Dance artist Mariana Valencia wants to leave breadcrumbs for her biographer. “I’m not sure who will write a history about me so I’m starting now to help them have good notes. If I tell you about my thoughts, the notes in my dance books, my friends, my trips… then someone might be able to write my history better,” she writes part way through her book Album. This apologia for the book is like Valencia’s tone throughout: equal parts cheeky and earnest.
Valencia deals in words and movement, calibrating her humorous stories and physical illustrations in different proportions according to their placement on page or stage. Her two books, Album (2019) and Bouquet (2019), correspond to live performances of the same names. They do so differently; each page of Album reflects more or less a scene in the dance, whereas Bouquet serves as a compilation of the references, correspondence, images, and other source material that inspired the performance. But the books are neither intended read-along companions (although that’s fun if you get your hands on the Vimeo link) nor mere souvenir librettos. Rather, they conjure their performance counterparts while very much standing on their own.
(Wendy's Subway, 2019)
(3 Hole Press, 2019)
Upon first glance—flipping through the two texts at, say, McNally Jackson before Valencia’s reading in May—the zig-zagging stanzas, scattered graphics, and other visual play overwhelm in their Zine-like aesthetic. Parse the pages and ingenious devices begin to emerge: tools to build the multiple dimensions of monologue, movement, and music found in Valencia’s performances. Just as she weaves together word meanings with movement on stage—like punctuating a story about her childhood immigrant community in Chicago with the measured rise and fall of her chest—she likewise imbues her books with the shapes and verbal descriptions of movement.
In Album, Valencia establishes a typographic system of sorts. The most tangible element of the scene—that which would have been spoken directly in the performance—is front and center on the page. To this Valencia adds some combination of right-justified movement descriptions, and italicized contextual notes in the footer. These are not the dry stage directions of a script, but rather poetic verses in their own right. Take, for example, the description that flanks Valencia’s spoken bit and song about asking for rice on the side of everything (rice noodles with a side of rice; organic coffee with a side of rice):
During the musical / interludes, she / dances in a line / from left to right / and in a line that / travels towards / and away. It’s that / kind of swaying/ that rotates her / body, each foot/ steps behind and / under her like a / Latin grape vine. / That kind of step that keeps her eye / contact on you, / she doesn’t lose it / even when her body / turns, steps, shifts, / flirts with how you / take her in; her eyes are fixed. She / ends the song with / that quintessential / Spanish dancer / gesture that / screams “ólé!” but / she doesn’t say it / out loud, she just / holds it so that you / can have it and/ finish it for yourself.
This gesture is borrowed from one of my favorite emojis: the dancing woman in the red dress. This emoji is the closet depiction of my ethnicity, it's representative of my Latina/Hispanic heritage. Naturally, I'm just like her, right? Ólé!
Written in the third person, the movement descriptions are those of an authoritative observer, a poet/critic looking in on things. But it’s Valencia and we are struck by her poignant self-translation. Her ability to be both choreographer and its literal Greek etymology, dance-writer, is as impressive as it is fitting within the work’s theme: the multiple parts that comprise a “self.”
In Bouquet (the performance of which had its premiere in April at the Chocolate Factory in Queens), Valencia moves away from the paratextual pairings. Each element—be it narrative text, movement description, or image—gets its own page, more or less, rejecting any hierarchy of form; a photograph of Sonidero dancers communicates as much as a description of dances performed with Lydia Okrent from 2010–2014, and as much as an email from Mexico. The visual and verbal alternate equally like in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. One recurring form in Bouquet is the epistle. We encounter real and fictional correspondence with figures in Valencia’s life, such as Lydia Okrent, her long-time collaborator and author of Bouquet’s introduction; a made-up character from a Utopian future, Jacklean; dance venues; and Barack Obama. Valencia presents her thinking as to or with someone else. In this way, she challenges the notion of a pure, singular authorship.
Album and Bouquet, as their titles suggest, both read as an ensemble of individual parts, be they songs, flowers, or tidbits of the artist’s life as a kind of dialectic between the artist and her work. In these two books, and the larger oeuvre of Valencia’s dance works, one repeatedly encounters Valencia’s late father’s painting of a bouquet, the Fugees’s version of Killing me softly, stories of smoking cigs in high school, and other small, formative elements. Through these references, Valencia builds her biography and invites the reader into it; one can find familiar truths in her personal peculiarities. She begins with silly anecdotes of little worldly significance, like a fifth grade crush, and then hints at universal themes and common anthems. The significance of memory, she suggests, is in the specifics, which she offers to us: the audience, the reader.
Valencia’s light-hearted conceit of being remembered in the annals of history introduced in Album resurfaces in Bouquet. Referencing her internet journal circa 2010, she writes: “One day a historian will find this and like microfiche read it in 70 or 100 years to write my biography entitled: Mariana Valencia, the artist, the writer, thinker of the 2000s.” This is one of the passages Valencia reads at the McNally Jackson event, sitting on a stool next to Okrent, the silly rapport of a long friendship palpable. The line pokes fun at self-importance and the naiveté of a young artist. And while Valencia’s preparations for her future status as the great artist of her time—flecked by anecdotes of youthful mishaps—is comedic, there’s also something… not totally unimaginable. Valencia’s works, in all their forms, seem to be on their way to creating a modest comédie humaine—a network of stories that together paint a portrait of a time and place.