Sara Zalek’s trio Les Chanteuses du Rien performs as part of Pivot Arts’ Charged Spaces/Changing Bodies October 11-14. Following is a brief interview with Sara by Pivot Arts director, Julieanne Ehre.
JE: Butoh has been a huge influence on your artistic practice. Could you explain to our audiences who may not be familiar with the form a bit about Butoh and what originally attracted you to it?
SZ: For me, Butoh is a dance of crossroads. Each time I attempt to put my finger on it, it wiggles its way out from underneath, and this wiggling is the dance. Butoh began as an avant-garde form, satirizing and mixing known genres, counter-culture and revolutionary in spirit. Practitioners attempt to challenge assumptions, to step into the void, to walk with unknowns, to make visible the invisible. To invite fantasy, whimsy, grotesque, elegant, subtle, wild — all of those opposites, those dualities — into the room to be sensed more than seen. I’ve experienced Butoh draw out memories, evoke emotional tension and physical release, and push me beyond exhaustion. My favorite Butoh performances have distorted time, opened a space inside, taking me deep into memory to explore freely, made me aware of details both big and small, of small matter and cosmic realms. It all sounds like an LSD experience! The experience of performing Butoh is similar, because it definitely heightens awareness to altered states, spiritual and physical embodiment, trance, and ritual. I found Butoh after I had already started performing some hybrid of performance art/dance/theater, but the teachers I was introduced to and the exercises they led us in were a huge departure from other forms of dance I had tried, and allowed me to discover a more personal range of expression. This is why I continue to explore Butoh, and even why I teach “Butoh Body” classes now. Even in teaching I have found room within the genre to veer away from any convention.
JE: In addition to your artistic practice, you also are someone who creates community — through Butoh Chicago and your work at Outer Space. What do you see as some of the strengths of the contemporary performance community in Chicago and how would you like to see the community here develop in the next few years?
SZ: Chicago artists have tenacity. The network and history of underground artists coming together to make things happen for themselves is strong. I feel a real desire to experiment with other artists, so maybe it’s those artists I attract, but we really collaborate and cross genres, try new things. I think you could also say the opposite is true. That there are a lot of barriers to entry on a professional level, and it’s difficult to obtain resources to make anything with a grand vision. But I guess it’s not easy to be punk and professional.
I would love for there to be more support for art, for creative play and learning, especially for small artist/curator run spaces in all neighborhoods of Chicago. Butoh Chicago has existed for almost five years, but only through my blood, sweat, and tears. It has cost me more than it has earned me financially. I do see more support in Chicago now, but there is still quite a deficit in terms of opportunities for marginalized communities. Butoh Chicago and OuterSpace fill important gaps, so they seem necessary. The idea of community is so abstract, it helps me to root the idea in direct action such as creating space and opportunities for people. We’ve had some success, but really running these businesses always cost more than they earn, so they are really passion projects. So art is still not sustainable for me, or for an artist like me. I keep searching for ways to improve or refine or generate more support.
JE: As far as your piece being performed with Pivot Arts next week, where did the name Les Chanteuses du Rien come from? I’m so excited by the idea of a “trickster heroine” — can you tell us a bit more about this persona?
SZ: Chanteuses du rien is from Elaine, it was a nickname given to her from her music teacher, meaning “singer of nothing” in French. We like both this name and Trickster Quartet, so we use them alternatively. In this work we get to explore our “wild sides”– the parts of us that are raw and undomesticated. We each have our own reasons for pursuing the work, mostly it’s just too joyful to stop. Our meetings are deeply personal, and we work hard to each listen to the others, with our creative difference. We like to find dissonance and beauty in atypical ways.
There is such an abundance of emotion in my body, an energetic force that I am compelled to use, and I can share it intimately with Hanna and Elaine. We are exploring finding voices that have been hushed or politely repressed by dealing with life in this culture. We each fall into strange depressions sometimes, where everything seems overwhelming, so it is essential to share, to just be in our weakness or in our real effort to become wild. We peel back the layers of ourselves that are just habits of domestication, to create a world out of time. I love myths and fairytales in that they are timeless. My spirit/emotional body is also timeless, so I dance with that, my whole heart as much as I can remember.
JE: You work across genres and in both live performance and film. How is your relationship to the audience different in a live performance versus film — how does having an audience present in the room change and/or impact the work?
SZ: I am always curious to hear how people respond to our film and compare it to responses from the live work. The film we created is devoid of audience, even though there was audience present. The film actually becomes more haunting with this lack of audience. Film still feels like a vague form, a ghost of the thing, so that’s what might come through in the film. I am not that “good” at being in front of a camera, still, I am much more comfortable with the unmediated presence of people, capturing their attention in such a way that they suspend belief. I would like for people to notice the silence in the moments in between.
JE: And finally… who is one of your personal “superheros” and why?
SZ: David Bowie, for being an alien rock superhero.
Les Chanteuses du Rien performs as part of a series of site-specific performances, Charged Spaces/Changing Bodies, presented by Pivot Arts October 11-14, 2018. For information and reservations visit pivotarts.org/events.