How Performance Art Leans Into the Unknown
At the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival, performances by Mia Habib and Ligia Lewis stood out for their engrossing contributions to the ever-evolving medium.

By Lindsay Costello

Originally published in Hyperallergic

TBA19_Ligia-Lewis_WaterWillinMelody3_CREDITsarahmarguier-26-copy-1080x771Ligia Lewis, Water Will (in Melody) (photo by Sarah Marguier, courtesy of Portland Institute of Contemporary Art)

PORTLAND — The Time-Based Art Festival (TBA), Portland Institute For Contemporary Art’s annual ten-day festival of performance, music, food, film, workshops, lectures, and late-night events, is renowned for its intensity and commitment to the experimental. This year, amidst a strong calendar of diverse performances, two pieces, ALL – a physical poem of protest and Water Will (in Melody), stood out as engrossing contributions to the ever-evolving medium.

Oslo-based choreographer Mia Habib purposefully chose the performance location for ALL; Pioneer Courthouse Square is a frequent site of nationally-broadcasted protests spotlighting conflicts between Antifa activists and right-wing white supremacist groups. Centrally located in downtown Portland, the square is surrounded by train lines on three sides and faces Pioneer Courthouse.

TBA19_MiaHabib_ALLAPhysicalpoem_CREDITBrittanyWindsor-12-1-copy-1080x720 (1)
Mia Habib, ALL – a physical poem of protest (photo by Brittany Windsor, courtesy of Portland Institute of Contemporary Art)

In ALL, 50 performers, all local volunteers, manifest an unspoken objective. The performance consists of a series of cycles in which the group walks, jogs, and sprints in a continuous spiral. The spiral tightens and disperses; the performers find brief moments of meditative pause between rushes of extended action. Seamless transitions suggest a flowing machine generating continual energy. While cycling through movements, the performers’ expressions are neutral, their pace determined. Yet, they also communicate empathy and kindness — at one point, they touch each other on the shoulders, connoting a momentary offering of support. The performers later join in on a single note, harmonizing together as they continue to move in unison. The synchronicity intrinsic to ALL raises questions. How does the protesting body mobilize effectively alongside others? How can we catalyze lasting change together?

TBA19_MiaHabib_ALLAPhysicalpoem_CREDITBrittanyWindsor-18-copy-1080x720Mia Habib, ALL – a physical poem of protest (photo by Brittany Windsor, courtesy of Portland Institute of Contemporary Art)

ALL suggests that protest begins as an occupation of space. Bodies in space, when unified in movement, indicate an allied mission. In ALL, the continuity of bodies in motion is mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. Each performer bonds with the next through proximity and matched movement. This bond implies a commonality beyond ideology; the participants seem primally connected, their bodies melting together in a powerful abstraction of human mass. By choreographing a series of simple movements, Habib has located the force of the body as protest.

Habib has facilitated iterations of ALL worldwide. It’s been performed at a dance festival in New York City and at a feminist protest in France. Choreographer Jeremy Wade borrowed the score for a performance at a Berlin protest against the treatment of LGBTQ people in Chechnya. The performance can take place over the course of 45 minutes, as it did in Pioneer Square, but Habib aspires to someday facilitate a 12-hour durational performance of the work. Like the choreography itself, ALL is fluid, adaptable, and intuitive.

TBA19_Ligia-Lewis_WaterWillinMelody4_CREDITsarahmarguier-11-1080x771Ligia Lewis, Water Will (in Melody) (photo by Sarah Marguier, courtesy of Portland Institute of Contemporary Art)

Choreographer Ligia Lewis’s Water Will (in Melody) is a gothic, monstrous exploration of the body. The four-person piece, performed by Lewis, Dani Brown, Susanne Sachße, and Titilayo Adebayo, unfolds slowly. Each dancer peels back layers of increasing intensity and melodrama to create a deeper connection with the audience. The stage is dark, framed by dense black curtains; a thick climbing rope is the sole physical prop. Fog floats over the audience before the show begins. The room smells like fresh earth.

The eerie tone of the performance is set by Brown, who recites a Southern Gothic-style monologue about a willful child buried alive (adapted from a Brothers Grimm tale.) Brown’s costume (vinyl-covered white overalls, lace socks, and delicate shoes) suggests a stilted innocence. Her body jerks in unnatural, stiff movements. The gory image of a zombie is evoked — the embodied dead.

TBA19_Ligia-Lewis_WaterWillinMelody1_CREDITsarahmarguier-4-1080x720Ligia Lewis, Water Will (in Melody) (photo by Sarah Marguier, courtesy of Portland Institute of Contemporary Art)

An increasing sense of unease is cultivated with thrashing choreography, pulsing strobe lights, screaming, and whispers of distorted dialogue. Throughout the performance, the dancers dramatically mime expressions of sorrow, rage, and desperation. Body horror is implied in their puppet-like twitching and lurching gestures, as if they are creatures experiencing embodiment for the first time. The dancers engage in a grim, urgent fight against themselves, continually learning and unlearning how to move their foreign bodies. Yet, there are moments of comedic relief within the performance. This confusion is intentional. During a cut to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” the stage is lit with a rapturous white light while the dancers flitter in a brief, performatively feminine routine. After a few seconds, they collapse. Continually, the audience is left to grapple with the same sense of anxiety that the dancers experience in their own bodies.

During the final moments of the performance, water sprays delicately over the stage and humidity permeates the room. The dancers seem more comfortable in their bodies, even joyous, but a feeling of unease remains, and never dissipates. While the water creates a space of refuge, it’s also deathly, sensual, and natural, a radical shift from the inhuman distortions central to the previous sequences. It’s an apt metaphor for the changing body, both foreign and familiar.

TBA19_Ligia-Lewis_WaterWillinMelody2_CREDITsarahmarguier-8-1080x772Ligia Lewis, Water Will (in Melody) (photo by Sarah Marguier, courtesy of Portland Institute of Contemporary Art)

Water Will completes a trilogy of Lewis’s recent work, preceded by minor matter (2016) and Sorrow Swag (2014). Color played an important role in the series of works — minor matter used reds as a central palette, while Sorrow Swag used blue. Water Will utilizes black and white, reflective of the show’s themes — darkness and light, femininity and ugliness, nature and death entwined.

The performance expertly negotiates the pain, uncertainty, and desire associated with lived embodiment. Lewis’s choreography leads the dancers on a journey within their bodies, highlighting the anxiety and unhinged terror that can result from exploring this landscape. The theater becomes a wet cavern within which nods to the natural world seep through; the sound of cicadas, frogs, waves, and water dripping all pipe in at different points. In this space, Lewis and the other performers are safe to explore unruly, monstrous emotions. Water Will (in Melody) exemplifies the intentions of the Time-Based Art Festival itself; it’s an invitation to lean toward the complex and unknown.

The Time-Based Art Festival takes place at various locations in Portland, Oregon from September 5–September 15, 2019.