Leyya Tawil is an artist, a curator, and an organizer, but more than anything, Leyya is a collaborator–with people, places and mediums–she seeks to engage with and learn from. Talking with her, felt just like that—a conversation more than an interview. She was giving in not only her answers, but also her energy and insights as well. I greatly appreciated her kindness in letting me ask her questions. What follows is an edited interview about pieces of her work and process by Kara Mavers.
Kara Mavers (KM): So your bio talked about you being an artist, curator and an organizer, and I was interested in the different work, but also the same work, that goes into those three different jobs, and I was wondering if you could talk about your work in each? And I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about the work that I’ve seen, because I thought it was really cool that I could access it online.
Leyya Tawil (LT): Well, so—Artist—Curator—Organizer—my artistic practice is such that it actually does combine all three really readily, because my practice is very collaborative. So already on just a really basic level, not even looking at the city or touring aspect of things, but at the work itself, there is sort of a curatorial eye in searching for collaborators, you know? Its that discerning of aesthetic in what you are looking for and how things read and all that information goes into the artistic practice and your programming practice. So most of my career until recently has been very self-produced . . . but I actually really love that sort of all hands on deck aspect. What we do as artists or what we do as dance makers and performance makers, in dance in particular, has a sort of DIY root to it. So I can talk more specifically about those three, but just establishing that they all blend together really quickly. . . Can I ask you what you have seen so I can reference?
KM: Yeah, So I saw Atlas, [sic] And I saw Destroy//Seattle….Quieting Heart…and then Lime Rickey International.
LT: So Atlas is a bit different than Destroy// and Quieting Heart, but I can talk about Destroy// and Quieting Heart in a bit when it comes to the many hats, because both of those are location-based projects. So you know Quieting Heart started when I first started to travel as an artist so how does a solo artist engage with the city they are in, in order to learn about the city, but also to learn about themselves. So I really take cues from the environment and the environment I found myself in. And that would actually determine the artistic output so it was very improvisational on the ground in that way, so sometimes it would be a film, sometimes it would be a live performance sometimes it would just be photos…
KM: And sound?
LT: Yeah, sound, exactly. So the root of all the practices does come down to music and movement with some more visual aspects as sort of a container at times, but the first thing I would do to understand the. . . the vibe of the city is to find the musicians and find the sound of the city. I am very connected to sound. . . But all of that was a huge learning experience about how to land in city and learn from it, but quickly too. And how to engage with people that did not feel sort of exploitive, you know?
KM: Is that your collaboration side of things?
LT: Yeah, because I knew I could come to a city and be like and who is cool here? I want to play with them. And take from like what’s cool from a place and then serve yourself and then leave. I am very sensitive to that, which I think comes from my cities and watching how the dance communities. . . and how some of the practices in the new dance communities in Cairo and then Palestine and Lebanon, when I was visiting those cities in the early 2000s, I was seeing how what a huge cultural influence visitors had. And the pros and the very long list of cons that come with that. So on a personal level…how to go into a city with respect and engage with and give, and not exploit, that was really what I was trying to get hands on with and full frontal with.
So then when Destroy// sort of came upon me, us, all of us, that is a piece that is taught the same way in every city. I refer to it as a score that is interpreted and held by many, hundreds of people now, and in each city, because each group of people, dancers and musicians and the audience as well are given the same general information. What they do with it becomes this cultural record of the city, becomes a sort of aesthetic and social interaction that says a lot about what happened there and what is happening there…
Km: Have you noticed more similarities in people being able to access it in audiences, what they get from it, even across global locations?
LT: The similarity across the board is that the dancers, lets break it down into dancers, musicians, audience, sort of the major spheres, the dancers all have sort have a collective personal journey
KM: Throughout the dance?
LT: Throughout the dance, yeah, throughout the process of meeting me, “good morning welcome to Destroy//,” to the end of the day. After they had destroyed the dance and gone through this really sort of intense physical and emotional process. And I think that, that’s actually what has been constant in every city, the sense of a journey and a sense of a ritual, where you enter in with one body and one mind and sort of spirit about it, and as the day goes on and the ritual unfurls you leave in a different, mind, body and spirit about it.
Together we go through a process but the process is individuals moving forward into it, so it is an individual journey that you do simultaneously with others and the musicians as well, so I am talking about the dancers and the musicians, and actually the audience…and what it ultimately becomes is a tearing down of walls, of like conquering walls and that’s actually the destroy. . . It’s actually an opening [sic] so Destroy// is actually a very hopeful and optimistic angle on things, unlike destruction which sounds like a finality.
KM: I noticed with your pieces there is attention given to detail and time, and each dance is different [from anything I had seen before]. Can you speak to your style and how that came about?
LT: I think now and its safe to say. . .I recognize how, sort of sonically, I have been choreographing all along. Even though I am sort of somatically tuned in, I have a lot of somatics for research I used to focus on, and that was sort of warped by my attention to sonic interests, sort of subtle rhythm and subtle time. Because that is what I think musicians do, basically warp time for you. . . warp time and make you feels things, like that is what musicians do. And so I feel like that might be what I have been doing all along as a choreographer, is dealing with time and sound or time and, almost like, visual sound. . .It is sort of that cross-senses thing too, because when I do movement I actually hear it, I know what the movement sounds like, making audible sound. . . So Atlas, it is almost like Mike [Khoury] and I are two musicians in the room, versus a dancer and a musician.
And then my work as an improviser with musicians is really like a huge part of my practice, because that I think is when I honed the skill more of like what this movement sounds like or how I am pocketing myself, like dancing with the sound, versus responding to or trying to direct or trying to or make you the audience hear the sound differently or make you understand what I am doing. I am just trying to dance around and the sound is there and we are dancing together. And then the audience can understand both of those things however they wish; it is not my job to explain the music to you, nor is it my job to respond to music.
KM: So have you noticed if your travels globally have deeply, deeply changed your style into your own collaboration?
LT: On like a life-dedicated-to-art level, I realize when traveling and meeting your counterpart in different cities, it’s kinda like your question about Destroy//. We are not all that different; we find our people wherever we go. And that is like a really beautiful practice. . . It also connects to this broader global community of people, just believing in something else. . .but I am really talking about people who are totally operating on a really functional level in believing they can make whatever they need to make happen, happen; independent of the mainstream forces. . . So to think, it’s not just me, the four people that I know doing this, but actually the travel made me very heartened to know that there are those four or five people in every city and when we start to know each other and have each other’s backs even just spiritually. We really are—like Lime Rickey’s [her alter-ego] first song cycle [sic] called Unstoppable, and its for that: we are unstoppable actually, you know? That is what I learned from travel, which is the most optimistic that everyone will keep going.
KM: So why did [Lime Rickey] come about, why have an alter ego?
LT: I think she came about and she is too new and I am too close to her to really say, I needed a container to put this new world into, this refugee world, the world of lost homelands. . . She is a refugee from the future. She is from a land that doesn’t exist yet, so she sings songs to a fictional homeland, and she does fiction folk dances, and she has all these memories of the past, but that past is today. But she sees today as the past. . .But Lime is a lot of things, she is a way for me to twist these forms that I respect so much [Dabke and Arabic vocal techniques], into some other weirdness that Leyya can’t do…
Its good to have a container for the mess of things I have been wanting to do, that I can switch very fluidly between Destroy// and Atlas and doing like Leyya and Musician improvisation work and all these things I am doing, and then do this super brain shift into Lime, for me to have, a different hat to wear, a total different persona. She moves differently. Everything about how she speaks is very different than me, so I can craft this creature and not have it bleed into these other things.
KM: Do you have a favorite piece?
LT: I would have to say my middle child Atlas has got a lot of my attention right now, because it has only been performed twice officially. . . and I just feel like this is a piece that is really present in my body still, and it really needs to be out there more. And it still feels politically resonant; I think it is important work right now. Because it needs to be experienced [live], I need to push. . . And it needs to happen more, for me to understand it more.
Kara Mavers is a first year Masters student in Performance as Public Practice at UT Austin.