Location, location, location: Cities are a fertile source of artistic practice for a dance-theater artist

Thinking Choreographically: A Talk with Constanza Macras
Thursday, October 31, 2019 / 7:00pm
MIT Theater Building, W97
345 Vassar Street, Cambridge, MA


Boundary-defying dance-theater creator Constanza Macras discusses her approach to text and movement in a lecture as part of MIT Performing.

Few who have seen Yorgos Lanthimos’s film The Favourite can forget the scene in which 18th-century courtiers played by Rachel Weisz and Joe Alwyn launch into dance moves that look as if they belong in a Harlem voguing ball rather than Queen Anne’s palace. A quick peek at iMDB reveals that The Favourite is choreographer Constanza Macras’s only feature, suggesting a newcomer; dance-theater aficionados know better.

Over the past two decades, the Argentina-born, Germany-based Macras has built an international reputation as a director-choreographer of uncommon eclecticism and unbridled kineticism. Her high-energy pieces have tackled such subjects as the fate of Chinese acrobats (The Ghosts); the arc of memory, particularly in Germany (The Past); Roma communities in Europe (Open for Everything); and, most notably, the social, physical and human structure of cities, especially the way a physical location has an impact on how we think, move, interact and even remember (2019’s Der Palast, 2010’s Megalopolis, and 2007’s Brickland, among others). 

“I try to bring a dramaturgical form to things that are not in dramatic form, and look very absurd at the same time,” Macras says. “It’s about the display of tension.”

This is a lot to unpack, but Macras will give it a try in a lecture on October 31 in the 2019-20 MIT Performing series — which promotes research-based interdisciplinary artistic practices — presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology. This is part of a residency in which Macras will collaborate with MIT faculty including Kurt Fendt, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Director of the MIT HyperStudio, as well as students; she will then show a work-in-progress in the fall of 2020. 

Series curator and Professor for Music and Theater Arts Jay Scheib first brought Macras to MIT in 2010 for the William L. Abramowitz Residency. He has long been impressed by her pieces, which he discovered in the late 1990s in Berlin—her home since 1995, and where she has founded the companies Tamagotchi Y2K, in 1997, and Constanza Macras | DorkyPark (which she still runs), in 2003.

“She was engaging with local, socially fueled politics, and achieving a really high degree of extreme physicality, extreme virtuosity,” Scheib says. “The works were not just stories but massive experiences that you could actually read as an audience member: They are highly legible and the things that are chaotic about them are a sort of celebration a life and a daring statement to speak to why we’re alive, what we wish we could be like—uninhibited, daring, willing to leap, even foolishly, into the jaws of a conflict. Whether she was problematizing the experience of otherness in Berlin or simply addressing sexuality and the wildness of youth, all of it seemed to come through with a reckless joyride energy that I didn’t see in a lot of other artists.” 

Chatting with Macras, whose voluble vitality is palpable even over a transatlantic phone line, is not that different from watching one of her shows. One thought segues into another then another, seemingly unconnected until patterns emerge—the way we process the past, for example, or the dialectic between local and global, individual and community. Throughout, Macras’ obsession with issues relating to cities is never far, an interest she developed growing up in Buenos Aires (she left in 1992 to study dance at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York).

“Because I lived in the suburbs, I spent a lot of time in the city walking from one thing to the next with no time to go back home,” she recalls. “So I’d look at people or I would go to a bookstore — Buenos Aires has great bookstores, they used to be huge warehouses full of books. I’ve always been fascinated by the iconography of big cities, they’ve always been a big inspiration. Cities own a very fascinating choreography.”

Tellingly, Macras’s shows are distinguished by their extreme density—something is always happening somewhere, often at high velocity or high volume—and their juxtapositions of movement and text. The latter can be sourced from interviews (often conducted by the company) or essays.

One of the influences on Megalopolis, for example, was the sociologist Richard Sennett’s seminal 1977 book, The Fall of Public Man, about the impact of cities on individuals; the show also quotes the architect Rem Koolhaas. “Sometimes we use theory as a dramatic element, and we try to turn those texts into theater texts,” Macras says. “For example in Brickland there’s a character who quotes a conference by Jacques Derrida called ‘Monolingualism of the Other,’ where he talks about the impossibility of language. The conference was very passionate but at the same time very complicated. The character is an anthropologist, a patronizing European who comes to tell his Brazilian gardener who he is. I could imagine Derrida being angry if he knew we put this text with this horrible character,” Macras adds with an uproarious laugh.

What makes the work so compelling, however, is even theoretical academic material is endowed with an unabashed physicality. “I use text the same way I use dance: I look for an abstract quality,” Macras says. “I don’t like to signify things. Even how I view dance, I don’t think it necessarily has to convey feelings. The body has a powerful expression but I wouldn’t put names on what’s happening there. I don’t like to define. The mix of concrete and abstract is important to me, with a bit of humor—I work a lot with slapstick as well.” 

As for her upcoming sojourn at MIT, both Scheib and Macras are excited by the possibilities.

“We’ve just this year admitted the largest-ever first-generation-American population of students—20 percent of the incoming class are first-generation American,” Scheib says. “Constanza’s sensibilities are potentially an interesting fit, around the possibility of creating a work that is both with and about this community.”

“I’m still looking for people I would like to meet — there are many,” Macras says. “Last time I did a workshop and there were people from all kinds of disciplines. It’s my dream to see that happening more, academics and researchers and scientists working together with iconography, with theater, to make art.” She laughs again, her enthusiasm contagious: “I don’t want theater to be a dead space that does not relate to life.”


Written by Elisabeth Vincentelli

Posted on October 22, 2019 by Arts at MIT