Currently on view, ‘study now steady’ is a foray into the relationship between audience and performer, told through a Black feminist lens

Perhaps the most interesting part of study now steady—a performance by dancer Ligia Lewis—isn’t the choreography, but the people watching. At its most basic, the piece—on view at the Center for Art, Research and Alliances (CARA) in Greenwich Village until February 4, 2024—consists of observing three performers interact in a room. Blending the introspection of a gallery exhibition with immediacy of live dance, Lewis looks to turn the CARA studio into a theater of concepts, where dancers “construct an alternate temporality,” one where “cultural and racial hierarchies are both exposed and destabilized.” Performances occur four days a week in the afternoons; admission to the gallery is free.

Lewis calls herself a choreographer, but has some reservations with this term. She’s not interested in dance as an aesthetic form—or art for art’s sake—but instead views her work as a critique of the canonical ‘dancer’s body’ through a Black feminist lens. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Florida, Lewis now lives in Berlin, where she was drawn to a culture with more robust arts funding. Her work has been seen around Europe and the US, including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and London’s Tate Modern.

One is hard pressed to grasp Lewis’s ideas in study now steady without the aid of a museum plaque. The mostly wordless composition is set to a contemporary choral arrangement that recalls early liturgical music which, when combined with the studio’s high ceilings and expansive windows, creates the impression of having entered a minimalist church. At a recent performance, a friend and I were the only people in attendance. Three dancers (Miguel Angel Guzmán, Trinity Dawn Bobo, and Niall Noel Jones for this matinee, though each show includes different dancers) entered the room, dressed in street clothes.

Installation view of Ligia Lewis, A Plot A Scandal (2023) at the Center for Art, Research and Alliances. Photograph by Liz Ligon.

Usually, when performers outnumber the audience, it raises red flags; in the case of study now steady, it was a luxury. From the start, there was a palpable sense of play among the ensemble. Thrust into Lewis’s alternative timeline, the dancers took to the room as if they had landed on an alien planet, staring at its mysterious inhabitants (in this case, me and my friend). The dancers were engaged in perpetual exploration, climbing the benches, shimmying against the wall, even squeezing into window sills. They oscillated from slow, deliberate gestures to whimsical contortions, as if becoming suddenly alert to their imprisonment within an imagined cage.

I enjoyed looking away to the adjacent apartments, where Christmas lights twinkled and an occasional stranger popped into view. This incidental voyeurism added another layer of meaning to one of the spoken refrains in the piece: “Seeing you, seeing me, stuck in the terror of being seen.” The performers repeated these lines, becoming increasingly distressed, and their unease was contagious. Soon, it felt as if we were all trapped in a prison of mutual observation.

At its heart, study now steady is an exercise in repetition and duration. The semi-improvised work offers nothing in the way of narrative, or even character, but my proximity to the dancers was visceral enough to compensate for the absence of story. The fact that the performance runs with or without an audience makes Lewis’s creation all the more interesting. Imagining what a rehearsal alone in a studio might look like, I wondered how often the neighbors looked across the street, rubbernecking for a glimpse of the movement. Given the space’s grand windows, it would be easy to be drawn into Lewis’s puckish composition.

Installation view of Ligia Lewis, Study Now Steady (2023) at the Center for Art, Research and Alliances. Photograph by Liz Ligon.

For the most part, the dancers didn’t interact with each other, except for the conclusion, when they became a cohesive ensemble via group chant. Repeating the phrase “Facts are simply perception and surfaces,” until it became songlike, they abandoned their rigorous poses, and jubilantly paraded to the hallway. Once again, we were alone. Outside, the sky had darkened.

Several of Lewis’s short films are also on view at CARA, including A Plot A Scandal. Here, Lewis’s feminist inquiries are at their most cogent. The piece features two figures, portrayed by Lewis and Corey Scott-Gilbert. Dressed in disheveled period-specific attire, the pair traipse around a small town in the Italian countryside. In a voice over, a narrator recounts the absurd legal complexities of chattel slavery that befell that time. He lists off twisted legalese regarding the one drop rule, speaking in a bemused tone that contrasts the weight of his words, as well as the quaint, poplar-dotted landscape surrounding the characters.

As with study now steady, Lewis’s theatrical sensibility is on full display in A Plot A Scandal. More than once, Lewis switches the scene to a darkened stage, where Lewis’s and Scott-Gilbert’s movements take on a more primal quality that is often blatantly sexual. Skulls scatter the floor, and violence looms as the performers grunt and leer into the camera. It feels like the ugly underbelly of something: the other side of the coin to the charming setting of the film. The scene also resembles the stage work from which A Plot A Scandal was adapted, which Lewis has performed around the world. I couldn’t help but feel that Lewis’s work must be more enriching in theater, but for those who are unable to see her staged performances, the CARA exhibit is a strong compromise.