Just before I sat down to interview Oxana Chi and Layla Zami about their work on Tatjana Barbakoff, a Jewish dancer who persevered to perform and spread hope amid the rise and reign of European Nazism, I’d been to see Taika Waititi’s film Jojo Rabbit. It was striking coincidence because the theme of dance as resistance figures prominently.
Women in Jojo Rabbit do what they can to resist. Rosie is part of the organized resistance—she surreptitiously posts anti-war leaflets and has taken into hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa—but also wages a personal one. Throughout the film, she counteracts young Jojo’s Hitler youth brainwashing with humor and joy; she dances in the living room, dances along the river. “Life is a gift. We must celebrate it. We have to dance to show God we are grateful to be alive,” Rosie tries to teach Jojo. Her urging words, “Dancing is for people who are free. It's an escape from all this,” sets up the film’s sub-motif of dance as freedom, culminating in the final scene after Germany has been liberated from the Nazis. As the realization of freedom sinks in, Jojo asks Elsa what they do now. She moves one shoulder, then the other, until she’s rocking back and forth, Jojo following, to the German language version of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
As we learn through Chi’s dance remembering Barbakoff, Through Gardens (2008), and the documentary of its making (2014), dance as a form of perseverance and resistance is not just the stuff of fiction. Tatjana Barbakoff, a now much-forgotten historical figure, did just that, at great personal risk. Like Rosie, Barbakoff danced as long as she could in the face of hate during the Holocaust. A dancer from Russia (now Latvia) of Jewish and Chinese descent, Barbakoff moved to Germany and had a successful career performing throughout literary cabarets and theaters in the 1920s and early ’30s. Her solo dances combining ballet, Chinese dance, and modern German Expressionist choreography seemed to have enraptured audiences as well as many artists who have painted her portrait. In 1933, as the Nazi regime rose to power, Barbakoff fled to France where she continued to dance publically and draw press for many years despite darkening times. By the ’40s, as the situation became dire, she left Paris and took refuge on the Côte d’Azur where she was eventually captured, sent to Auschwitz, and murdered.
Chi, a German-Nigerian dance artist, filmmaker, and curator, discovered the legacy of Tatjana Barbakoff in 2007 through an exhibition catalogue she stumbled upon at a library. The 2002 August Macke Haus exhibition was one of the programs curated over the years by historian Günter Goebbels in collaboration with German museums, shedding some light on an obscured figure in dance history. Chi, feeling a strong draw to and communion with Barbakoff, choreographed Through Gardens (2008) named after one of the dancer’s own solos. The performance brings Barbakoff to life, embodies her story, and filters it through Chi’s own present. Chi works closely with her wife, Layla Zami, a French performance scholar and artist of Jewish-Russian-German and Afro-Caribbean-Indian descent. Zami has been a Resident Artist with Oxana Chi Dance since 2010, and has contributed to several performance and film projects. Chi's Through Gardens inspired Zami’s dissertation on notions of memory, movement, and diaspora, entitled PerforMemory: Moving Through Diasporic Dancescapes in the 21st Century.
Ahead of a now-postponed performance of Through Gardens at the Performance Project @ University Settlement (rescheduled to November 6 & 7, 2020), I sat down with Chi and Zami to discuss Jewish dance ancestor Barbakoff, current projects, and their ongoing collaboration.
Gillian Jakab (Rail): You recently co-curated the Celebration of Women dance evening at the International Human Rights Arts Festival in December and are working together on many performance projects. But you two have been working together as partners in life and art for some time. What’s the story of how you met?
Oxana Chi: I invited Layla to attend my performance Through Gardens, and then we started talking. Layla was in film school at the FilmArche Berlin at that time. It was an independent self-organized school, a new model that I liked. I wanted to shoot a film, a documentary about Through Gardens, and my process of working on that piece. My focus is very deeply on forgotten women in history. I had an invitation to perform in a festival in Surakarta, Indonesia. It's a big open-air festival and I wanted to shoot the first scene of the film over there. I saw a short film by Layla, which was very good. So I asked her to join me in Indonesia and be the camerawoman.
We worked four years on that film. We started working on other projects, too. Layla is a multi-talented artist; I listened to her play saxophone and kalimba and really liked it, so we collaborated that way too.
Layla Zami: Yes, we met through Oxana's dance. I had seen posters advertising Through Gardens all over Berlin—I spent half of my life in Berlin. Then I got to meet Oxana at a dance evening held by a French company in Berlin, that was also on the topic of memory. She gave me a flyer for her performance and I said, “Oh, I saw this poster. I really wanted to go to that show,” because it was about this figure, Tatjana Barbakoff. It had to do with German history, a Jewish figure; I myself am of Jewish descent.
So I came and saw that piece at the Werkstatt der Kulturen theater in Berlin. At that time Oxana was also curating a monthly dance series called TANZnews and producing the annual Salon Qi. I was really mesmerized by it; it just blew my mind. I mean I loved dance before, but it opened new ways to connect with dance. I didn’t imagine at that point that I would later do a PhD inspired by this piece about the connections between dance and memory. And that I'd be a resident artist with the company. It all started there. So Through Gardens is special for me.
What, for me, is most exciting about her company is that it's really interdisciplinary and when you look at her older work, she has always worked with live musicians and scenic designers.
Rail: I think in one of the materials you're described as a French-German artist-scholar duo, but you have so many more hyphens! In terms of all the different disciplines that each of you practice: musician, scholar, filmmaker, dance-maker, but then also, in terms of your multicultural backgrounds that you mentioned. How do these identities tie into the work that you make?
Zami: In terms of our multicultural backgrounds, in New York it's not unusual because if we actually really look at people's histories, there are so many people who have such diverse backgrounds—across race, because white people can be just as mixed ethnically as people of color. So New York feels like home in this sense. The influence my background has on my interests started with childhood. When I was a child I was already interested in so many different histories; I would read as much about the African American Civil Rights movement as about the history of the Holocaust. And so obviously that informs how you then develop your intellect and your consciousness. I think it gave me a certain open-mindedness, but also I would add that we travel a lot, so regardless of where we're from—
Rail: Yeah, chosen geographies as well inherited ones?
Zami: Right. For instance, traveling to Asia through meeting Oxana and working on this project was my first time going there. And that was really inspiring. When we get an invitation to perform somewhere, we try to stay a little longer to see the culture and learn more.
Chi: Yes, that's true. And I started to choreograph Through Gardens when I was traveling in China and Taiwan and Hong Kong. I was studying Tai Chi and Qi Gong there. After I came back from South China, Tatjana Barbakoff came to me, in a sense. She's half Chinese. She just knocked at my door and she said, “Now it's the time to dance about me.” [laughter] I said, “I will do that, because I still have the spirit from China in me, the moves, the people, the languages.” So I started to choreograph. I drew from modern styles, some classical ballet, and a very abstract Qi Gong and Tai Chi and also Kung Fu. So I suddenly fused my whole range of movement styles and what came out was really beautiful.
Rail: Beyond what we know about Tatjana Barbakoff’s biography, I'm curious to hear you speak a little bit more about Through Gardens and your relationship to her story.
Chi: Even during the Third Reich, she emigrated to Paris and continued to perform. It was not easy. It was almost a miracle that she was discussed in the press because Germany had already started to occupy Europe more and more. Jewish people weren't allowed to work; she didn't have the proper working permission, but still she managed to do her dance.
And that I find very amazing because it shows us all that you can sometimes have this power to perform and to transform even the bad to something beautiful. It's always good that people remember this. Especially this year because it’s the 75th anniversary of the official end of World War II. So many people lost their families. Remembering Barbakoff’s dancing gives people hope that there will be the next sunrise and you still can try to continue. It doesn't matter what kind of administrations we now have around the world. Art helps in this healing. It was that way, I think, for Tatjana Barbakoff; [art] was always to rise up. She said something like—there's a sentence in German: Es wird schon irgendwie weiter gehen. Wir dürfen nur einfach nicht den Kopf hängen lassen.
Zami: “Everything will keep going somehow. We just need to not let our heads hang down.”
Chi: It's a very beautiful sentence in German. She lifted people up.
In the context of now, it’s really important for us to show this piece in New York. This artist was killed in Auschwitz, and although she was famous during her time—she was on magazine covers; she inspired many famous artists who painted her portrait—she's been left out of the official dance history. She's not remembered today. What happened instead, is that there was a Jewish woman who was married to a painter Gert Heinrich Wollheim who was friends with Barbakoff at the time, he worked closely with her, and brought the costumes to New York. In this way, she had a connection to New York. She also tried to emigrate to the U.S. and she didn't get permission, but she helped other people survive. Those are also stories that are not being told. In this case, a woman was the one helping out, but a male artist got to survive and she didn't.
Zami: I mean, we know the history of the U.S.; they denied many people entry. They sent ships back. It's interesting to show this piece right now because I see a lot of people posting on social media about certain things as if they were new. Certain people are only now becoming aware that there are people here who are on a visa, or have complicated immigration situations and that this impacts their life in a very daily way. Some people are not aware that this is nothing new. I mean it's the story of this country. Everybody's an immigrant here except the people who are really native to this continent. It will be interesting to see how people also react to the historical figure of Barbakoff in this context.
Chi: Through Gardens feels timeless in a way. It's about migration and its restrictions—it's always relevant. It's also about how you can have success as an artist, and how you can fall and you can rise up again. People who didn't know anything about the piece, have often told me they saw a lot of things about their own lives in the piece. The dance is abstract. There's a multilayered landscape of feelings from which everybody can take something. It's not as if I impose the story and you have to get this story.
Rail: Yeah. The viewer brings something to it. I'm sure that the experience of it for people shifts all the time. Historical trauma, exile, migration, how does the art form of dance work to communicate these themes?
Zami: I was just thinking about that because the reason the piece left such a strong imprint on me is that obviously growing up in France and Germany, stories were being told about that period of time, about the Holocaust, but I had never seen these stories being told through dance. I had read things; obviously you see movies and even other forms of visual art and even theater pieces. I will say that Oxana's dance is very theatrical; it has dramaturgy and you can see a narrative. But as she was saying, it is more abstract, especially because there is no text in that piece.
There were two things that struck me. The first one was that she emphasizes resistance. Often when you see depictions of traumatic histories, there is this perception of the victors and the people who are often depicted as victims. It was not the case in that piece at all. There's a sense of agency to the protagonist. I think that dance plays a role in that because even just the fact that you see this actual person onstage, moving and embodying the story, gives a different perspective to her story. And also through the dramaturgy, through the way that she's building up the story. The second thing that struck me most was the diversity of the movements. So that it was clear that Oxana was borrowing from very different techniques that I hadn't seen brought together in that way before.
Chi: I see sometimes that people like to copy my movements and choreographies. I was very surprised at first and not happy about it; but maybe I have to take it as a compliment.
Zami: It’s the same with Barbakoff; she impacted the dance scene in Germany and inspired many of her contemporaries. But while other dancers entered history, her name is not cited as an influence. In Through Gardens, Oxana does not really reconstruct Barbakoff’s movements, rather, she's telling a new story inspired by her life and dance.
Chi: It's also not possible to really copy her and reconstruct because, as of now, they don't have too much documentation of it. They're still looking and they always find new pictures and things, but as of now they haven't found video material. It might be in some archive, but we don't know where. Maybe in 10 years, 20 years when all of the archives are open. Now slowly in Germany they've started to open the archives. It was the law that you have to keep a person’s archive closed over 90 years after their birth.
Rail: Maybe your dancing will increase the interest in her legacy. I want to ask you about your other upcoming performance program, Food for Thought at Danspace [now postponed to 2021].
Chi: The Food for Thought program is a curatorial commission by Danspace Project, in partnership with the International Human Rights Art Festival. Layla and I chose the topic of “the Root and the Divine.” We invited other artists to perform. We will have LAVA; they do feminist acrobatic dance and they have this piece called the A Goddessey, which is a geological feminist survival story. At the end of the journey, the Traveler returns to the city sidewalks and a world that is transformed by lessons. We will also have the Kalamandir Dance Company. They use Indian classical dance idioms, but then they totally transform it to something contemporary. And Tom Block, the founder of the International Human Rights Arts Festival, will speak about his concept of “prophetic activist art.” We really appreciate the collaboration and communication with the festival and with Danspace Project, we're grateful for this great opportunity!
I will also be showing my own work: Nefert iti. It's about the Pharaoh queen and also about colonial looting of artwork. And I'll be premiering the full-length version of Psyche.
My dance Psyche deals with the soul and the psyche, and how they influence each other. I just finished choreographing the last part, which has not been shown yet. I've performed the first and second parts in Berlin. This scene came to me when we used to live in San Diego. I had a very strong feeling of “body memory” in my body; where it starts and where it goes and what it makes. And then, extended from my body memory to the body, to the people around me, the environment around me. Sometimes I'm surprised by myself, by what story comes out of this piece. I think it’s a kind of spiritual piece. The dancing is very ethereal.
Rail: It sounds like Through Gardens has more of a narrative, looking back at a historical subject, even though you said the biography, the story is abstract. This seems to be even more about feeling, more about an abstract phenomena, how you relate to yourself and the world.
Chi: Yeah. It's different from my other pieces.
Zami: It's very grounded. There's a lot of earthy energy in that piece, but it flows. And it has a lot to do with water. In our curatorial statement, we brought in metaphysical ideas and mythologies. Astrologist Chani Nicholas wrote that we are in a turning point. She says that the last 200 years were marked by the earth signs witnessing an unprecedented amount of human consumption of the Earth's resources, we're going to the sign of Aquarius. She emphasized that it is an air sign—which makes me think of the role of air and breathing in our current society. This shift shall bring a lot of transformation, and as a water bearer, it can hopefully help society change in a positive way. All of this resonates in Oxana’s piece in my view. Her work has an Afro-futurist spirit, and it almost seems that when she created Psyche, she was anticipating the moment that we find ourselves living in now.
For information about watching the documentary Dancing Through Gardens, please e-mail: [email protected]