How One Artist Made a Room Full of Strangers Dance Together

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Isabel Lewis: Ten Days, Six NightsPhotography by Alexander Coggin, Styling Marcelo Alcaide

We caught up with Isabel Lewis after her much-lauded stint hosting Tate Modern’s recent performance art festival

TextHannah TindlePhotographyAlexander CogginPhotographic EditorHolly Hay

Performance artist and DJ Isabel Lewis was born in the Dominican Republic and raised between Florida and New York. She now calls Berlin home, with her on-going practice focusing on ‘Occasions’; events where the artist entertains audiences with music, food and dance. For Tate Modern’s recent performance programme Ten Days, Six Nights, Lewis hosted one of signature Occasions over the course of the live art exhibit. Her work brought together a chorus of dancers, an installation involving hanging plants and custom-made scents to completely alter the space in the Tate’s tanks. We spoke with Lewis to find out how she managed to coax a notoriously shy British audience to partner up with complete strangers. 

On the energy-changing properties of plants…
“I work with plants for many reasons. But primarily I find that they are wonderful bridge-making tools in helping humans understand our relationship to the non-human world. Humans have been gardening since the beginning of time, so there is a kind of deep, ancient relation to plant life and gardens. Even before we began living in an agricultural society we were gardening for pleasure. What they add to a space energetically is very profound.”

On auditioning her dancers…
“We put together a big audition ­– an open call – some months ago at the beginning of the year. There were over 200 applicants! I was looking for movers of all ages, for an energetic quality and for those who would make a connection to the subjects that I was talking about. They didn’t have to be professional dancers or even identify as being able to dance at all. I got to know them personally in the end – I feel like I made some friends over the course of the ten days.”

On challenging traditional museum formats…
“For me, the museum is a meeting place for history – a place for crossing through different narratives and cultures. I also think the museum builds a ritual that educates us to think with our eyes and our brains. Whereas I feel like what I propose with my work is to bring an awareness back to the whole human sensory experience and the way that the body resonates with the museum as a place – through live dance, live conversation and addressing all of the senses. I think in some ways my practice actually highlights the potential of what a museum can do.”

On creating custom-made scents…
“This is a long-standing collaboration with artist and chemist Sissel Tolaas. She is an expert in olfaction and has devoted the last 25 years of her life to research on scent. It’s been a long process of testing smells, trying out various combinations and changing them in order to arrive at the final result. Then there is finding out how to apply it, as each Occasion is different. So, in this case the 17 dancers each had an individual scent, so as they moved through the space that could be perceived. I had also had five different kinds of diffusers that were located throughout the lobby area and one that I always carry around which looks kind of like a crazy 1990s computer tower!”


On gently coaxing British people to dance with strangers…
“One can never know what to expect and I never ask for audience participation in explicit ways. But I’m always deeply moved when people take a risk to join in. I feel that they have really entered and connected with the spirit of the work. However, people in different locations around the world can react differently. Most of my work has been presented in western Europe, but when I presented in Shanghai the behaviour of the participants was actually quite different. People would follow me around the space wherever I was dancing, rather than shying away from me, which is what tends to happen in Europe and the USA. I did find the British crowd particularly shy, which was absolutely charming. They were still very present in the space. I felt completely touched by the whole experience.”