Many Modes: The Practice and Performance of Mariana Valencia

Mariana Valencia is an artist committed to being non-committal. This does not mean one should deem her pursuits sloppy or lacking investment. On the contrary, she is of a singular mind, allowing her process of performance making and discovery to be one that fluidly traverses many media, ideas, and cultural histories.

It is a gray spring day and we are sitting in her Crown Heights apartment, a living space that, by New York standards, is large and inviting — a product of Valencia’s many creative interests. “I’ve never really done any genre in a clean way,” she quips; “My dances have never really been just dance.” And, when Valencia speaks– as when she performs, writes, lectures and teaches — she does so with directness that is punctuated by a tragicomic awareness of her own telling. She is able to locate comedy in her creative practice without letting it overwhelm a rigorous underlayer of sophisticated research and emotional excavation. Here, humor and failure coexist comfortably; there is room for both at all times.

Mariana Valencia in Originators. Photo by Bradley Buehring.

Mariana Valencia in Originators. Photo by Bradley Buehring.

Earlier this year, Valencia’s first evening-length work Originators debuted at Abrons Arts Center as the product of a residency at Issue Project Room and two years of field and studio research in Mexico City, Los Angeles, and New York City. What began as a concentrated study of performance scores turned in to a wide-ranging ethnographic explanation, largely resulting from Valencia’s 2015 trip to Mexico City. She traveled there to spend time amongst participants of Sonidero culture, a tradition of street parties where dances take place in public space to Cumbias (a dance music genre popular throughout Latin America). Sonidero is largely recognized as a cultural and social movement in Mexico City, especially for LGBTQ dancers and allies.

A chance to be engulfed in the culture and community in Mexico City — one that, Valencia notes, mirrors her own artist community in New York City though on a much grander scale — was a powerful influencer (and disruptor) of what resulted in Originators. It became a way for Valencia to focus on translating the rich performance practice of Sonidero dancing and use her own methods to locate these most potent intersections.

“I didn’t want to flatten something that was so dynamic,” she said of her time in Mexico City. “How do I help make this visible in a way that’s transparent and generous and experiential? That’s how it was given to me: it was given on a very personal level.”

One of the resulting explorations Valencia enacted upon her return was a performative lecture given for an event by the Women in Performance Journal in early 2015. Operating between the worlds of performance, academia, and ethnography, she recalls it as an early, important attempt at synthesizing what she deemed her “rigorous and passionate research.”

“[I wanted to engage] ethnographic dance content [but] not in an academic way,” she recalls. “It was a performative attempt to bring the audience with me there, as clear as possible, as best I could.”

Valencia’s deftness in navigating these performative modes is a lesson in embodied research. All at once, the joy, pain, power, and idiosyncrasies of so many respective histories generously filter through her tiny frame. An engrossing example of this is seen in a five-minute video excerpt of Originators, in which Valencia alternates between naming the characters of her Sonidero experience, while revealing the orbiting remnants of her travel logs and journals. There are shout outs to Jerome Robbins and Fred Astaire; she reminds us, as an aside, “I’m Guatemalan, I’m not Mexican;” she introduces key characters in this story, like Shakira (about 60 and “doesn’t give a shit”) and “Ricky Ricardo.” It’s a page ripped from personal ethnography, one that manages to remain infectious and evocative and joyous while avoiding the all-too-easy trap of veering overly sentimental or didactic.

From left to right: Elsa Brown, Mariana Valencia and Lydia Okrent in Originators. Photo by Bradley Buehring.

From L to R: Elsa Brown, Mariana Valencia and Lydia Okrent in Originators. Photo by Bradley Buehring.

On this approach, Valencia explains, “I am looking at the sociality of history and identity and seeing how it’s relevant to my current practice.” It is an interesting conflux in a way that forces the performer to become a shapeshifter, of both time and culture, in order to convey how these contexts interact and, what’s more, how they can be contained in a single, dancing body. There is a certain level of mental gymnastics involved to land on Valencia’s matrix of associations between the bombastic, lively Sonidero dances of Mexico City and, say, the light-footed, buoyant movement in the dancing of Fred Astaire. Yet, somehow, she uncovers the most essential kernels of each respective world, allowing any viewer to draw out his or her own map of interpretation.

“I do consider what’s in the air. I do think about what our collective unconscious [does to] produce some kind of view of my work,” Valencia tells me, and seeing her perform confirms it. She is telling me things but does not need me to know everything in order to feel something.

Toward the end of our conversation, we come back to the many ways in which she functions as a creative person. In the past few months alone, I have seen Valencia’s name credited in show programs as costume consultant, performer, organizer, teacher, and music designer. In the realm of her own art-making, she seemingly does it all, though is quick to acknowledge that this way of working does not always present the creative process with the clearest path. “The flaws are expected, I am not above them,” she says. “There’s nothing in my art right now that makes me want to produce the idea that I am some sort of mastermind.”

I am curious about future projects. Where to go from the distinct, richly tuned world of Originators? After a little nervous laughter — the laughter artists often have at the absurdity of ever making another show again — she pauses to consider it. “Time gives me a lot,” she finally says, in a way that lets me know I am a part of that, too. We all are. With Valencia, I have found, there is no “me” without an “us.”

Originators, photo by Bradley Buehring.

Originators, photo by Bradley Buehring.

Mariana Valencia is a newly-announced Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX) and will perform as a part of the upcoming Movement Research Spring Festival on June 8. More information at marianavalencia.work.

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