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Engage Your Senses: A Chat With Isabel Lewis

How do we understand ourselves in relation to our world? To help answer this question, performance artist Isabel Lewis is presenting Occasions at Berlin’s international dance festival, Tanz im August. Occasions employs dance, scent, culinary treats, text, music, conversation and uniquely designed scenery to immerse its audience. Samples from pop tunes, hypnotically looped music, and texts from Lewis’s favorite literary works are heard. Meanwhile, Lewis releases scents prepared by Norwegian Smell Researcher Sissel Tolaas according to the vibe of the moment. With the addition of something small to eat and drink, Occasions truly engages all five senses.

The result is an affair that lounges between philosophical discussion, performance and soirée. Each performance becomes its own individual creation as Lewis uses her intuition to guide the show. Energy begets energy, and attending an Occasion should be a practice in soulful rejuvenation.

What made you decide to incorporate smell into Occasions?

We are always using our sense of smell. It is more keen even than our sense of sight. But as a culture we have not developed that much language around it. There is even a lack of vocabulary for articulating our experiences of smell.

It has been extremely fascinating to work with Sissel. I began integrating scent from the beginning. I think of them as a major part of the architecture of the space. I release the scents according to the vibe. There are three different smells that are released during Occasions and I think to myself, ‘which smell do I DJ now.’

How do you balance being totally focused whilst remaining open to the atmosphere during each performance? 

That is the most difficult task I have created for myself: to be open to the present moment while maintaining the director’s mind so it doesn’t become just a party. I compose live inside a social situation that I have generated but don’t have total control over. Years of experience of working live and being fascinated with what is happening live as with the material has helped me prepare. There are practical things like being well rested before a performance. I also have a 50-page document of preparation for the shows. I review this document before each show and spend time in the performance space to feel at home in it in order to open this home to others.

Are you nervous before these performances?

It is more like an animal tension. I am relaxed but hyper-aware of the surroundings. The direct feedback from the audience members helps keep me focused. It is intense. Afterwards I feel an exhaustion, but also a satisfaction.

Why are you aiming to do with Occasions? What inspired you to create them? 

I am curious about how we can live an integrated, good life in the 21st century. How can I be a healthy participant in a complex network of agents world-wide? In what ways can I generate wellbeing, and experiences of integration as opposed to the segregation of activities?
The format of Occasions integrates different interests and puts me into contact with people in a beautiful way. There is a feeling of generosity and relaxation, a certain calm. We currently give the visual dominance over the other senses. But we haven’t always separated the mind and body and given the visual such priority. I think we are ready for something else. That is my challenge in this work: to engage the entire bodily apparatus.

What is your goal for the audience? 

I don’t have a goal for them. That is the danger of interactive theater. I don’t want them to be boxed in to some preconceived notion. I want to address the guests as individuals. The space is generous, relaxing but also engaging. I hope for the space to be intellectually stimulating as well as bodily stimulating in a way that doesn’t usually happen in our culture today. I want to provide the opportunity for everyone to have an experience for themselves.

What kind of locations have you chosen for Occasions? 

After working so many years in the theater, where the restrictions and limitations of the theater were so familiar to me, it was important to me that this work could be adaptable. It could happen in a tiny bar, a music venue, a garden, or a museum. I have also been invited to perform Occasions, and then that has determined the type of location. For example, I did one in a 17th-century merchant’s home outside of London. I’ve also performed it at the top of a department store, in a small bar in Barcelona, and a friend’s kitchen here in Berlin.

You were living in New York, what made you decide to come to Berlin? 

I was tired of New York after almost ten years. I was working in the dance context there. I felt like there wasn’t room to keep growing. I wanted my work to come into contact with more kinds of people. I had stopped in Berlin on many occasions. As I got to know the city I wanted to come here. Moving to Berlin gave me the chance to develop the work. I don’t think I would have generated something quite like this had I stayed in New York.

Is the slowing down due to you leaving New York, being an expat, or is it specific to Berlin?

In being an expat you’re in a situation where you don’t speak the language so everything slows down. It takes longer to get things done. There is a kind of slowing down that happens whenever you move to another country, especially if you don’t speak the language. But it is also escaping the hustle of trying to pay the rent in New York.

I was working the whole day and completely filling my schedule, leaving the apartment at 7am and coming home after midnight. I was dedicated to making my living only through artistic projects and I was having an amazing time. But the kind of thinking that brought forth Occasions needed time and a slower rhythm of life. I think that there is something particular about Berlin helped contribute to the development of Occasions. The buzz of consumerism is quieter, my eating habits, spending habits, everything got simpler when I got here. Everything got leaner. There was less going on. I was still in a big city, but slower. It was refreshing.

Do you feel there is a difference between American and European audiences? 

It is difficult to compare, but I do feel that there is more openness and generosity here. I sense that people give more of a direct opinion here as well. In New York I felt that opinions were always clouded by politeness.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope that as a culture we can become more humble and develop a better understanding of ourselves and the network that we are a part of. Opening up, becoming receptive, being intuitive, these are different types of knowledge that can be overwhelmed by visual influences. Take care of our surroundings, as a people we can be better if we are more aware of them. There is no separation between humans and the environment.

Isabel Lewis will present ‘Occasions’ as part of Tanz im August on 26, 29 August, and 4 September at HAU1 Berlin. Doors open at 19:00 and audience members are welcome to arrive at any time during the performance. Admission is free. 

By Sasha Prince
Sasha is a classical singer and animal lover and has been in Berlin since 2014. She is from the US and the place she lived the longest is Austin, Texas.

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