Art Talk with Leyya Tawil of Dance Elixir
Leyya Tawil's Dance Elixir. Photo by Liz Payne
"[Artists are] contributing to everyone by trying to push a healthier, more hopeful humanity forward. I feel like that’s our responsibility." --- Leyya Tawil
Although Detroit native Leyya Tawil has always danced, she was actually on track to be an engineer until an ankle injury instigated her decision to pursue dance as a profession. In 2003, she founded Dance Elixir, a San Francisco-based company of dancers and musicians that focuses on collaboration and improvisation. The troupe has performed nationally and internationally including stints at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, Montreal's Studio 303, and the Syrian National Opera House in Damascus. When I spoke with Tawil via Skype, she was about to head off to Amsterdam to collaborate with a musician on a work that will tour to New York City, Detroit, New Orleans, and Oakland later this month. Tawil shared with us about her version of the artist's life, the impact of travel on her art practice, and her view of artists as warriors.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
LEYYA TAWIL: I think of my artist life as a belief system that pervades everything I do and all my decisions. How that plays out tangibly is that I connect the dots. My practice in the world is to connect ideas with actions and people with other people and places with ideas. So it becomes a big web of associations. So that’s how I feel my artist life plays out in a way; [I’m a] connectitian, which is how most of my work happens---by connecting dots.
NEA: What do you remember as your first experience with the arts?
TAWIL: It’s always been dance. I always made dances alone, in my basement, before I even had a dance class. But one of my earliest events was producing a show on my block---I think I was seven years old---and I had my friends from the street as the dancers. And it was Madonna’s “Dress You Up” video that I re-choreographed and presented to all of the parents on the street. It was one afternoon in the summertime. So that was my first show. My dance story has always been my own fascination with moving.
NEA: When did you know that dance was what you were going to do professionally?
TAWIL: Not until I was 19. I was already at the University of Michigan in the engineering school. I’ve always danced, always made dance, always loved dance, always wanted to dance. But it wasn’t until I was 19 and I actually had twisted my ankle and I wasn’t able to dance [at all] that I really had a turning point. I just knew in those few weeks that I couldn’t dance because of my injury that [dance] was all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
NEA: What decision has most impacted your art career?
TAWIL: I think to date the biggest decision was my decision to travel, to not just build in my immediate community, but to prioritize travel and to see the world and to live in other societies. And to feel the life in different places---the speed, the flow, the aesthetics---to really talk to different people and do different things. It really changed how I think about art, how I think about what I do, and the relevance of art. And it changed how I actually make work. It just broadened the whole scope [of my work]. It allowed me to zoom out and detach from the constructs that I was raised in---like concert dance and technique. It just made everything more relevant and broadened the scope of what I would consider dance or art-making.
NEA: You said that one of the things that traveling did was change your definition of art. Can you say a little bit more about that?
TAWIL: Seeing how people live in different societies, in different places, informed how I think art relates to … this society in America versus how art relates to society in multiple other countries. It dissolved the borders of what I consider [art] .... A tangible example of that is the act of improvisation---what needs to happen today [if] I’m in this new place, I don’t know how to get around, I don’t know how to do anything here. Everything’s ne ---the language is new, the people are new, the food is new. [I] approach the day as an improvisation into living, and then [look at] the value of that as being art in and of itself. So art isn’t something outside of life. This sounds so very cliché, but it’s like little moments of expression throughout the day is actually the art versus a delivered packaged thing.
NEA: Can you say more about free improvisation and how that’s part of your art practice?
TAWIL: Free improvisation as a genre is mostly attributed to a musical practice that comes out of free jazz. But for me in dance, free improvisation becomes a container for live research into ideas, and live research into the body as the story, the body as the content. So it’s a live practice, and it’s a research practice. And it reflects and projects.
I feel like in the act of improvisation in performance, when witnessed by anyone, a dialogue is created between what do you recognize in what is happening and what are the representations playing out here in the moving body, but also what are the projections? So the body becomes a container of ideas, intent, future thinking, history, and culture, and it depends on the audience member or the witness to “read” and the performer to “read” the situation and discuss. So it becomes this play.
I usually perform improvisations with one other person---it’s usually a musician---so it’s a dance conversation along with a sound or music conversation along with the audience so it triangulates into performer to performer, performer to audience, and then all of that is read under the context of the venue, the context of society. It becomes a statement of the day, of the moment, but also everything that you know because what you know is what you’re dealing with. Everything that you know is what is playing out in that improvisation that day.
If I’m improvising in Detroit I have a different understanding of the vibe of the environment than if I’m improvising in Amsterdam or Cairo. Just by acknowledging location there’s already a dialogue with the audience. The location---more than the audience themselves---is the dialogue. And that has to do with rhythms or realities of how you understand the body. A gesture in the States will mean something very different outside of the States so that becomes a dialogue. That’s how the audience influences me in the act of improvisation. It’s a learning process. I learn about a place by improvising in that place, and it’s a really important practice for me in my work.
NEA: Let’s talk about your company Dance Elixir. How did it come to be? What was the need?
TAWIL: Dance Elixir for me was a natural progression. I was an independent artist making work, and my work has always been collaborative---not so much with other dance artists, but mostly multi-disciplinary. I’ve always worked with original music composers or designers, etc. …. [A]t some point my collaborators became a more solid group, a more regular group, so we could start to build something a little bit deeper working with the same people over and over again.
As the work started to deepen because there were less moving parts, it felt like the natural progression would be to formalize it and centralize it under a company structure. The need for me was to create an organization, a dance company, [for which] part of its mission is collaboration, is working in a multidisciplinary way, but also with not a really rigid product…. We’re not just doing big, high production value shows that tour; some of it’s solo work, some of it’s improvised, some of it’s arts research, some of it’s film, some of it’s concert dance. [I want] the actual formal container of Dance Elixir in order to facilitate a lot of different ideas about dance…. So I think the need is because I have a certain ever-changing idea about what should happen next. So the formalization helps ground it.
NEA: We’re celebrating Women’s History month in March. What does it mean to you to be a woman artist?
TAWIL: I have such mixed feelings about that as a title—woman artist versus artist. And I think that my mixed feeling is not really good versus bad, but it’s complicated. I was [asking myself] why does that feel complicated, and I started making a list of things the word “woman” signifies in terms of artist. The first word that came to mind is power…. I know that by creating work I’m sending ideas and ripples out into society, and I have just a lot of pride in [the fact that it’s] a woman’s voice. It’s my voice and I’m a woman. But I also think there is something about being a woman artist, which I want to bring to the conversation, which is glamor. I mean that in the best sense. The idea of artist as subservient to society is not my flow, so to bring back this idea of the artist as the warrior in society and for that to be the female warrior artist archetype is something that gives me a lot of strength at times to think about. To think about the role of the artist and that I’m a woman doing this practice of change in the world.
NEA: How does being of Palestinian and Syrian heritage inform your art practice? How about being a native of Detroit?
TAWIL: My Palestinian and Syrian heritage has just added a lot of complexity to my outlook. I realized growing up as a first-and-a-half generation American that no two people are the same, no two outlooks are ever the same…. No two truths are ever the same, and what is true is often relative. So what’s true here is not true there, what’s true to you today might not be true tomorrow. So I feel like that has contributed to my approach to art-making. I don’t have a value system that says, “Well, this is true and this is not true.” And in even in making work, my creative process, I’ll go in with an idea, but I’ll think, well, whatever happens in the studio, that could be true. So the idea of ownership or staticness dissolves.
As far as my Detroit roots and Michigan roots I should say [the biggest influence] is work ethic, I mean straight up work ethic. There’s no harder working community that I’ve participated in. And also having my heart in Detroit and knowing how that society has risen and fallen, risen and fallen---it really is a future thinking scenario. The people of Detroit have to ask the question—when everything fails, what happens next? So I feel like both work ethic and future thinking are what comes out of Detroit and it is inspiring. It’s a push for me. There’re some high standards there for work and creative thinking so I have to hold it up!
NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?
TAWIL: I think, quite honestly, the artists are the warriors of hope, of seeing the next phase of humanity and building toward that, choreographing those ideas of future society, as we wish it to be. And so what I’m trying to do is contribute to how I hope it goes, where I hope we’re heading. And in that way it’s a practice where we contribute to our immediate network, our family, our family of artists, our city, our state, our country, and the world at large. And we’re contributing to everyone by trying to push a healthier, more hopeful humanity forward. I feel like that’s our responsibility.
NEA: And what do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?
I think the responsibility is to heed the arts that are going on, to really look to them and listen and to give them voice, to give them support and voice so that the ideas can actually manifest and the art can manifest so that we have ways of thinking about what happens next in the world. I think [the] community needs to hold up the artist and listen, just listen. And it’s not to elevate the artist above the non-artist because I don’t believe there are non-artists. It’s just to say there are people trying to do the work to create a healthier way of living and a more beautiful and more joyous way of living and the artists that do that I feel can be supported, should be supported by their community because it’s joy and joy should be part of the conversation about where we’re going in the world and it’s not. There’s no conversation about joy, and I feel that that’s something art can do, and the community can listen and believe, or challenge and talk.
NEA: What does Art Works means to you?
TAWIL: Art is working, working really really hard. And art is a functional practice. It’s not salt at the end of the meal; it is the meal. And so it’s working in a functional way. And it works to change people, and it works to change systems. Art works as a catalyst. “Art works” is really nice because it becomes a verb. I like to think of it as a verb, being a dancer…
NEA: Anything you want to add?
TAWIL: I would just add that the importance of collaboration in this dialogue is important, because collaboration outside yourself is, I think, how we’re going to build the next world. And it becomes less about the personality of one and more about the system of many. Collaboration is the base of what I do. It’s the heart of what I do.