Body Language: Martha Gonzalez’s Art of Empowerment

On February 5, choreographer Liz Lerman’s Work-in-Progress: Wicked Bodies premiered in Scripps’ Balch Hall. Inspired by the histories and mythologies of witches all over the world, the multimedia performance featured Lerman and a core group of dancer-collaborators as well as students and faculty from the College’s Department of Dance. They were joined by Martha Gonzalez, Scripps associate professor of Chicana/o Latina/o Studies and a singer/songwriter for the Grammy Award–winning band Quetzal; she contributed music and vocals in addition to performing as a dancer. We spoke with Gonzalez about what it was like to collaborate with Lerman on Wicked Bodies, the relationship between process and performance in her own work, and how music and dance have the power to raise up communities and reconnect us with our humanity. Rachel Morrison: You and Liz Lerman have been collaborating for years. Can you tell us about how your partnership began? Martha Gonzalez: I was previously an artist-in-residence at ASU Gammage, a performing arts center at Arizona State University, where Liz has a professorship. Part of what I did was give lectures on social transformation, and Liz and I were on a panel together. We connected on the idea that there is a link between music and social movements, and from then on we were always in touch. Liz seeks to empower communities that society doesn’t always give time and energy to—she’s worked with veterans and people of the “third age,” for example, and invited them into her creative process. RM: You have done similar work, bringing music and dance into communities that society doesn’t always value. MG: Yes, my work is centered on using the tools of music to engage communities. I’ve worked with incarcerated youths and adults. I’ve also worked with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts [ACTA] on a project for Building Healthy Communities, an initiative supported by the California Endowment aimed at promoting fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. ACTA asked me to work with a local community—parents, students, teachers, seniors, everyone—to use the collective songwriting method to help them decipher the Local Control Funding Formula, which is how the State of California funds schools, and to share how they would like the money to be spent in their community. RM: Can you elaborate on how community songwriting contributes to civic participation? MG: Music is a language anyone can relate to. Where and how political decisions usually take place—at a boardroom table, poring over legal documents full of jargon—can be isolating and elitist to the people who actually live in the community. I help translate these documents through participatory music dialogue. I read and understand aspects of the documents and then, via the songwriting process, begin to discuss them with community members. The goal is to write a song about what the community wants, what they think, et cetera. I help facilitate the discussion, and we write a song about their decisions. RM: Wicked Bodiesseems to touch on similar issues, giving voice to those who historically have been voiceless. MG: The work is definitely political in that way. Women and their “wicked bodies” have, over centuries and geography, been persecuted as witches, and Liz is trying to connect all of these instances through multimedia dance performance. As academics, writing is one important way to articulate our work and dissect how oppression is enacted on bodies—people of color, queer bodies, women. But as artists, we’re able to enact these ideas in other ways as well. We’re able to move beyond the academic narratives and reach so many more people. Our methods tend not to be so elitist, and, through these creative vehicles, the notion of oppression and bodies over time is more accessible. The audience might think, “Oh, witches! I never thought about how that term has been tied to women, and how this has been a way in which women have been persecuted and oppressed!” RM: You played a unique role in the performance: In addition to singing and playing the jarana jarocha [an eight-string guitar made of cedarwood], you were, at times, a character of sorts, moving among the dancers and narrating a famous moment of oppression by King James VI by “singing the news” in the tradition of the corrido. How do you enter these creative moments of genre-bending and discipline fusion? MG: Liz is really great about not making you do her vision. She brings out the best in you and then incorporates that all into her work—or, she assesses the community and then brings them together in such a way that brings out the best of everyone. The role I played came about because some of my work incorporates dance—I do percussive footwork in Veracruz fandango, for example. Liz knew I wasn’t afraid of movement, so we had been working on and off, talking about playing while dancers are moving or singing a cappella. She’s very generous in how she opens up a space—“Just try something!” she’ll say during rehearsals. Even if I mess it up, I’ll get direction, not criticism, which tends to shut down a person’s creative light. In the past, she’s taken me to ASU’s natural science collection. “What would you do in this space?” she asked, and so I sang to a taxadermied bird on the wall and did movement work around preserved butterflies. Or she’s given me lyrics and I’ve written a song—that’s how we got “A Boy Named James” in Wicked Bodies, based on a 16th-century broadside ballad. She stirs the pot, so to speak, and I come up with stuff. RM: In a previous issue of Scrippsmagazine, when Wicked Bodies was still in the conception phase, you said that “Western culture doesn’t have a way to really gauge the success of what happens in Lerman’s works . . . yes, she’s won awards and grants, but it’s the process and the effect on not just institutions and audiences, but on the performers and others involved.” Why is it useful to delineate between “product” and “process”? MG: For me, the most impactful part of Wicked Bodies was the process of working together. We did so much more than whatwas seen on the stage! And this is humbling for artists—to share their process. It’s not just something that comes to us, but it’s a lot of hard work and dialogue and theoretical discussions, through our bodies and verbally. The body theorizes in interaction with other bodies—talking sometimes, but at other times communicating with movement. For example, Liz can start saying a sentence and finish it with an action. Without the process, those interactions, we wouldn’t have understood that body language. It’s almost giving up your power as an artist. RM: Your independent scholarly and community work also touches on this idea, and how transformative it can be to focus more on process than product. MG: A focus on process displaces the centrality of capital and capitalism, which just extracts objects and occludes all of the labor and relationships that went into it. RM: Can you give an example of how process-based community engagement accomplishes this displacement? MG: I’ll give an example through a course I teach through the Intercollegiate Department of Chicanx/Latinx Studies. I created the first fandango course in the nation, Fandango as a Decolonial Tool. I wanted to move music and dance practice away from the stage and toward a process that the community engages in and creates. We have the course twice a week. On the first day, we do intensive reading and writing. The second day is all embodied practice: I assign an instrument, teach the dance, we sing the versos, I teach the protocols of the fandango, and for their final, students have to go to a fandango, which is a convivial gathering where this music, dance, and singing takes place—a ritual fiesta, if you will. It’s so fun to see how transformed students are toward the end of the course, and how they think about music in a different way—it’s not just something that we buy and sell in our society, it’s a way of interacting and being in community with each other. It takes the transaction out of the equation.“How come we don’t sing like this?” they say. “I quit violin because I would never make money,” another student said. As children, we play music as a pastime; as adults, it’s transformed into something that we are either going to make a living off of or not. That aspect of capital robs us of the humanity of what it means to make music together and for the sake of community. The goal of courses like these is that we have a human right to stay connected to music. We need cyphers, bombazos, and hoedowns—whatever your sonic liking is, we need to bring that back and bring people back. We can be more connected to our own creative output, not just in the service of making a living, but because we are human beings who need to stay connected to our creative humanity.