Misfiring synapses: a conversation with Gabri Christa about her stage comeback with Magdalena
It is nearly impossible to properly introduce Gabri Christa. She belongs to that rare, awe-inspiring category of multifaceted creative individuals that I whimsically refer to as the “octopi.” Humbly, Christa refers to herself simply as an artist, but truly her tentacles include those of a performer, an educator, a choreographer, a filmmaker, a cultural producer, a scholar, an activist, a mother. While her early creative efforts focused primarily on dance—having been involved with illustrious companies such as Danza Contemporanea de Cuba and the Bill T. Jones Dance Company—in recent years she has been prolific as a cineaste, creating a string of award-winning dance films. Christa is a Guggenheim Fellow, teaches at Barnard College’s Department of Dance, and has recently been awarded the prestigious fellowship from the Atlantic Foundation for Equity in Brain Health. This fall, however, Christa is reconnecting to her roots—both artistic and familial—making her comeback as a stage performer in a cross-media solo, named after her elderly mother, Magdalena. I caught up with Christa via Messenger during her early-August trip to her motherland, the Netherlands, about her latest theatrical endeavor, set to premiere this September at the Theaterlab in Manhattan.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): In recent years, your primary artistic focus has been on cinematic projects. I am curious to hear what prompted your return to the stage after many years with your upcoming performance, Magdalena?
Gabri Christa: What was I thinking? [Laughs.] Well, it was partly because the screenplays require a great deal of fundraising, so I started thinking about other ways of creating work about my mother. In my work, I have never explored the Dutch heritage from my Mom’s side; my Dad’s side—the Caribbean / South American—always attracted me more, in large part because of my connection to the music and dance, and just the whole melting pot.
With Magdalena, part of my work does deal with the Dutch diaspora and with personal stories that tell larger stories, but, most importantly, I always define myself as an artist, without confining myself into a single category. I wanted to make the story about my Mom personal; I had to tell it. I wanted it imbued with intimacy and, having curated living room performances and Salons during my tenure as the Artistic Director of Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island, I always loved small informal performances, and being close to the conversation. The human connection is what is important and this story needed that. So, yes, I somewhat reluctantly decided to be in the piece myself. That is what this story needed—not film—although media elements do appear in the piece.
Rail: This feels like an incredibly personal work for you to be making right now.
Christa: Yes it is, but also it isn’t. I have been through so much with my mother and, at this point, the way her dementia has evolved, it doesn’t hurt. She seems happy; this is due, in large part, to the amazing health care and living situation here in the Netherlands. While this work is personal, it is in also very universal: we all have to reckon with our aging and we all know people living with dementia, close by or far away. There is a lot of fear around the subject, and so much we don’t know. In many ways, I started to gain a much greater understanding of it through the process of making this piece.
Rail: I love the fact that you were able to delve into something very personal—your family history—yet really just used it as a springboard to address larger issues that affect so much of the world’s aging population.
Christa: Thank you. Yes, my social activism is through this way of working: using art to connect.
Rail: You also have been very clear with your mission for this piece. In an earlier conversation, you told me you are not specifically creating this work for the usual “downtown performance crowd.” Who is your audience for this work?
Christa: People at large—but I think it is also good for the “downtown performance crowd.” I hope that an eighteen-year-old whose grandmother has dementia can come, as it indeed happened with an earlier work-in-progress showing. I hope people come and get inspired to ask questions to the people in their lives. I mostly really hope that just anybody comes who might not normally come to a multimedia dance performance, and starts to think, becomes less afraid of this disease and also celebrates the person who is there still. I know so much now that I wish I had known ten or more years ago. I hope I can share that. I also know it is for all age groups, so basically the broadest possible public, as far as the demographics are concerned.
Rail: You have also mentioned that people started reaching out to you, once they heard you were making this work. Can you share the plans you have for the piece after it premieres at Theaterlab in New York?
Christa: What is concrete so far: I was asked to do it here in the Netherlands by the Lutheran community, which is very progressive, LGBT affirming, and racially diverse. It will be performed in one of the amazing spaces inside the church. This is confirmed: they want to tour it next, so a producer is on it. I probably won’t do much until next year due to my own schedule. Then, there is Florida: the Mayor of Coconut Creek, who invited me when she heard about it from a friend who saw my work in progress. I think it is telling that all of these are grassroots efforts, operating outside of the mainstream touring and presenting circuits. These are groups that have good spaces, can accommodate and produce, and will get the audiences in. I have to say, I find that very exciting. I asked [my media designer] Guy de Lancey to create work for a space that had nothing. It’s very inventive what he did. At Theaterlab, we probably will use some of their work but have done it completely from scratch. A couple of small floor lights, and two small projectors, that’s it.
My hometown Curaçao is eager to present the work too. I have to still compile technical information so people can book it, and am working on the whole community outreach aspect.
Rail: Which brings me to my next question: as a multi-disciplinary practitioner, you bring diverse sensibilities to this project. Can you talk a bit about different elements that come into play and how they converge in Magdalena?
Christa: I started very much as a filmmaker/story teller. Text is important and also telling a story that can be understood and not something very abstract, is what I love so much too. So my role in this work is that of a story teller, but sometimes it is rendered through visuals and sometimes through dance. I found that conveying this disease–the feeling of it—had to be done through movement. The deeply emotional stuff, I still have to dance—that is the through line having to do with dementia. I had no other way of expressing it. Again, as a maker, I use whatever works for what needs to be expressed.
Rail: As you mentioned, you are not only responsible for the overall vision, you are also performing this piece. Who are the collaborators helping you bring this vision to the stage? What is their contribution to this piece?
Christa: Erwin Maas directed it and he really gave me that push to do it. I talked to him about it and he just dove in, fully believing in this work. The whole creation was me giving him all those texts I had written to him, talking and having coffee, and also just spending time in the studio trying things out with Guy de Lancey, his longtime collaborator. We worked really tightly together. As a Dutch native, Erwin helped with a lot of the things I told him about my mom that are so typically Dutch, and it really helped to be able to speak Dutch in rehearsal about something so personal as this–it is my mother tongue, after all. Guy is just an amazing artist who does literally everything. I was very lucky to have these two on board.
Rail: You are always working on multiple fronts and involved with a multitude of projects and initiatives. What else is on the horizon for Gabri Christa?
Christa: I do want to make a several short dance films around aging, which I will do this year—all written and ready to go; it just takes some time, money, and casting. I also really want to make a feature film. I have written one with environmental themes and am in very early stages of another film to direct.
I received a year-long Atlantic Fellowship for Equity in Brain Health, which is rather intense. Normally the chosen fellows are in residence but I am not—I literally have six months of weekly class work with the group of neuroscientists and more folks. I join via Zoom. Lots of reading ahead, a leadership retreat, as well as multiple trips to my main site, University of California, San Francisco—all geared towards gaining insight and knowledge around aging and the brain. That is, of course, related to Magdalena as well.
Gabri Christa’s production of Magdalena runs September 12-22 at at Theaterlab (357 West 36th Street, Manhattan). For further information and tickets: http://www.theaterlabnyc.com/events/magdalena/
IVAN TALIJANCIC is a founder and artistic co-director of WaxFactory, a New York-based interdisciplinary art group. He is currently completing his first feature film, 416 MINUTES, and regularly writes on the arts for BOMB, London-based Bachtrack, and the Brooklyn Rail.