Photo of Rebel Dances: Borders in Tranc-it (2023) at Framer Framed, Amsterdam. Photo: © Marlise Steeman / Framer Framed
Being in-between worlds: Papaya Kuir performs Rebel Dances
Walking through Amsterdam East on an unexpectedly hot day, I encounter many worlds. Locals flock to tropical food stalls at the Dappermarkt, a herd of frat boys on bikes races past me, someone is digging through the bin for aluminum cans. I pass the anti-squat apartment building where many of my international artist friends have found temporary homes. Soon they will be evicted. The city encompasses a multitude of worlds: worlds carried along by the people moving through it. Worlds that layer onto their surroundings like multiple exposures.
I’m on my way to witness the performance Rebel Dances: Borders in Tranc-it by Papaya Kuir, an Amsterdam-based lesbotransfeminist collective of Latin American migrants and refugees, at Framer Framed. On the art platform’s website, the performance is described as ‘an immersive theatrical experience that delves into states of in-betweenness and travelling worlds’. Amongst other things, the piece aims to trace ‘the multiplicity of embodiments’ carried by queer migrants.
At the moment of the performance, Framer Framed is filled with cardboard cut-outs and towering banners made by the Indonesian artivists Taring Padi. A group of eight queer bodies co-inhabits the exhibition hall. “This is our time and our space”, they tell us. They burn Palo Santo as they solemnly bop around the works on an Andean Quechua beat. Some of them are trained performers, some are not; some of them are core members of the collective, some are part of the extended community of Papaya Kuir. They are dressed in a colourful hodgepodge of boxing shorts, tiny tops, and platform heels.
The collective leads us to the outside premises of Framer Framed. Gathering beside the typically Dutch canal in front of the art space, one of the performers introduces us to her Colombian neighborhood. She brings our attention to the brick facades across the water, pointing out which of her hometown friends lives where, before she casually warns us: ‘Sometimes there’s bodies floating in the river, but don’t be scared…’. The group cackles at her hyperbolically morbid comment, then suddenly shifts gears. It’s time to move on. ‘Follow us, hurry!’
We enter a children’s playground. Two dancers climb on a ping pong table. They slowly move their upper bodies down to their feet, then stretch out their hands to the sky – a mournful ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’-routine fitted to ambient string music. An improv vogueing session ensues, with performers twirling around wooden playground equipment that now serve as dancing poles. One of the somber ping pong table dancers now plays the role of MC, gleefully screeching ‘Aiaiaiaiaiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’.
A bunch of blonde kids gather at the sideline, curious to see what’s going on. Their presence, coincidental or not, becomes an integral part of the performance and its impact. It may be the first time these kids experience such unapologetically queer and trans bodies of color, and it is happening right here and right now, in front of their homes. Of course it doesn’t take long before the parents stick their nose in. Some quietly chaperone their kids away.
‘What time is it, what day is it, how old am I?’ stutters Pau(la) Chaves Bonilla, director and co-performer of the piece, clad in a patchworked rain jacket with a long train that drags across the floor. Dancing and cheering just a minute ago, they are now desperately looking for shelter. Rebel Dances takes the form of a string of performative vignettes that code-switch rapidly, and invoke a sense of disorientation. Scenes of joyful queer community alternate with ones that portray lived experiences of migration and displacement. Suddenly, an unassuming fence enclosing the playground transforms into the frontera of Colombia and Panama, one of the most dangerous borderlands in Latin America.
At times the audience becomes part of the performance. In order to re-enter the art space, we are told to queue and present our documents. ‘This is for your own safety’, the performers repeat monotonously. There is a stark contrast between our presence in and around the art space and the dramatic scenes of suffering that are projected onto it. A sense of unease creeps in; didn’t we come here on a leisurely late summer evening to enjoy some art?
Instead, Rebel Dances has taken us many places. An hour and half have flown by. When speaking to Pau(la) Chaves Bonilla at a later moment I learn that the performance was made collaboratively over the course of six weeks, during which the collective would come together twice per week to share their individual perspectives, stemming from shared, but also radically distinct backgrounds. A few members have come to the Netherlands to study, while others were displaced through the system of transnational adoption, or were forced to flee their home country because their lives were in danger.
They started gathering during the pandemic and established the collective Papaya Kuir in 2020. While Bonilla was studying at the Sandberg institute in the Ecologies of Transformation department, the idea to create Rebel Dances arose. Amongst other things, they wanted to investigate ways to restore dignity and worthiness in people who are seeking asylum through performative action, and asked themselves: ‘How can we make a story about hardship at refugee camps empowering for someone who is going through that?’
At the core of Papaya Kuir is the acknowledgment of a shared state of ‘in-betweenness’ or ‘being-between-worlds’, terms borrowed from the Latin American feminist philosopher Mariana Ortega
At the core of Papaya Kuir is the acknowledgment of a shared state of ‘in-betweenness’ or ‘being-between-worlds’, terms borrowed from the Latin American feminist philosopher Mariana Ortega. In her book In-Between: Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Multiplicity, and the Self (2016), Ortega introduces a conception of selfhood as both multiple and singular. The identities of for example immigrants, exiles and inhabitants of borderlands, belong to different worlds simultaneously, she writes. For Bonilla this in-betweenness has proven to be a powerful tool of subversion: ‘It is empowering to find that there are many of you inside yourself, that there is a collective space of being inside myself that I can find support with. To find that moments of joy can coexist in times of difficulty. Being in-between does not mean that we are broken, it means that we are not linear and cannot be contained by the hegemonic system’.
Rebel Dances was performed earlier this summer during the Sandberg graduation show at Amstelpark. For this iteration, the collective literally takes their performance to the streets, something Bonilla had not experimented with before in The Netherlands. Stepping away from the sterility of art spaces and theaters within which audiences assume a passive role, the collective turns to a more subversive occupation of public space: ‘People already expect crazy things to happen when they come to the theater, and I was curious to see where such actions could generate a bigger political impact’. Somehow Rebel Dances did not even really feel like a performance to me – in the sense that the piece seemed to not so much be carried out for the audience, as for the members of the collective themselves – it was a moment of gathering and sharing and processing, much like a ritual.
The idea that reality is more surreal than magic, as explored by Latin American writers of magical realism like Gabriel García Márquez, has also found its way into Bonilla’s direction: ‘Reality is surreal when you carry so many lived experiences with you, that are not reflected in the spaces you are now in. In many ways we do not belong to the Netherlands, but we are still culturally influenced by our being here. It makes me think of our ancestors, who adhered to the Christianity forced on them by colonizers, but were secretly praying to some other deity’.
Rebel Dances: Borders in Tranc-it took place on the 6th of September