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Soda PlainsPhotography Mathea Hoffmann

Becoming fluent in an unknown language

Experimental musician Soda Plains and dancer Negroma’s ‘In Tongues’ performance alludes to the phenomenon of ‘xenoglossy’ – spontaneously being able to speak a new language

Soda Plains first encountered Negroma pole-dancing on the bar of a Berlin club, lollipop in hand. Negroma, originally from Toledo in Brazil, is an interpretive dancer specialising in community dance; Soda Plains, on the other hand, is perhaps best known for his experimental club compositions. Despite their different backgrounds, the two ended up discussing bringing their practices together, delving further into contemporary art and experimental music, and a year later their first collaboration had come to fruition.

What surfaced was In Tongues, a 30-minute performance at the HAU Theatre of Berlin’s 3hd Festival, where Negroma proposed a ‘hedonism dialogue’ – transitioning through different physicalities, gradually unravelling in the constraints of a traditional period era-esque white gown (designed by the artist themselves). The project alludes to ‘xenoglossy’, the experience of unexpectedly and spontaneously becoming fluent in an unknown language while in a state of elevated religious enthusiasm. Themes of anamnesis and various narrative arcs are translated through sound and physicality, aiming to explore alternate routes within their respective fields.

The score to the performance was ten original songs by Soda Plains, who reconciled the club-focused tendencies of his own work with the performance via his signature Baroque elements, weaving in layered melodic hooks and often intricate percussive rhythms. The various pieces, which moved through dramatic overtures, atmospheric ambient, and noise music, form a darkly emotive soundscape, fusing both elements of the modern and traditional.

In what ways did you feel that each other’s practice resonated with your own?

Soda Plains: I think our practices are quite different, which seems to me a stronger reason for collaborating. We started working on this project a year later. We wanted to do a performance in which both music and movement had an equal footing. I’ve been thinking of ways to approach different types of live show recently rather than just having a dry 2D visual accompaniment, and it seemed to make sense to fully animate a score in this manner.

How did the collaborative process work for the final piece?

Soda Plains: We had to project a lot in our minds how the final piece would look since we had limited access to the theatre, and so Negroma basically planned out the light and piece directions on paper, which was quite an abstract process. The final version of the piece was shaped from lots of longer segments of sound and movement and proved to be quite a subtractive process. Negroma’s own dramaturgy deliberately drifts in and out of sync with the music, splitting into various narrative arcs.

“It’s a recurring idea for me to try to quickly normalise out-of-place structures and sounds in songs and create a new internal logic” – Soda Plains

Negroma, can you tell us a bit about your working background and current practices?  

Negroma: My background is in community dance, which is based on interpreting community languages through different dance practices, and experimental music. But recently I’ve been performing in contemporary art contexts. I started performing solo in Brazil few years ago, where I would develop movements and pieces mostly dedicated to creating a space where my skills could meet and expose my issues with gender and sexuality. Through out the years, it developed into a more consistent practice making me look to Negroma as a closer expression of who I am. I’m usually asked about my transsexuality and some of the issues I’ve been through, but still I see no way of explaining it better than showing you my work. In Europe I’ve been collaborating and taking part in different works – the highlights so far have been a role on Matt Lambert’s video for Mykki Blanco’s ‘High School Never Ends’ and ‘Signals’ by Alexandra Pirici, a durational performance during the 2016 Berlin Biennale.

How does the music refer to the xenoglossy/religious theme?

Soda Plains: The idea’s perhaps not so explicit in the music. What we wanted was to take on multiple fluent personas, possibilities of being that would arrive spontaneously without being consciously crafted, which would feel alien and new yet instantly familiar. A kind of anamnesis, an unforgetting. I wanted to make something that could flip its ‘voice’ repeatedly and in quick succession, but still sound fluid at the same time. It’s a recurring idea for me to try to quickly normalise out-of-place structures and sounds in songs and create a new internal logic. The song titles are split between Portuguese (Negroma’s native language) and English.

Some of the pieces are a departure from your more club-oriented sounds. Is this a new direction you’d like to pursue, or something that’s been ongoing for a while?

Soda Plains: This is definitely something that has been happening all the way through, but this is the first time it’s been explicitly part of a release. I think even without drums or similar club hallmarks, pattern and rhythm in melody can give that dimension or power anyway. In terms of DJing, I’m always trying to put amounts of inappropriate music in sets, but in my experience people are pretty open to that. It makes sense as a way to try and widen the possibilities, emotional or sonic.

Negroma, your performance appeared very visceral and cathartic. How much does choreography lead your work, or is it quite emotional/improv-based?

Negroma: When I relate to choreography, I’m usually not so interested on fixing this practice in an already shaped spectrum, especially while executing a more complex act. When I’m envisioning a stage performance there’s no way out of planning it properly, but it’s not exclusively about choreographing it on the one hand or making it emotional and spontaneous on the other. With the In Tongues performance, the routine was divided into six or seven different sections marked by various anchor points, and within each of these sections I had a different body language, at times syncing with the changes in the music and at other times separating myself into a more specific and intimate moment. In keeping with the xenoglossy idea, the performance presents a series of ways of comporting and costuming yourself, slowly abandoning decorum in favour of something freer. At each stage the structure of the routine allowed for possibilities of improvisation. Ultimately, I don’t see the two things as exclusive; the rehearsed choreography is a framework for unleashing emotion in the live performance.

“The performance presents a series of ways of comporting and costuming yourself, slowly abandoning decorum in favour of something freer” – Negroma

How do you see the project developing in future?

Soda Plains: The HAU/3hd Festival was actually the perfect place to pilot the piece since their program is pretty open-minded, and as a venue it’s pretty advanced technically, so it sets quite a high bar for performing the piece again. We’re already working with a designer on new costumes for future performances, but we want to go really full-on with the stage design as we have a lot of ideas for that already. Asides from that, Negroma intends to have me suspended from the ceiling by a cable for the entirety of the next show – I’m hoping that will play out more Mission Impossible than Owen Hart.

And Negroma, what’s next for you?

Negroma: I’m looking forward to perform at CTM Festival x RBMA in February, and also for a further collaboration with Alexandra Pirici, both to be presented in Berlin.