Isabel Lewis believes it’s time for art patrons ‘to step up and take a lead’
You could say Isabel Lewis was introduced to dance fairly early on. ‘For every Dominican child, this happens in the home,’ she explains. ‘As soon as you’re walking, you’re dancing. In fact,’ she adds, ‘you’re maybe dancing before you’re walking.’ Music and movement are so deeply woven into everyday culture in the Dominican Republic that, even though her family emigrated to the US when she was small, she retained what she calls ‘a passion for dance, and that energy and communion that happens with dance’.
The Berlin-based artist is still to this day fascinated by that ineffable energy and communion that is conjured into existence when bodies move through space. Yet her relationship to dance has evolved over time and it’s worth tracing that evolution, because it reveals exactly how her ideas and her artistic practice have developed and deepened over time.
From around the age of eleven, Isabel took up classical ballet, intrigued by the ‘rigour and discipline’ demanded by the medium. She pursued this throughout her teenage years, growing up on a manmade island off the coast of Florida. But as she began her university studies, she became more awakened to, and therefore more critical of, classical ballet and its aesthetic value system, turning instead to more contemporary forms of dance and experimental performance. ‘I needed to find more expansive ways of understanding the body, outside of these very rigid ideas of symmetry and perfection and clean lines,’ she recalls. ‘I was looking for something more twisted, more broken, more contemporary.’
However, she kept an important lesson from her ballet days. ‘Going to the theatre to watch ballet, I saw how these were complete, immersive worlds, with live orchestras and lighting, costumes and set design,’ she says. ‘This set the foundation for my desire to build my own worlds and my own complete, multi-sensorial shows.’
Arguably the move that had the greatest impact on Isabel’s creative development was her decision in 2009 to leave New York for Berlin. She had been perfectly successful in New York as a dancer, choreographer and artist, but the relocation to Berlin changed everything. ‘It was like pressing a reset button,’ Isabel says. ‘In a way it was dizzying and confusing and scary, but it was also absolutely liberating artistically.’ In New York, she felt she had been labelled and branded and forced down a particular professional trajectory. Like so many before her, Isabel found that the city offered her a chance for a ‘radical starting-over’.
In her new home, unconstrained by her art-school connections and labels that had been foisted onto her, Isabel was free to explore: ‘The anonymity gave me the courage to be as experimental as I maybe had always wanted to be.’ One of the first works she performed that really encapsulated her new way of thinking about performance and theatre was Strange Action, which she referred to as ‘a solo in three seemingly unrelated parts’. It was pivotal. ‘That was the first work where I started to think of myself as the host rather than as the performer, and of my audience as my guests,’ she says.
'There’s definitely this potential for philanthropy to help rebuild a new system of support for cutting-edge artistic practices'
‘Hosted occasion’ is a description of the format that Isabel landed on back then, purely because these events (for want of a better word, perhaps) needed a name. At that time, she was self-organising shows and putting them on in a variety of informal settings – a friend’s apartment, the bar where she was working, or in a park or garden. Today, she continues to use that description, even though now these occasions take place in a variety of settings, including in art museums and galleries.
Her practice today is the definition of a hybrid practice, weaving together writing, music, performance and dance in highly original ways. Her work is difficult to categorise – and indeed that is exactly the point, as Isabel finds the traditional bucketing of artistic disciplines unnecessarily limiting. Yet, for her, certain influential parts of the art world are still far too concerned with discipline, particularly when it comes to public support for the arts.
‘In my experience of state funding, applications are highly gridded along the lines of discipline,’ she notes. ‘While the discourse might be, “We’re open to newness and experimentation,” the whole application process is designed to put the artwork in a kind of box that I find is too narrow.’ This has the undesired effect of suffocating experimentation: ‘Other practices that are pushing the bounds of genre and pushing into new directions fall out of visibility within those structures.’
The pandemic is only going to exacerbate this situation. While state funding for the arts has been reasonably strong in many countries since the onset of the pandemic, it will not last forever and many are concerned that a cliff edge awaits.
This is where, for Isabel, private philanthropists and art patrons can step in and have a huge impact. ‘There’s definitely this potential for philanthropy to help rebuild a new system of support for cutting-edge artistic practices,’ she says. Private individuals can also act more quickly than state structures, which Isabel says are often ‘slower and clunkier,’ particularly when compared to the rapid pace of cultural change in our current societies. The pandemic has only increased the pressing need for such patrons to intervene – or, as Isabel puts it, ‘It’s a really interesting moment for philanthropy to step up and take a lead, and actually generate a new wave of experimental culture.’
'Creativity adapts: it sees the situation and it finds alternative modes of communication. I don’t think you can quell creativity.'
Beyond philanthropy, Isabel also perceives, thanks to the pandemic, an opportunity to reimagine other aspects of that Hydra-headed beast we call The Art World. ‘There is a massive opportunity to really reconsider and rethink,’ she says. ‘If everyone was miserable with the fairs and the art-world calendar and the way it all unfolds in this numbingly familiar way, we now have such an opportunity to ask: What do we want out of this?’
One thing is certain in her mind, though, and that’s the fact that art and culture are going to play fundamental roles in rebuilding our world post-pandemic, giving us reasons to gather together and share experiences again, and reminding us of that sense of energy and communion that she experienced even as a small dancing child. ‘There’s never been a better time for experimentation,’ she says. ‘Creativity adapts: it sees the situation and it finds alternative modes of communication. I don’t think you can quell creativity.’