start to write, I cannot talk about the technical stuff if I don’t first talk about the philosophical approach, and what happened in my life. And then, it will come in time that I will write about the technical—like a science book. I don’t want to do a Modern Dance 101, with the photos of the different poses. That’s not me.
For me, the fact that I left my home town—where we didn’t have internet, where there were 5 books about dance history, and a lot of difficulties because of economical, social, political issues—to be where I am today is a long journey. I feel like a cat: 7 lives. My influences didn’t come from the dance field, they come from other art forms. My teachers from art criticism in school, my sculpture teacher, my literature teacher—they were poets and sculptors and painters, and they traveled the world and had their experiences. And it’s not because I didn’t have good [dance] teachers. I had good teachers. It was my life. I need to put it in a book, because I have a lot of students. I needed to do a book, in a way, because I feel also that when I read autobiographies from another artist—not just in the dance field—it just enriches me, empowers me to know the person’s stories.
S: It seems like there is a bit of a mystery to how dance artists survive, so what I appreciate about your book is giving insight to what everyday life is like, because it’s not a normal job. In that way, this book is very helpful for other people trying to do the same thing but who may be 10 or 20 years behind you.
A: Yes. My dad had a typography shop. He always told me, “Oh, yeah, you can do it, you can dance, but you need to put this in paper.” He always said, “Put it in paper. Write about it.” It was a whole thing about keeping. When the whole Internet era came, and I’d tell him, “Papi, I’m writing about this magazine in Spain, I’m doing this translation for this book.” He’d say, “It’s writing?” It had to be tangible. Now that the book is out, it’s very interesting. Because we are artists, at this moment, I don’t care if I have a car, if I have a penthouse apartment on 5th Avenue, it’s not my goal. But to have a book, I feel like, “Okay, I put this stone here.” The shows come and go, but I understand now, at 40, what my dad was telling me: to put it in writing.
When I read it five years from now, I won’t be thinking the same thing because I change. 10 years ago, I was different when I came to New York City. It doesn’t matter. This is a stone. It’s a brick, where I can keep building. And hopefully, it will help some other person to build a brick too. I’m talking about courage: you need to have courage. Life is hard, but if you don’t allow yourself to do it, who will?
S: You said your father had a typography shop?
A: He had a big print shop, and he did newspapers and books. I grew up with a lot of papers and print things.
S: Why did you make the book bilingual? I understand it’s the only bilingual dance pedagogy book at the moment.
A: Because there were none. I studied French, and then I moved to New York, and I realized I don’t know English. I couldn’t study the pioneers of modern dance. All the resources are not translated. So, then, one magazine from Madrid started to ask me to translate articles of Doris Humphrey, and others pioneers of modern dance. I’d never studied English better. I can’t believe that we are here in 2015, and still pioneers of modern dance are not translated into Spanish. I feel bad. So, I wrote the book in Spanish, and then my assistant Julia, who is bilingual, translated it. English is not my first language. This is the amount of words I know. I needed to write it in Spanish to be fair.
S: What do you think about the next generation of dancers coming out of New York: how much they read about dance versus how much they need to be reading about dance?
A: I think it’s always the same issue. There are just a few in each generation that are interested in history—just a few. It was always like that. I feel it’s because of the immediacy of dance. People want to live the moment, they want to enjoy their bodies, they want to enjoy the motions. That’s it. But, for each one of us, dance fulfills us in a different place. Now, I don’t take dance classes because dance fulfills me intellectually. But, it’s not like that for all the dancers, especially the younger ones. It’s something physical. You’re young, you have a lot of energy, so you can dance 8 hours a day. But, for some people, it’s also internal. For me, it was always both ways, and now that I have kids, it’s completely intellectual. But, I still teach. I’m not theoretical. I’m in between; that’s my thing. I’m not completely practical either. It’s this place in between.
S: Do you think if a dancer finds that dance only fulfills them physically, then that’s okay?
A: It’s okay for them as dancers. The problem is when they teach. When you are in charge of someone else, it’s like when you become a parent. You stop doing certain things. You don’t have a choice. That’s the issue. The issue is the criticism: if you don’t read, if you don’t study, dance will be just what it is now. The problem with young choreographers is they think they are creating a wheel, but in reality, they’re just repeating what Trisha Brown did in the 60s, and that’s what annoys me. What annoys me is the ignorance.
It’s also up to me as a teacher. When I say in a dance class, “Who is your favorite dancer?” And they don’t know, I feel really sad. You don’t have a point of reference. It does make me really sad, because you don’t know what you’re looking at.
In New York, you have the pockets of the Italian, the Irish, the Polish, all the neighborhoods—dance also reflects these small pockets you can participate in. For me, as a dance teacher, I can go to see everything from Butoh to the opera. These tours, they all come into New York, and then I learn it, I enjoy it, it’s like a good meal, and when someone asks me about it, I can address it. It’s my job to know what it’s about, and expose my students to it. Especially in college, if you go to a university somewhere in the middle of nowhere, your idea of what is the world is so different. So, I try to be this link in the universe between real life and college life.
S: As a teacher, you have a lot of influence. Most dancers take a lot of class, and have interactions with teachers. A teacher has the opportunity to say, “This is what’s going on, this is what you should read and what you should know if you’re making work.”
A: I don’t tell them what they need to do. I feel like you need to guide them, and you need to empower them to be whatever they are, and they need to embrace it. My job is not to tell them what to do, my job is to tell them “That’s the craft. Now, own it, and let’s see,” and to trust them. I feel that because people have hope in me, I can move. That’s what I say to students too. When you feel that you don’t have someone that gives you this hope or this trust, it’s difficult to find your own voice.
S: Speaking of your choreographic voice, I want to ask you about your recent performance at Alchemical. In the program, you touched on how the piece is about grieving over your father’s death. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit more about your impulse to create that specific work, in that venue.
A: I’m still digesting. I feel like it took me out of my body. I feel that, connecting to this right here in my book, my dad always told me, “Whatever you want to do in life, I support you 100%. If you want to go to college, if you want to perform internationally, if you want to just marry and have a baby,” he always listened. That was a big support for me. When he passed away, in a way—since 1999 we lived in different countries, but he would always Skype or telephone—when I could no longer reach him, I thought, I have to do something to keep in touch. Whatever it is, with my memories, to keep alive my memories, to share the memories with my two kids. I feel sad: my daughter was 6 months old when my dad passed away. She will never remember him, so that, for me, was very important. There are the things that for me, as a person, were so important that I will pass it on. It’s not a kid’s show, but in a way, I made it to pass it on. In a metaphorical way, later on, I feel that during the creative process, during this very strong process of 5 months, our duo rehearsing everyday for 4 hours, with [dancer] Lauren Ohmer and [dramaturg] Daniel Pettrow, I was kind of blind. I didn’t know what I was doing. I kind of went with my intuition. I didn’t ask myself questions, I just went with my impulses.
I started taking photos. I started with movement vocabulary, I started to write in stories, then after 4 hours I came home, put my baby to sleep, and kept writing for 2 hours. It was kind of like in this limbo; I didn’t want to be very conscious. It was different from other shows. I just wanted to work on that, and it was my way to be in touch with my dad. Sometimes, it was very painful to be in rehearsal. I didn’t want to go to rehearsal, I didn’t want to see Lauren, I didn’t want to go. But, the fact that I’m working on the show put myself on the spot. I had to take time to grieve, within the show.
I realized when we finished doing the performance, I didn’t move on. I’m in the same spot. I really didn’t move on. I’m still trying to understand things. In a way, I thought the show can be cathartic, but it’s not. It’s another thing. This is my artwork. It’s personal, but it doesn’t fill the emptiness. So, I started to write these very small stories—89 stories. I know it’s 89 because I live in Williamsburg, where there is a garage sale and they sell these typography drawers that have all these different spaces that you can put letters in. They have these really tiny compartments, and there were 89 of them. There were more than 89 stories, but I needed to select 89. I was coming to rehearsal, and I was reading to Daniel, and I’m talking more about this. But some stories are so personal, and some are so funny, and what we did in the show was 2% of it all. But it needed to be this separation, this decantation of the process, that I needed to write this 89. Maybe they will end up being a book. Who knows.
S: They were true stories about your dad?
A: Yes, true stories. There was one funny one—we tried many times, with many approaches with Daniel, to put it in the piece. Emotionally, I can talk about my dad, but when I need to speak about my dad onstage, it’s a whole different thing. What were we going to do? We tried theatrical structures to do the stories, and that didn’t work. In reality, the work is video clips of stories of stories of stories that have something to do with death. These stories give a glimpse at who he was. He was an incredibly generous and patient man.
S: Do you think that this process has helped keep memories of him more vivid for you?
A: I’m not sure what part of the memories are true or not. When I told my mom all these things, she would say it happened, but she’d tell me the other side of the story. I remember something that she doesn’t remember, or she remembers the thing that I don’t remember. So in a way, yes, it was a ping pong of memories, sometimes painful, sometimes fun.
In our team—Lauren, and Daniel, and me—Daniel also lost a brother. We’ve always collaborated: he’s my advisor, he trains us vocally and acting-wise through workshops. In the work I know that there are some things that are personal—his own personal things—that he never told me. Because I know him, he never articulated it, but I know that it’s there in certain images. This show is a vehicle for other people to grieve. My husband [Todd Carroll] did the music. It was a terrible process. I think we almost divorced. He’s like, “I’m doing your music, and I remember your dad. This is hard for me.” So, I said, “I want one minute, 25 seconds.” He was like, “Wait a minute, I’m in the process too.” It was very interesting how the grieving of each one of us, for other people, was pouring into the same vase that was this show.
S: The decisions were being based not just on what fit, but what felt right.
A: Yes. But again, when we did the show, we worked for a long time. Everything is super-rehearsed and calculated. We have backup plans for everything: what if the projector goes out, what if the flashlight goes out, what about Lauren—we have it all. But, I did not expect what happened to me. I was just crying day and night during the show—before the show, after the show, in the morning when I woke up. It was just so fresh. It was something that bounced me back. We tried with Daniel to make the show as open as possible. We wanted that. But it was so much open that it bounced me back. I saw some photographs and some movement that I know the motivation of the movement, I know what is the reason, but when I saw them on the stage, it was another piece. It just blew my mind. It was other memories of my dad that I never thought of, that I never remembered, and another connection. Emotionally, all the emotional peaks that I built, that wasn’t there for me. It was other ones that kept surprising me every night. That, for me, never happened because, as a choreographer, that’s what I like to choreograph. I’m not an improviser; I craft. Because it’s personal—so personal—that it just threw me off center. It never happened to me in rehearsal. I would like to read more about that. I know William Forsythe choreographed for his wife, and I know about Bill T. Jones choreographed for his partner. I never hear about what happened with the artists. You put it out there, and what? It’s not therapeutic. I never expect that ever. When I did the show, I never thought, this is going to be cathartic, it’s going to help me to heal.
S: It was an unexpected reaction.
A: Completely unexpected. I’m still processing this… it just flipped the meaning. Then I was thinking, Wow, that’s the power of dance. It’s as open as you want to go. Even when I do dance theater, it’s an abstraction of the feeling. It’s the note, and the right color, and the feeling, and it just blows my mind.
S: The projections throughout the work, are they all photographs that you took?
A: Yes. During these five months, from my home to Astor Place, as an instinct, I was taking my iPad—then my iPhone, and then my husband lent me a camera—and I started to photograph everything that was interesting for me. Because my husband is a photographer, my dad thought, “Oh, it would be great when you come to Argentina to do an exhibition about New York—the buildings, the architecture,” and my husband didn’t want to. That’s not my husband. For me, I want to photograph New York, but not the buildings. I want to photograph what I see: the decays, the painting, the container, the cracks on the sidewalk. They’re all small but I can tell you this photo was here, in the corner, at this point.
I started to look down, and very zoomed, and all my photographs are abstract; I never photograph a person. For me, it was like a composition exercise. WhenLauren came to rehearsal, I was ready, and then I’d drive her crazy with everything. We do one way, we change planes, level, dynamics, everything. I just literally went to all the chorographical tools I know. Upside down, no, this, that. It was a game, because I feel it. I didn’t want to go emotionally. So, in a way, the technique kept me. I know the technique very well. I know how to compose. It’s like a game, but all the photos, when I took them, I was thinking about my dad. When I choreographed, I was not thinking about my dad. I could not be so personal with Lauren.
Everyday, I was just working on another language to frame some things for me that were falling apart, and I needed to frame them. Then, my husband came in and said, “What are you going to do with these photos?” “I don’t know.” He said, “There is a projector that is very small, like a cell phone. Can I bring it for you in the studio?” “Yes, sure. Let’s try it.” I didn’t call Lauren, I called Julia—the translator for the book—because she’s not dancing anymore but she’s like a body. I said, “Come, Julia. I want to play with you.” She said, “Yeah, sure.” So were in my office, and we were playing, and I was saying, “Okay, go here, stay still, I want to see,” and it was magical. That’s what I did. So, then the process was selecting from these 10,000 photos to 20.
S: What made you decide to be handling the projector during the piece?
A: Because I was inside the piece, but little by little, I removed myself. I dance, and I enjoy dance, but I enjoy to be on the other side. That’s my place. It’s like, you want to be in the center of the stage, or you want to be in the periphery. I enjoy being in the periphery. In the beginning, I spoke, I performed more, but then I kept removing my parts. Then, I was feeling that I was the choreographer at the same time, when I need to be in I just dump this paper and come into the stage. That is the frame. It’s fun, because every show, Lauren is very precise, but changed the angle, while I still want this eye, the shadow over my head. In a way, it’s like photographing her every show. But, we have so much rehearsal, that I know how to frame her. But it keeps me focused on her. It’s fun. I have so much fun to be outside rather than inside.
S: I felt that separation of manning the projector and framing the image. But then, at the end, when you join in and the projector floats up to the ceiling, that was so powerful. The photograph just sort of disappears.
A: That’s it all. Again, the projection—my dad projected on me, I project on my kids, I project on Lauren, we project to the audience. These layers. There are so many things we discovered through the whole show, and I discovered things about me and my relationship with Lauren as a dancer, my relationship with Daniel as a director.
S: Can you talk more about your relationship with Lauren in the piece?
Well, we know each other a lot. But as a dancer and a choreographer, we’ve been working for a long time. I try to keep it as clear as possible, the boundaries between the friendship. Because I know too much of her, and she knows too much of me, we keep this space between us. We can push each other artistically. I feel that that’s the perfect marriage, because we are here for a reason; it’s not to chat. We are here to do the show.
In rehearsal, we were working with some paper masks and costumes, and we had two sections, and we rehearsed both, and it wasn’t moving along. Lauren was very frustrated, I was very frustrated, and then Daniel came along. And I said, “Daniel, this doesn’t work.” He said, “Yes, I see it.” I said, “How can we fix it?” Because sometimes he has the magical touch. He said, “Well, what do you want?” I started to explain about this section of kicking the papers on the floor. He said, “Lauren, put all the papers in the corners—everything. Mix it up—all the costumes, the mask, all the papers. Now, you just go, and kick the shit out of them. And then you come back, and do Anabella’s choreography. And when I tell you, you go and kick the shit. And then you come back and dance. Then go, then come back, then go.” When I saw it, I started to cry like a baby. Daniel, with the music, said “Keep going” and I was like, “That’s what I want!”
I could not give this direction to Lauren. I never get mad about the fact that my dad passed away. My sister was really mad, my mom was really mad. I am not. But when Daniel understood that I could not make this section, because everything else was functional and structural, and there was something more and I didn’t want to give this direction to Lauren, and she knew—it’s very interesting, because she knows me personally—she knew that it wasn’t working, but in a way she respected this space. But when her director came and said, “No, you need to kick the shit,” she did it. So then, it worked. I choreographed this in 15 minutes after that. 15 minutes. It’s not like the Swan Lake between Pavlova and Fokine. It was like this. He allowed me to have what I could not tell Laruen. I did not give the permission to myself, so I could not give the permission to Lauren.
S: It sounds like every part of this piece has been so intentional and so calculated. Can you tell me a bit more about the paper dress costume, and the lines painted across Lauren’s arms and down her neck?
A: Again, my dad had a printing shop. so, I wanted the set to have paper because I lived in papers. When I was little, and I came to visit him in the printing shop almost every day, he put me underneath the guillotine to play in a big box of paper scraps. This box was my grandmother’s and my grandfather’s box when they came from Italy to Argentina after the second World War. They put it underneath the guillotine. I didn’t know when they passed away what this box was. I spent a lot of time around papers, and I take notes and love books. So, that element needed to be there. We tried many things. What is made by paper? Books. At the beginning, it was a book. Then it was a whole roll of paper. Then it was a stack of paper. And then, nothing worked, and I was so frustrated, because I wanted something to decay throughout the show. I was really frustrated, and then one week before the open rehearsal at Gibney, I said, “I need a change of air. I’m going to the Native American Museum. I’ll be one hour there, and then I’m going to come home.”
Here I am at the Native American Museum. The second exhibition was on the Bell Papers, the Native Americans who have the bells. The entire exhibition was the white dress made by paper. I was like, “That’s what I need! A dress made of paper!” I called Lauren, and we tried thousands of models. What allowed her to move, what would rip first, what would have flowers. We went from a folklorico dress to a very simple one, another one had pleats. We did so much. Now we have a pattern. Every night, we needed to make it. You can cut the petals, but the assembly need to be done the same day [as the show].
The black paint is the ink. My dad always had the big, Italian hands, and for years, they were covered with ink. In the nails – I remember he would wash with a special soap. So, Lauren has all this ink. It feel a skeleton. We tried just the palm of the hands, but it was looking like a glove. We tried just the tip of the fingers. We tried everything. We tried the legs, we tried the feet, then when I decided to do that, I thought, “Oh, this is like a skeleton.” I see it myself.
S: The dress was made with thin parchment paper, right?
A: It was tracing paper on the skirt, and the top is crepe. Crepe is more durable and stretches, so the torso could move better. We tried different kinds. Long, short, crossing in the front, in the back. It was a lot of paper. We used different colors at first, but it needed to be white because of the projection. We chose Alchemical because there’s not any other space for dance that is white.
S: The last piece haven’t talked about in terms of set is the ladder.
A: My grandfather, when he came from Italy to Argentina, was a bricklayer. He built a lot. Many people in Brooklyn, actually—Italian-Americans—are like that. So, he was a bricklayer, and then he started to build houses. So, I grew up on that scaffolding, and I know how to do cement and how to finish the stucco. So, there’s a big connection between the scaffolding, the ladder, the brick layers, and the movement vocabulary. There is a lot of construction. Lauren is the mortar or the texture. We decided with Lauren to research about scaffolding. At first, I thought we’d do the entire stage in scaffolding. If we had so much scaffolding, where would we put it? So, we decided on a ladder. What does that mean? It was kind of like my dad told me everything I need to do, I need to do it right, I am right in this place and everything else will fall into place. Every time she reached there, there’s nothing. There’s not a window, there’s nothing. What does that mean? What is that? That ascension. That’s why the ladder.
S: It’s amazing, everything that goes into a work and then what you end up seeing.
A: It’s a simplification, but in a way that’s like a triple espresso. You don’t dilute it, you just look at what is important, which stays, and what is not, which goes. You leave it behind. This is not a show about my dad. How can I be fair? How can I portray a person? It’s like with movies. How many Steve Jobs movies are there? What is fair, how could you portray him? So, this show is not about my dad. There are memories, but that’s why it’s open. But definitely, in the program, I put the note that the memories are like catapults, lunging to other things. The memory of my dad pushed me to choreograph, because he always told me to do whatever I want. It’s not a show that sells, at all. Many of my friends didn’t want to come, because it’s heavy. The memories are the launching pad, the point of departure. It was healing. Many people cried. On Friday, I had six people saying “Thank you,” that they were so moved. I knew some of them personally, but some I didn’t know so personally. I know some touched them in a way. It needed to be done.