by Amy Bell
Poliana Lima is a Brazilian choreographer and performer based in Madrid. Whilst beginning a new work for the Performing Gender project in Zagreb, she talked to me about codes of power on the bodies of immigrants, dancers and women.
Amy Bell: It’s very early stages of course but I wondered what are the challenges or the differences in making a work for a museum setting compared to how you normally work.
Poliana Lima: The first thing was, ‘Oh, I’m trying to do something very theatrical, maybe this doesn’t work’. It’s different, it’s really different. That was the first impression. I’m a chaos but on the other hand I’m very organised. The first thing is usually the structure. I just bring everything together and develop things in the space and time. I have the material and then first thing I say is this, this, this, this and I make a structure. But I saw, of course, the museum is not like this. I’m like, ‘Ok… what the hell am I gonna do?’ Somehow I felt I don’t know how to work in here. And then I found the solution of cleaning [the museum], and thought, ‘Ok this is great’. I want to move around with this and there can be ‘stations’ [where I can] clean and change the machine and go to another station. But I really want to do something with the body at the stations. I care about the concept but also at the same time I care about a poetical result.
AB: Can you explain a little bit how you got interested in the cleaning?
PL: It was because I was reading Amerika by Kristina Leko [a work at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art which documents the stories of immigrants to America]. One of the immigrants [was going] from Croatia to America and her story is about her work in Manhattan, cleaning the offices. There is a part which is a list of numbers, it is just like, 200 tables, 600 chairs… A lot, a lot [of objects she was cleaning or carrying] and it was just like poetry for me. Imagine… all of this stuff together, all the stuff and the weight. Every day she carried between 80 and 100 pounds in black bags. While I was reading this the cleaning girl [of MSU] passed with the blue [buffing] machine and that was the moment!
AB: Oh, I didn’t realise you had had this moment of the cleaner crossing you while you were actually reading that!
PL: Yeah, so it came to me. I didn’t look for it. I was just like, ‘I will clean this fucking museum’ because we do not see the cleaning and I have a lot of questions about processes that we don’t see. This is also Cecilia’s [Moisio, fellow Performing Gender participant] question somehow, that it’s a hidden process being a woman.
AB: You’re interested in revealing these unseen processes of creating something that is taken as given or natural?
PL: Yeah, also because of course there are just ladies [not men] doing this [cleaning]. The director [of MSU] told me that [in the museum’s list of] personnel [the job title] was ‘cleaning ladies’. From a sociologist’s perspective it’s sexual division of labour, it’s very clear. It’s just like woman: private, service, taking care of the others or taking care of everything while men are the public sphere. Women are in the private sphere, even when it’s a public [space like a museum] we are taking care, supporting the male management.
AB: So you’re interested in revealing the patriarchy?
PL: Yeah. And it’s also, I don’t know, when I think about [domestic] maids it is not conceived as work, it’s like the home space is her body. The house is her body, she is the house. Of course now there are less women who are staying at home but what we have [is] a double day of work where they go to work and then come home to do housework. But this private sphere that we don’t see, for me is important and also to play with it as a performance.
[photo by Cecilia Moisio]
AB: And are the ideas of the woman’s house, her body and the unseen or unnoticed forces of patriarchy connected to your interest in Sanja Iveković’s Women’s House? [The work consists of the rows of anonymous faces and stories of women suffering domestic violence]
PL: Yes. Women’s House, for me the title is perfect because I look at their bodies as the house that was treated in a very violent way[…] I felt very connected with the poetry of this army of women. It’s everybody and nobody at the same time and with a lot of nationalities. Women, we are treated in a bad way all over the world. Of course the world is not homogenous but I connect with this army, and I feel part of it. I don’t know, I feel that I could be there somehow. I’m not suffering this kind of violence but… I connect, somehow, to fragility. It brings me to care and I also feel responsible.
AB: What for?
PL: Somehow I feel very irresponsible to have chosen art and not politics. A little bit guilty or…
AB: But to me the Performing Gender project can really encourage the making of work with a strong political engagement. Don’t you bring a sense of your own personal politics into your dance making?
PL: First of all, because I’m a sociologist somehow it’s difficult having this background and just working without any kind of connection. And somehow in Brazil it’s a very difficult reality and you cannot run away from this. Well you can, but [by] being an asshole! So it’s like I bring my background being Brazilian, being a sociologist and also [having been] a political activist in Brazil with PSOL,Partido Socialismo e Liberdade [Socialism and Freedom Party]. But all my life art was very difficult to me because I had both sides: art and politics. How can I put them together somehow without losing my freedom? I don’t want to just get a flag or just… I don’t want to say to people, ‘This is the way it is’. This is not art. But in Brazil when I tried to do something [artistic] I was very concerned about, ‘What are you saying? What’s the message or [how] this action is going to be read?’ And nowadays I don’t give a shit.
AB: So now you’ve let this concern go a little bit?
PL: Yeah, the message just passes through my body. It’s not because I want to tell [the message]. I allowed myself to do a dance work with, I don’t know, just the movement of the head and that’s it. And let the body be read with its codes: the code of being Brazilian and how my body also expresses power… And somehow the woman issue always comes. Even when I’m not trying, it just comes.
AB: Is it that you question femininity in your work?
PL: Yeah. I don’t see myself as very girly, sexy or the things that mark being feminine. And the idea of my femininity was questioned already when I [had a] shaved [head]. So it was this cross for me: what is it being feminine or masculine? I think everybody has this point of crossing and I saw there is a huge social code about which characteristics belong to the box of femininity and [which] is the box for male characteristics. Somehow maybe in my work there is this a little bit, that I don’t give a shit for your boxes. Like the fat question…
AB: As Susie Orbach says, Fat Is A Feminist Issue.
PL: Yeah, but for me how we look at fat in dance is something very hard to accept. As a dancer you’re supposed to be athletic and I’m not at all.
AB: Well, this week we’ve been talking about the perceived need to redesign the body. I was wondering about the interplay between changing one’s body in performance and letting the body change the performance space. How do you felt about it, especially in relation to this fat question?
PL: Well in a very superficial [way] I feel that I am always trying to redesign my body… trying to reach some parameters… My work really exposes this.
AB: You expose the process of this?
PL: No, I expose what I feel [is] ridiculous about my body, for example. Because women have fat but there is also the expectation, if I’m going to see dancers I’m waiting for Apollonian bodies on stage. And I really enjoy [that], I also enjoy beautiful bodies. I just don’t have it! But there’s beauty in another way, like to come off the street onto the stage and say, ‘It’s OK’. There is a moment in Woman Experiment 1 [one of Lima’s solo works] that I move [my own] fat around […] and also my tits. Most girls have a little bit of shame of, ‘Oh my god, my tits, my fat moving!’ and for me, I felt liberated. I’m proud of this scene because it’s hard for me, because it hurts me to do it and because I think maybe other women can identify themselves with me.
AB: Yes, so do you think it’s important that people see representations of themselves, whether realistic or poetic, but as real men and women rather than only seeing these Apollonian ideals?
PL: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t a very clear thing. My question started with the women’s abdomen as a matrix. Everything is there, the uterus is there, it’s the Virgin Mary… I thought I’m going to use this, but afterwards I get a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re brave because you’re exposing yourself’. And if I present this work in Brazil it’s going to be a hard moment.
PL: Because they are a little bit more ashamed of being fat, it’s harder in Brazil. And the dance community is very critical in a very ugly way. For example, the last company I worked [for] the guy persecuted me every day saying I was fat until I asked to be fired.
AB: So the only solution was to be asked to be fired?
PL: Yeah, I just told him, ‘I cannot be here because I cannot put my mental health into play [like] this’. There was lot of [pressure] about being beautiful as a woman, because men don’t have to be beautiful at all in the company. In São Paolo I was just part of [dance] companies with male directors and it’s so hard for me these authorities and male authorities. It was like if they didn’t treat me badly they were doing to someone else and I could not enjoy at all, I was suffering all the time.
AB: And do you somehow feel the pressure of that less in Europe or in Madrid?
PL: Yeah, because I think people don’t worry that much but also because I don’t work for somebody else.
AB: Making your own work in Madrid lets you take your own power a bit more?
PL: Yeah, this has changed everything…
AB: And being a foreigner there is also an interesting experience in terms of how people read you, right? It seems that there’s an overlap in your sense of national identity, sexual identity and gender identity. Can you explain something about that?
PL: I think the point is my sense of identity is very… in Spain we say ‘crossed cables’. So it’s like, I have a lot of difficulty to see who I am, not only just a Brazilian woman or half heterosexual, half homosexual. In Madrid […] I’m trying to clean myself [of labels] in a way that lets the audience enter, lets these people try to take me seriously, not judging.
AB: But at the same time, if I’m right, you sometimes feel quite judged, especially as a Brazilian in Spain…
PL: Well, I’m a Brazilian who is dancing so I fit in that middle class style somehow, but also I got married to a Spanish man. His family is very progressive, it was still a little bit, ‘Oh my god, an immigrant that comes from Brazil…’ because of course the image of the Brazilian immigrant to Spain is people who are trying to make money, who are fucked up. But it’s normal. You try to save your life in another country and I don’t know, maybe I was trying to save my life but in an emotional way… But anyway they were a little bit surprised that I have a very high level of education. My education in Brazil is higher than my husband’s, so it’s like, ‘Ah, where does she fit?’ So I always feel that I’m lost in places, even in Brazil.
AB: You still feel you don’t fit in Madrid, or you feel a better sense of belonging there?
PL: I feel better there.
AB: Why is that?
PL: Well now I can dance somehow. In Brazil I danced but I danced with a lot of stress.
AB: And dancing in Madrid gives you more of a sense of belonging?
PL: No, I feel I still don’t belong.
AB: But you feel better about it?
PL: Yeah, because I try to get rid of trying to belong somewhere so maybe it’s not going to happen.
Performing Gender, Zagreb, June 2013