Dialogue in Motion or Reading the Present from the Past: Interview with Maria Martha Gigena

By Halima Tahan Ferreyra*


The practice of dance in Buenos Aires is described in the following interview with dance specialist Maria Martha Gigena, dean of the Department of Movement Arts at the National University of the Arts, Halima Tahan Ferreyra, writer, critic and researcher. The interview addresses key themes in research and practice during the past decade which have focused on contemporary dance in Argentina and have distinguished it as an art form. In particular, dancers and choreographers in Buenos Aires and abroad are connected with past traditions, both aesthetically and ideologically. Although the number of female choreographers has increased, these choreographers are not necessarily focused on classical feminist themes and issues. However, by  reading  the present from the past a feminist approach cannot be avoided, says Gigena, giving different examples of revision of history on stage.

Maria Martha Gigena: Courtesy of Maria Martha Gigena

On several occasions Maria Martha Gigena and I have discussed dance and theatre, sharing interesting conversations at the exit of a theatre or around a coffee table, with the living presence of the work we’ve just experienced foremost in our minds. Now, I would like to take up those conversations again, considering other perspectives and themes, and sharing them with an audience of diverse expectations and cultural experiences.

The starting point for these talks is the present condition of dance in Argentina, particularly in Buenos Aires. An important feature of contemporary dance in our country is that a series of performances, many which were produced in the second decade of this century, made the dialogue with the past the constructive principle of their artistic proposals.

Obra del Demonio. Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Photo: Ailén Garelli

Halima Tahan Ferreya: How do you interpret the reiteration of these themes in these works and their ways of relating to history, their means of constructing links to the past?

Maria Martha Gigena: I understand that the interest in the past in works of dance, and in particular in the past of dance itself, is not limited to Buenos Aires, but instead represents a global pattern.

In my opinion, it is interesting that revisiting the past involves different problems in each geographical place, because the works are always inscribed in a local reality and history, and thus reflect the ways in which that history is recorded, taught or acknowledged among artists, researchers, curators and so on.

In that sense, recovering the past of dance through dance in Argentina, or specifically in Buenos Aires, always implies a recovery of something largely lost. Although the field has been and is very prolific artistically, that history is intertwined with other problems quite specific to its locale: the lack of consistent policies of collecting and archiving materials, economic difficulties of having audiovisual records of high quality, and the universalist or rather Europeanizing gaze which evaluates our country’s productions, for example.

Therefore, revisiting a figure or a work from the past in our present reality is much more than a mere exercise of reconstruction.

Obra del Demonio. Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Photo: Ailén Garelli

Of course it is much more than a mere exercise; hence my initial question was directed to how these proposals, which revolve around bringing fragments of the past into the present, relate to history, and in what way they construct that link. I am also very interested in hearing your interpretative point of view on how they are motivated.

It is a way of rewriting the history of our own dances, through certain figures, fragmentary gestures, which also implies, at least in my interpretation, an opposition to the universal so-called grand narratives in which certain peripheries are always presented as minor or are simply invisible.

Among many possible examples of these reinventions of the past, I think a fruitful one is María sobre María, a work by Lucía Llopis, which premiered in 2016. In that work, a young performer, María Kumichel, explores scenically the story of María Fux, an Argentinean dancer, choreographer and teacher who was born in 1922. The history of dance in Argentina has located Fux almost exclusively in the therapeutic sphere, due to her work with deaf-mute people. In María sobre María this approach to the past uses different procedures, for example, by showing Kumichel’s difficulties in activating Fux’s archive of movements corporeally, interacting with the audience and poetically resorting to the use of the voice, among others. And this, without a doubt, places Fux in the history of Argentinean modern dance.

Obra del Demonio. Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Photo: Ailén Garelli

Yes, unfortunately, María Fux was confined to the therapeutic field, but the work she developed with deaf-mute people has now acquired another meaning. In that sense the recovery that María Llopis made of Fux has been very valuable: she made visible what was excluded. But let’s continue with the examples you were discussing.

Another case, quite different I think, because of its rather performative character, is Graciela Martínez, cisnes, cosas, (swans, things) which was presented in 2019 in Martínez’s own house, together with Sofía Kauer and with a very limited audience consisting of people close to the artists. This work was constructed from the personal archives that Kauer and Nicolás Licera explored together with the artist, who was highly acclaimed especially in the 60s and 70s, spent years in Paris and continued working in Argentina with the return to democracy in 1983 and in the decades that followed.

In this case, it is also an operation of recovery, because there is a great lack of documentation and recording of that period. The atmosphere of the performance is not solemn, nor does it make a monument of this figure as a pioneer, but recovers the idea of play and satire that is very typical of Martínez, as well as reconstructing one of her works live. In the performance Graciela also read her own obituary (“a great dancer, an extraordinary person,” she said of herself) and died shortly after.

Obra del Demonio. Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Photo: Ailén Garelli

Through a parodic game, she announced her fictitious death on stage, randomly anticipating her actual death. On the other hand, this performance was enriched by the artist’s archival material; it could be said that she was something like the living soul of that archive, which today holds the memory and life of Graciela Martínez.

I like to think that this twist, from life itself, is a way of recognizing how history keeps reinventing itself: today the complete record of that performance is open to the public on the website of the Festival de Danza Contemporánea de Buenos Aires. Hence, memory has been reinvented in present time, and it is possibly more forceful than an academic text, due to its metaphorical power.

You referred to the archive, both in the case of the work about María Fux, where the dancer Kumichel shows on stage her difficulties to activate corporeally Fux’s archive of movements, and in the case of the performance of Graciela Martínez, where the archive is used as a support for the work itself. I would like to return to the question of the archive on the basis of these examples.

The archive, which has been developed extensively in recent decades, is not limited to dance, of course. I think the most interesting point in this discussion is that performance raises specific questions about historical events, social issues and gender identity, as these are engraved in bodies and are interwoven with a subjective view of the present. In addition, the idea of documents as sources allows the past to be projected into the present.

But when this archive, corporeal or more traditionally documentary, is utilized to create an image or performance, it draws on a variety of procedures and resources that are typical of contemporary art. For me, they are examples of what I call “performed history.” And as I have said before, they also reflect particular interests that are not exclusively local but must be interpreted within the framework of our own history.

You have noted that this reinvention of the past takes place in performances about women that are also created by women, as in the examples you mentioned and which are not the only ones, right? What new questions are raised by this recurrence?

Yes, you can see that the revisited artists and the current artists who focus on them have considered themselves as women artists. I think part of this is because dance is a feminized field as well as an inclusive field of dissidence, in performance, teaching and creation. It is a paradox: female choreographers who achieved acclaim appeared only in the twentieth century; this reveals a tradition of constructed invisibility that is not exclusive to dance, which has been studied in depth. On the other hand, female artists prevail in terms of numbers in the field of dance; this clearly provides a motivation for women to focus on these figures from the past. But I think we have to go further: if we read the past from the present, we cannot avoid a feminist reading of that reality, and this raises questions about the positions of these women in both the past and the present.

If we shift our attention to Argentinian dance in the past, it is difficult to find examples of artists who explicitly identify themselves as feminists or consider their work as a comment on feminist theory or practice. Due to a shift to the present by today’s creators, these artists of the past can no longer be separated from the contemporary agenda of feminist thought that has influenced today’s artists.

Obra del Demonio. Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Photo: Ailén Garelli

This gesture of the current creators, as you say, of bringing their predecessors to the present by incorporating them into the flow of contemporary conversations, is very interesting to me. Through their work, we can perceive the present blend of multiple pasts, of our pasts, which survive in these artistic constructions.

 …and the process of revision which they undertook has in itself a question, explicit or not, about the location, the development or the perspectives of a feminist vision of our history of stage dance in Argentina.

Regarding these artists who are associated with a feminist vision, do you think they could use the medium of dance to demonstrate the relevance of other pasts to the present?

I think that there are many possibilities, according to how we think about the idea of the past, without referring to specific names. On the one hand, I think that the conceptions of the body, beauty and movement which were shaped historically are also assumed in works of recent years. It is, we could say, a past without names, but the general past that is the archive of Western stage dance, of the universal canon.

Along these lines, I am thinking of some examples such as Acto Blanco (White Act), which Laura Figueiras and Carla Rímola premiered in 2013. In this work, four ballerinas reinterpret the female representation of romantic ballet as they inhabit bodies that are sometimes disjointed, pierced and disarticulated by a certain kinetic fury. For another example, Macho Masculine Male. Documents on Dance and Masculinities, presented byEdgardo Mercado in 2021, combines performance and audiovisual documentary installation. In this case, a series of testimonies and a variety of dance styles leads to a reflection on a broadly encompassing past that conditioned the bodies, the means of constructing identities and the aesthetic values in dance even today.

Obra del Demonio. Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Photo: Ailén Garelli

We were together at the Teatro Nacional Cervantes for the staging of Diana Szeinblum’s play about Pina Bausch. For several reasons I would like us to return to the perspective of a performance on stage.

Yes… The case of Diana Szeinblum, who premiered Obra del demonio. Invocación XI. Bausch, is interesting. As part of a cycle of works that come into dialogue with figures of international theatre, in this work, the figure of Pina was revisited by thirteen dancers/performers, through diverse materials and procedures, with musical, audiovisual and kinetic elements. This could be interpreted as a “Bausch universe” for its entire duration, as it lasted almost three hours.

With regard to the above, it is interesting that Szeinblum draws attention to the impact of Pina on her generation (the “Bausch effect”, she calls it). In particular, the shift she brought about in our thinking of what could be staged and the division between dance and theatre is significant, and is key to a particular view of dance in Argentina, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. So revisiting Pina implies a revision of local history, even if it is not explicitly realized in Obra del demonio. I think her work shows us how canonized figures are articulated and how networks of influence are created. The Wuppertal Company visited Argentina several times, and Szeinblum and other artists from our country had direct interactions with Bausch.

On the other hand, Work of the Devil… by Szeinblum (2022) takes us into another circuit: a large-format work that was staged in the main hall of the National Theatre. It was the first time that a dance performance of this type was staged, and it moved the audience very deeply, in stark contrast to the work of Graciela Martínez, cisnes, cosas (2019) for example, to which you referred earlier. The latter was staged in Martínez’s own home in an intimate space with a small select audience. Such a contrast of venues reflects the wide variety of circuits, audiences and spaces through which the local art scene manifests itself.

Well, in Argentina, or more specifically in Buenos Aires, state spaces coexist with a large circuit of independent venues that prevail even in times of crisis, like our current era. A proliferation of proposals from artists and groups are submitted for each project, and the local artistic community is strongly supported by an interested and loyal public. In recent years the official spaces have opened up to independent dance, with residencies, cycles and festivals, but it remains to be seen if this continues.

There are so-called official companies, such as the Ballet del Teatro San Martín, which depends on the government of the City of Buenos Aires and performs on the major stage of that theatre, utilizing more academic formats, although the format varies according to the invited artists. And the Compañía Nacional de Danza Contemporánea, created a few years ago and very active, is also interesting. There are also casts dependent on national universities, as in the case of the Universidad Nacional de las Artes, where there is a very productive interaction between the academic sector and professional practice. And they all have a wide following of highly engaged spectators.

Obra del Demonio. Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Photo: Ailén Garelli

In one of our previous meetings we discussed repertoire and choreography in relation to some current performances, and you noted what you called “an abandonment of the choreographic in pursuit of the performative,” whereby emphasis is placed on the personal figure of the performer; performances are a setting in which “each one exposes his or her being.” Could you elaborate a little more on these reflections?

By “abandoning the choreographic,” I mean emphasizing the self-referential, evident in various proposals that concentrate on exploring the possibilities of interpretation of each performer. This results in a sum of singularities whereby the poetic or general narrative perspective takes precedence over a set of choreographic sequences that utilize more standardized means of expression. This focus can be realized as a more performative interpretation, or it can adopt a more finished format, but it is typically unrepeatable if, for example, the cast of performers changes.

This is not entirely new. The traditional idea of a work that can be mounted on anybody, performer or cast, and is based on a conception of dancers as empty vessels on which the choreographic is poured, so to speak, has been in crisis for many years. But I believe that today this perspective is intensified, and sometimes ends up being a mere exhibition of singularities; while this approach is interesting, it is not always well matched to a creative vision that goes beyond accumulation.

As Dean of the Department of Movement Arts at the National University of the Arts, you are in a privileged position to know what reasons young people have for choosing this center for their training, and what preferences and expectations they have regarding a career in dance.

The training in the Department is oriented towards choreographic composition, even with the criticisms that can be leveled at that category today. There is a manifest interest in technical training in movement, but graduates can work in a wide artistic field, for example, the independent circuit, official casts, musical theatre, management, research and teaching, among many alternatives. The nearly 800 people who apply each year are evidence, on one hand, of the massive enrollments typical of Argentinian universities, but also of the sustained growth of the profession.

The initial interests of such young people are very diverse, but I think that the existence of university education in this field conveys a very clear message about professionalization, about the articulation of work with reflection as something necessary and evident, about the very idea that art, and dance in particular, is a production of knowledge, and not an activity for entertainment or a subsidiary to other discourses.

Obra del Demonio. Teatro Nacional Cervantes. Photo: Ailén Garelli

I’d like to return to the question of young people’s expectations: in particular, what interests do they show in artistic matters, what themes do they explore, and what interests do they pursue?

The works of students who graduate are articulated samples of the interests of these generations. Within this framework, the lines we have detected are logically related to what we have been talking about: the interest in performance over traditional choreography; the reconfiguration of the past in various senses; gender issues. To this list I would also add questions of dissidence and identity, memory in an explicit political order, urban and popular dance, and the narrative or referential possibilities of dance. All of these themes form part of a local scene that is almost incomprehensible.

But something that seems very significant to me, since the creation of the university more than twenty years ago, is that all this is produced with the conviction that artistic creation is a way of producing knowledge, a way of interpreting the world, and I like to think that this way of assuming praxis is not only evident in academia. The university influences and is influenced by that which we could consider external forces. But in actuality there is no such outside domain. Academic education is meaningless if it does not transform the ways of doing and seeing, and the university has to be porous to what happens, through the artists who work in it, and through the proposals it incorporates, even though the artistic field is often more dynamic than the more systematized domain of formal education. The challenge is to stay alert, and not lag behind. 

*Halima Tahan Ferreyra (PhD), critic and writer, is Area Coordinator, Institute of Performing Arts, University of Buenos Aires. She has directed Teatro al Sur, a Latin American Journal and Ediciones Artes del Sur, and is the author of numerous plays, theatrical essays and artistic projects. Dr. Ferreyra has also served as curator of the Rituals of Passage program at the San Martín, the Theatre of the city of Buenos Aires.

Copyright © 2024 Halima Tahan Ferreyra
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email