The way Alexa Wilson sees it, the outer edges of her art form are there to be stepped over, pushed against or subverted – always with wit, honesty and intelligence. The Auckland dance choreographer and performance artist creates innovative and provocative dance theatre, layered multimedia works that twist and stretch the seams of contemporary dance, often using her body as a polemic instrument.
Although admired by peers and reviewers, her intensely personal yet magnetic shows have eluded mainstream recognition, but at last she has shattered the glass ceiling. Her latest work Weg: A-Way, inspired by two years of living in Berlin, was a hit in its first outing at this year’s Auckland Fringe Festival, taking out four top awards. Now it is featuring in Auckland’s Tempo and Christchurch’s The Body dance festival programmes.
The German word “weg” means “away” or “path”. “The work’s metaphor is to leave, to return, to be something that you aren’t in order to find out what you are,” Wilson says.
The piece is an intimate, performance art dialogue between Wilson and a small audience. In quintessential style, Wilson takes the lead and by offering herself as sacrifice she unites strangers into a community, inviting them to reveal themselves. Each show is a unique interpretation, the outcome unpredictable.
Sitting on a small leafy balcony in her modest city apartment, Wilson speaks quietly of a passionate commitment to her art, and of her time in Germany. Her sensitive, expressive face, framed by thick long red hair, reflects the memories of a tough but ultimately creative time.
Armed with determination and courage, Wilson had high expectations of “cracking” Berlin, which she calls the “art Hollywood of the world”.
“I fell in love with Berlin. It is such an awesome city, it has so much going on across all the art forms; it is an exciting place to be.”
But despite trying all avenues, she found her own fierce energy was at odds with the stratified dance scene, with the sheer numbers of wannabes and the minimalist German aesthetic amounting to a near impenetrable barrier. One dance academy described her as an anarchist.
When the financial crisis hit Europe, what had begun as an artistic endeavour became a politicising experience. Wilson worked as a life model to make ends meet, but was disheartened by dismal pay and gratuitous exposure – the studio windows went out onto the street. She was not alone.
“Most of my really talented artist friends were doing cleaning jobs, baby-sitting or picking up bottles. With 40% unemployment in Berlin, it is really hard, plus not speaking fluent German made it difficult.”
Big city – Hollywood-style – norms kicked in. “Berlin expects, requires you, to self-exploit. I experienced this as an immigrant, an outsider, an artist and a woman.” In the arts and entertainment industries there was a constant expectation for overseas hopefuls to be photographed or exhibited nude.
“There were so many jobs advertised for artists to pose naked with no fee. A friend of mine worked with a designer who required her to be constantly undressed. The designer went on to create wallpaper out of my friend’s yoga poses – and paid her nothing. It made me think about capitalism. I could see so clearly how it is founded on exploitation – how culture continually encourages us to exploit others and ourselves.”
Safely back home, Wilson says Weg: A-Way is a playful way of looking at her experiences. She invites the audience to write key words on her body in the collaborative engagements of the work. “It is a light-hearted and humorous piece.”
While empowering, it is her riskiest work so far. “I am so reliant on audience interactivity. What happens in the work is defined by who is in the group, the culture of the audience. The process of me being and saying whatever I like allows other people to do the same. I gain great satisfaction from people participating and connecting. They have profound experiences, they open up.”
WEG: A-WAY, Alexa Wilson, Q Theatre Loft, Auckland, October 8, as part of TEMPO DANCE FESTIVAL, September 30-October 8.