Dance Artist Niv Acosta Creates a Space of His Own

The performance <em>Discotropic</em>—premiering tonight, February 27, at the New Museum's Triennial—is the cosmic intersection of science fiction, classical dance, queer politics, and one fierce black headdress.

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Feb 27 2015, 7:15pm

'Discotropic' (2015), by Niv Acosta. Performance: The New Museum. Courtesy the artist. Photo by the artist

This Tuesday I attended the preview of Niv Acosta's alluring new sci-fi/classical fusion dance performance Discotropic. The work is featured in Surround Audience, the third iteration of the New Museum's much-awaited Triennial, which opened this week and runs through May 24. Featuring four dancers—one of whom is Acosta, attired in a billowing black headdress that was somehow both ephemeral and dense—Discotropic is a radical queer exploration of past imaginations of the future. As I stood on the sunny seventh floor of the museum, watching the performance, a series of thoughts swirled through my head: What is the future of queer art? How will its arrival within contemporary museum space change it, and conversely, how will we queers change the museum? And how can I get a headdress that fierce?

The press materials accompanying the Triennial describe the museum's desire to "explor[e] the future of culture through the art of today." Acosta's work, with its focus on yoking together disparate theoretical and movement traditions—ballet, contemporary, voguing—produces a work of dance situated at the intersection of celestial motions, the theories of astrophysics, histories of radical disco manifestoes, and race relations, with its unlikely inspiration coming from the politicized appearance of a holographic black body in a galaxy far, far away.

A Native New Yorker, Acosta was born in May of 1988. From a young age Acosta was fascinated with dance, though as he aged it gave way to an infatuation with scientific study—at one point, he even found himself contemplating a career as a rocket scientist. However, the call of performance remained strong, bringing him to the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angles, where he focused in dance and choreography. Discotropic, with its focus on science and movement, brings together Acosta's diverse interest in a provocatively unique way. It is a complex examination into cultural construction and space that manages to be both universal and deeply personal. After the preview, I had the pleasure of speaking with Acosta at the Whole Foods on Second Avenue, where we drank lemonade and chatted the afternoon away.

'Discotropic' (2015) trailer, by Niv Acosta

VICE: How do you define yourself as an artist? How do you relate to your own work?
Niv Acosta: Artist is the default setting. I feel like a facilitator. I feel like a conductor. I play a lot of roles in creating my process. I'm a performer but I'm also the choreographer. I'm also designing aesthetically what we are doing but also what we're wearing and the set. I think that "dance artist" has been my default. That's been my go-to because it's a good umbrella for what I'm doing, but it does feel limited in its conventional description. So I'm a sculptor; I'm a dance artist.

Can you tell me more about Discotropic? What was the inspiration for the piece?
My interest in this project started with Diahann Carroll in the Star Wars Christmas Special and then has sort of branched out. I've basically been giving myself assignments to read and see as much sci-fi as possible, but with a specific lens and a specific focus on Black American experience, and then how I see and rework that as a queer, trans-identified person in the contemporary world.

Diahann Carroll. I watched that Star Wars Holiday Special and found the eroticization of her relationship as a holographic image to a Wookiee troubling. Could you speak about the perversity of that for a minute, how that scene specifically inspired you?
I started a solo based off of that special, and it started as me trying to embody Mermeia. Mermeia is the name of Diahann Carroll' s character, which is so appropriate. I'm wearing drag. I'm wearing a long train. I'm lip-syncing to her song. I purposefully left Itchy's voice in the lip-sync track—Itchy being Chewbacca's father. He is grunting in his Wookiee language. And to us Wookiee language is just a series of grunting. And so much about grunting is sexual in our societal perception of that. So to hear Itchy being like [ grunt noises] while Diahann Carroll is being sexual and eroticized is a moment. Essentially, what's so powerful about her presence in this is that she's a holographic image but she's also sentient. The song is all about wanting to extend this minute for ever. She wants to live for eternity, for Itchy. So that he can consume her, for forever. I feel like I'm trying to challenge that by being like, "Well, we get to decide how are we consumed, as performers. What do we want to give as ours and ours alone?"

'Denzel Again' (2014), by Niv Acosta. Performance: New York Live Arts. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Ian Douglas

How do you want to be consumed as a performer?
I personally like to have control over how people consume me, but I'm a top. I think I'm still developing the language around that, but I certainly want to say to the audience in my performance, "I arrived here. I'm making this choice to perform for you in this way." Maybe there's some irony. Maybe there's some humor. Maybe I'll make you feel uncomfortable, but all of those things are my decision. I'm trying to have everyone meet me where I am and say, "Check it out. I'm doing this thing, but I can also see you, see me." And so much of that is empowering to me, to be like, "I created this scenario where you are either laughing at me or feeling turned on by me or whatever it is."I feel like I very much want to say, "I planned this. I planned that part where you got uncomfortable and laughed. I planned that point where you felt euphoric because we were doing something really beautiful. I also thought about that moment where the fabric might fall on your face and you would feel some sort of intimacy with me or another performer."

I try to make the labor very visible because I think it is important to express that we arrived at this place with much work, not just levity and fun and just trying to put on a cute dance.

Well, it is a cute dance.
Yes, it is a cute dance. [ Laughs] But I made that. I made it a cute dance.

So how has working with sci-fi enabled you, as an artist and as a person, to be more fully embodied?
With this new piece, Discotropic, I'm able to transcend that and just be excited about what I'm excited about, instead of compartmentalizing my identities within it. Now I get to be my whole self inside of this process because there is so much room with the sci-fi and with the disco to do that.

So you are using the language and freedom inherent within sci-fi and disco as a ward against the dominant arts-culture ideology that doesn't create or hold the space for you to be yourself within it?
You've nailed it on the head. That's essentially what we've been interested in and doing. It's about thinking and meditating on what has existed before us, what exists now in our contemporary pool of community, but also making our own within that and not recreating something. We're doing what we feel is to correct to do in our sculpted ideology.

In the piece, I loved watching you dance with the fabric. It looked like an appendage of your body. Why did you use fabric in this way?
So much about our childhoods is about dressing up and figuring out, not necessarily gender, but texture and sensation like that makes me feel sexy or that makes me feel ugly. So, a lot about the fabric inside of this work is very much from a child's-play perspective. We are all getting to tune into our inner child and wear a piece of fabric on our head and pretend we have long-ass hair.

Your movements, the structural posing, the music itself was also very classical, which was not what I was expecting at the start. What draws you to working with classical music and forms?
I've used classical music as a means to juxtapose a white body to a black space and in that instance it's a sonic space. So your sonic hearing is tuned into something that we would all identify as white, historical music, classical, blah, blah, blah. So that already is pop music. We all have a specific reaction to that kind of music. So to have our black, inherently radical bodies— queer, trans, in drag—I'm attempting to juxtapose something that feels very opposite. And I feel like, because they are so opposite, they frame each other and contextualize each other in a very beautiful way. It's almost like they're so opposite that they meet on the other side.

How do you envision an audience member walking out of this? What do you want me to understand? What is the shift you would like to induce inside my consciousness?
Ideally, I hope that people leave with real questions about queer performers, black performers, and space, and also particularly about the subject matter. I would very much like it if people felt like they could leave the space and recreate it or do it on their own or take something from it that feels empowering. A lot of my target audience are people who follow a similar identity that I do. I just want people who have had a marginalized experience feel that they can inhabit spaces that would otherwise marginalize them. That is important to me. And when I think about my audience that is not those people, I think about how this may make some people uncomfortable. This may make people confused. But all of those things are very important. I've shown this version of Discotropic to a few people already, and I can say that it's landed and that feels nice. But people have so many narratives that they are projecting onto the piece already.

In closing, what would you recommend people read? Is there a specific book or a specific author that you found particularly captivating or grounding for this piece, something that could maybe help us find and discover our own tools that enable us to express ourselves freely?
Oh! I've been reading Octavia E. Butler's Dawn for this piece and that's been super special. I've been reading that alongside Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot and that has been an interesting and amazing juxtaposition of not only information, but also the very real practical and factual things about the orbit of planets and astronomy.

Discotropic premieres to the public this Friday at 7:30 PM and 8:30 PM, at the New Museum in New York. Surround Audience runs at the New Museum through May 24, 2015.

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