The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2016

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FEB 2016 Issue

Ligia Lewis’s Sorrow Swag Disrupts Identity Politics-as-Usual

Brian Getnick in Sorrow Swag. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Abrons Arts Center
January 7 – January 10, 2016
New York

I sit in the third row, center. Synthesized chords, low and deep, reminiscent of an organ, roll out of the speakers. An electric blue light washes over the stage and a smoke machine gradually fills the space with oceanic fog—or is it early-morning mist? The music rumbles below my skin and I feel a slight tickle in my throat from the chemicals in the air. A body materializes: tall and thin, pale, wearing white athletic shorts, white socks, white sneakers, and a chain. One arm extended, he moves slowly and languidly, but with power attuned to some unknown source. He disappears into the smoke at the back of the stage, then becomes transparent.

The experience has the quality of a dream or a trance, everything happening much slower than in reality and infused with feeling. He emerges forward with his arms raised and bends into a lunge at the front lip of the stage. He can see us now. He boxes; he pops; he isolates. The light shifts to white. His sneakers squeak as he makes jerky movements invoking sports, eventually dropping down into a pushup. He mutters to himself, or to us, fragments of language. His voice thickens and distorts, getting louder but less clear. It’s as if his mouth is full of marbles. He suddenly turns on the audience, his voice filled with venom, slow and threatening: “I spit on your happiness.” He becomes increasingly hysterical, varying his inflection. “You are all dogs.” “I spit on all your happinesses.” It’s here that I notice his gold teeth.

After a blackout he reenters, running in circles to pulsing white lights, his stance shifting from perfectly upright to increasingly floppy. A crazed smile takes shape on his face while he moves through a series of postures—as if posing for paparazzi or starring in a music video. In a rare comic moment, he clearly articulates the words “sincere” and “truth” while grabbing his crotch. Then, he clasps his hands together in front of him and gallops around the stage. He points his fingers into the shape of a gun and directs it at the audience, then he points it at his head and drops to the ground and into a roll. A spotlight illuminates a bench. He gets up on it and a mic falls into his hand. A monologue ensues: adopting a British accent, he describes an inescapable and haunting performance in which audience and performer alike were trapped. With a note of wistfulness, he tells us, “I can’t imagine what it looked like.”

The final spectacle of the show is a clear reference to Samuel Beckett’s play Not I, performed most memorably by the actress Billie Whitelaw in 1973. And yet, it’s not a reenactment. The central image—a spotlit mouth on an otherwise black stage—is recreated here, but while Beckett’s play is overflowing with language (stuttering and non-linear) depicting a woman’s rejection of a traumatic experience, Ligia Lewis’s conception exposes the primal scream that Beckett’s text evokes. The floating mouth ejects one wail after another. The stripped-away sound of the scream is soon layered with and partially submerged by George Lewis Jr.’s singing. While the screams start out as powerful expressions of existential anguish, they eventually strike me as closer to the helpless cries of a newborn.

After the lights go down and applause rings out, Brian Getnick returns to the stage to bow alongside George Lewis Jr. and Ligia Lewis, the choreographer. When I spoke to Lewis after the show, she told me that the act of her coming out to bow was essential, that she did so intentionally in light of the tendency for the public to assume that the performer was solely responsible for the work. Since the tradition of white, male directors and dance-makers is so strong, she explained, she has had to consistently assert that she herself, a Dominican-American woman, is the creator of the work.

When I spoke to others about the show, many people told me that they wouldn’t have known that a woman of color made the performance if they hadn’t read the program. Others said that without the context of the description, they wouldn’t have known it was “about race.” Certainly, this speaks to the fact that white bodies do not often get read as raced in the way that non-white bodies do. Lewis (who grew up in Miami but is based in Berlin) spoke to me about her interest in the performativity of race, legibility, and the tendency of work made in the U.S. to operate within the limited sphere of identity politics. While it’s true that there is a white, male body on stage, if the music, the lighting, the source materials, and her own embodied participation and conceptualization are all taken into account, it becomes clear that, in her words, “the theater itself is throbbing
with blackness.”

I saw the show twice, and on the second night, I sat in the back row. The change in proximity altered my experience. I felt less viscerally involved. I also noticed variations in both the material and affective qualities of Getnick’s performance. When I asked Lewis about the level of improvisation involved, she explained that she worked closely with Getnick throughout the process—from warm-ups, to experimenting with material, to directing—while also trying to give him as much agency as possible. Whether it’s using iconic images from popular culture or canonical texts, she wants her performers to investigate how the text feels in their bodies, how it sounds. It is a choreographic approach to language that she is working with. What makes this dance and not just theater, she says, is that there is an “emergent script;” the performer must always build upon and respond to previous manifestations of the work.

Interested in abstraction and the discursive qualities of the body, Lewis engages the problem of “how to make one’s interpretation visible,” which is always a risk when working with abstraction. This is compounded by the fact that performance makers who are othered in any way are held to a higher standard when it comes to legibility. But stable representations of race do not exist in Lewis’s work. Identity is constantly disrupted and negotiated through the image repertoire that she creates. In a recent article, Brian Getnick addressed his role in Lewis’s work: “She is seeking my body, which is read as a white male body, and disturbing and troubling it through the performance.”1 Lewis points out that this allows for the audience to pass through phases of identifying and dis-identifying with the performer. Sorrow Swag constructs an affective arena where race is unfixed from identity—as immersive as smoke, and just as elusive.

Sorrow Swag, the New York premiere, was presented by American Realness Festival. Concept and choreography by Ligia Lewis, performed by Brian Getnick with musical accompaniment by George Lewis Jr. of Twin Shadow. It is the first part of a triptych, to be followed with Minor Matter and Melancholy: A White Mellow Drama. For more info on Ligia Lewis’s upcoming performances, go to


  1. Alicia Eler. “Brian Getnick Creates L.A. Space.” KCET Los Angeles: Artbound (December 12, 2014).


Jaime Shearn Coan

Jaime Shearn Coan (he/him/his) is a writer and editor who holds a PhD in English from The Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of the chapbook Turn it Over (2015) and co-editor of Marking the Occasion (2020) and Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now (2016). Find him at or on twitter: @jaimeshearncoan.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2016

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