by Amy Bell
photos by Elisa D’Errico
Amidst the works of Bologna’s MAMbo Museum of Modern Art, Spanish choreographer Cristina Henríquez spoke to me about finding humour and human connection in her work and the inspiration she discovered in Bologna’s LGBT movement.
Amy Bell: Looking at your work this week I’m really struck by your apparent enjoyment of absurdity. You seem to have a sense of humour and playfulness about your work and I wondered how you use this to approach the topics of gender and sexuality.
Cristina Henríquez: Well, for example [in a choreographic sketch] yesterday I decided just to talk about something more intimate than the typical conversation; indirectly I wanted to talk about masturbation, although actually I didn’t… But well, I brought [a tube of lubricant] to the scene and this is what I wanted to do. I decided just to talk and I knew that something in the body would happen.
AB: Yes, it was funny perhaps because it was embarrassing or awkward to chat in such an everyday way, to let the humour come out of that and the framing of that rather than to try to create the humour by design. Does humour kind of arise naturally for you?
CH: Yeah, in fact it’s something that usually happens and the way I get to this point is starting from a natural [state], maybe from intimacy and to share [that] with others. For me it’s good not to exaggerate, but to just show. I think, no I’m sure, this is what a clown does. I think the function or the aim of a clown is to be kind of a mirror for people. So maybe when people laugh it’s because they see themselves in that situation. Well, for me you can put anything in a sketch but maybe what I received from the Performing gender group, from Peggy [Olislaegers, workshop leader] yesterday for instance, is that it’s not so typical to talk about issues of gender and sexual identity with humour.
AB: No, at least not so much in dance. I mean I think there’s a lot of comic possibility if you think about it, but somehow somewhere along the way tackling gender or sexuality can easily become a bit stodgy, a bit heavy, and therefore it lacks a bit of life. But it’s interesting to me to understand a larger question about intention. Do you intend, do you look for humour or does it just occur and you accept and work with it?
CH: Ha, what a question… I look maybe for being empathic. Sometimes I think that what I’m really doing is looking for people to love me [laughs]. Once I read this about a clown, that a clown always wants the other to love him or her. Maybe sometimes this could be a critique for me because one of my challenges would be to swim into the deepness [rather than to look for laughter or love]. Well, maybe depth is not opposed to humour, but it’s something that I have to be aware of because for me it’s easy to break and smile and find a situation that is… brillante, shiny, funny. I think it’s part of my character. It’s not a completely positive outlook like, ‘Everything’s going to be alright’ but I think when you are close to death for instance, suddenly a happy thing can appear. Well, maybe death is a bit extreme but always in extreme situations you can find another that is stupid. I think it happens to everyone. But humour for me is to reveal something that is there but maybe the average person doesn’t see. I just underline it.
AB: And what kind of ideas do you hope to underline? What do you hope to achieve or change in a broad sense?
CH: Well in general, something that seduces me is finding ways to involve the audience. Sometimes I‘m a bit tired of the structure of the theatre. People come and they sit… Firstly, actually there are a lot of people that don’t go to the theatre. It’s not only money, it’s not their habit and it goes beyond money. I think it’s because what we do, we should do for the people, but when work is not like that it doesn’t touch people and well, they don’t come! I think my work, when it’s being a performer, is kind of anthropological work. Imagine, in nature we have the grass, the sheep eats the grass and then the wolf kills the sheep and maybe there’s another animal that kills the wolf and this is a cycle, each of them grass, sheep, wolf has a function, they play a role. So for me performers have a role in society and it goes beyond dance or theatre. For me we are here to do things for people to look at and those things can have many meanings but I think this is a role that is necessary. So this is something I’m giving a shape, thinking in these last days and I’m happy with. It’s not only, ‘Oh. I want to be a dancer’, it goes beyond [that].
AB: You feel a sense of social purpose. I wonder how much that’s also coming out of the current economic situation, that perhaps now more than ever, to continue to function as an artist it’s necessary to ask these questions of yourself, what’s the relevance or the purpose of what you do.
CH: A friend of mine said the other day, ‘Theatre exists because we want it’. I think it’s both things: we want [theatre] to happen, to continue happening and it’s our way of being. I think it’s a wish or desire to keep our independence. It’s like when you take the decision to be an artist you throw away other options. Well I can do other jobs and I don’t mind and it’s fine. But I think it’s painful to lose this artistic part of humanity. It’s like in the 19th century the body was to produce food, materials, money, children or whatever, [but then] what happens with pleasure or sensuality, expression, wellbeing? Now we have these things, so we cannot lose this right [to them] somehow.
AB: Yes, and for me it touches what you were saying about humour, but that also applies more widely, that art is important because it can reveal something to us about ourselves or about other people. I wondered then, what have you seen so far these days here in Bologna that has revealed something to you?
CH: Well, first the organisation [of Arcigay LGBT Center at Il Cassero and the Gender Bender festival]. It’s not only that everything is well organised, it’s seeing that all these people are together with a common aim based in [protecting] the rights of different orientations, sexualities, genders and so on. And for me I feel a bit jealous.
AB: Really? Because you are straight?
CH: Well, a bit jealous of not being involved in a powerful movement like this.
AB: You don’t have to be gay to be involved!
CH: No I guess not. In fact they didn’t ask me, ‘What are you?’ or, ‘What is your sexual orientation?’ [when I was invited to do this project].
AB: Nobody was asked, were they?
CH: No, nobody. They didn’t even ask me, ‘What is your ideology?’ Well, anyway I’m an individual.
[drawing by Lisa Passaniti]
AB: Yes, but I think this is a very important part of the project and also of the Gender Bender festival. They deliberately don’t only invite gay, bi or trans people or work that tackles those experiences directly. They really like a little ambiguity, it appears to me. I think they’re working with a quite a complex idea of what gender and sexuality could be about. So sometimes they programme things where people think, ‘That shouldn’t be in the festival because that choreographer is straight!’ or, ‘What has that got to do with gender?’ and I really like this, that they deliberately create a conversation about who has the right to explore these issues and the many ways one can explore them.
CH: Yes, and I love it as well because I have gender, I have identity, all these things are my concerns so… And maybe this mix brings us closer to people. For instance the visit to MIT [Movimento Identità Transessuale] for me has been a revelation. The depth of these people, the human quality…. In a small room a lot of… wow, a lot of life, a lot of power.
AB: Yes and that goes beyond politics for me. Yes, the politics are extremely important but on a very human level it’s very strong to be around people who might be different to you, to be close for an evening, just to share some space with people.
CH: I think actually we don’t know each other in the city.
AB: In cities in general?
CH: Yes for instance the other day I was walking in the centre of Madrid and suddenly a couple of women gave me an anti-abortion flyer. But the context of these people is that they are right wing, conservative […] and for me they don’t respect the lives of others and they are destroying the health system. These women, for sure, never had the experience that we had the other day, talking to trans people for example that had to fight […] to have their identity. It’s like the taxonomies are so clear and so rigid and we have learned since we are children that actually we don’t know the people living in other rooms. Is only, ‘No, no, I don’t like this room, I don’t like that room’ without ever going in.
AB: Yes! But to get back to the point, are you saying that in your work you miss something of the solidarity, the strength of coming together in an organisation like Il Cassero?
CH: Yeah, I think it gives happiness. They [people working at Il Cassero] are strong and they have a clear aim. They work together and for me having a common objective with people is like multiplying your virtues.
AB: Well, but you work together with a collective of choreographers in Spain, don’t you?
CH: Yeah, I belong to a collective called Siete Esquinas. We are seven friends and we share a space to rehearse, to research, we give workshops there and we want to open to the neighbourhood we belong to. Compared with these people [at Il Cassero] the collective is very young, three years old, but it’s not only the size or age but what’s at the núcleo, the centre, the heart, the core. I think there’s a paradox because we could move a lot because we are dancers and we can move very fast, but still I have an individualist feeling, a perception of individuality. And when you look back in dance history you see Judson Church, all these people, it’s the strength of the group.
AB: That’s really true.
CH: Well now I have the opportunity to work in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and we’re performing Simona Forti’s Dance Constructions from the 1960s, originally made in Yoko Ono’s loft. What is created in the group is magic. There are 7 or 8 people with an activity that we share and it gives a lot of peace.
AB: But it’s going to be quite different in the work you create here in the gallery for this project because it’s basically just going to be you doing a solo.
CH: Yeah and actually we are being asked to create in a very individualist way. I don’t know if Performing Gender have taken that decision purposefully.
AB: This is a very good question. It’s true that the thrust of this week at least has been for each participant to try to articulate their own identity or identities in relation to each other but separately.
CH: In relation [with others] but to discover my identity. Yeah, this can be heavy.
AB: Do you find it heavy?
CH: Hmm, in my case I don’t find it heavy because actually it’s my way of working. I have a solo work, Materia Cris and the way I created it, well, it’s related to the beginning of the conversation, using humour and so on. In this piece I’m not thinking of other people but my things. But in the end I’m a woman and I’m a human being like all the people watching, I’m not talking to dogs… bueno, that could be a new challenge: theatre for dogs… Anyway I think it’s the way Peggy and Performing Gender ask us to work: from individuality to the universal.
AB: The methodology that is proposed this week is a fairly individualistic one which is already something familiar to you, but maybe you were questioning how there might be a sense of solidarity emerging in the project as there is in the organisation that is housing the project?
CH: Yes, maybe there is kind of group creation without the need of having a group on the stage. For instance, we are working with the illustrators. [Each choreographer was paired with a local illustrator to document and carry out research in collaboration]. It’s a way to amplify our ideas.
AB: Yes working with the illustrators is a very direct collaboration in fact and a really fruitful one. But I also think there is a potential for you movement makers to find ways to collaborate. It doesn’t mean that you have to make a duet but somehow you can cross contaminate, there could be an interaction in terms of process possibly over the year between now and the culmination of the project even.
CH: Yes. And it makes me think dance has a lot of possibilities to work with identity and with freedom and that is what I take from Performing Gender. Because I didn’t feel really engaged with the LGBT movement but of course I respect all the individuals within the movement, all their decisions but now we [the PG participants] are in deep contact with all these organisations I feel there is a lot of power in these people. It could be very good if they also want to share this strength with the rest of us, and maybe they are already open, but I think there is a lot of strength to share and I would like to be involved, inspired somehow.
Performing Gender, Bologna, October 2013