Pictured above: Sara Zalek/Photo: Noa/h Fields
Performing at Cafe Mustache on a late Friday night variety bill, Sara Zalek was lustrous—literally: her skin was painted gold. Her 20-minute Butoh-influenced performance piece, Gold Test, experimented with a metal sheet and amplifier to create a radiant range of sonic, visual and kinesthetic textures.
In performance, Zalek is constantly engaged with her surroundings, alert to unpredictable stimuli. An unexpectedly melodic scratch sound, for instance, led to a series of subsequent attempts to reproduce the same overtone. Her curiosity pulled the audience into an ephemeral yet glimmering world.
“I construct my performances like poems,” Zalek intimated to me afterward.
This “poem” was tactile. Its materials were minimal and decidedly DIY, but they added up to make more than the sum of their parts. It found rhythm and luminosity in ordinary objects, like purses and air conditioner ducts. Like a poem, it was more meditative than narrative, dwelling on the pleasures of fleeting sensations.
A list of verbs (jotted down in my notebook during Zalek’s performance): scraping, shaking, sanding, dragging, extending, vocalizing, balancing. Always testing, always chasing.
Gold Test improvised meanderingly between two fixed points, starting with Zalek hovering over the metal sheet and then ending with Zalek hunched under sheet. Along the way, Zalek sang into metal reverberantly (“That was the first time I sang into the metal like that—it had never occurred to me before that moment,” she confessed to me), stretched and compressed an air conditioning duct-like an accordion, and shined her flashlight on a glittering gold hand purse to transform it into a dazzling disco ball. Alchemy.
After the performance, Zalek and I stuck around Cafe Mustache deep into the night to talk about Butoh, balance, DIY, class and touch. We were still deeply absorbed in conversation when the bartender came around to warn us the cafe was closing in five minutes.
What follows are a few choice excerpts from that conversation:
Can you tell me more about the performance you just did?
Zalek: It started with me painting myself gold. I like doing it live. It’s a ritual act, it’s a ritual act, as well as shining this glittering light onto people’s faces. It’s a key part of every show. It’s meant to honor everyone there, to notice and shine light on the individuals that make up the audience. I want to have that interaction as part of the performance.
And the metal—it used to be part of the fence between my neighbor and me. These seven sheets of metal that were a barrier, a defining line between properties. Now, I’m repurposing that barrier/line, to create new forms, new intersections. I’m definitely trying to communicate something, it’s just never so straightforward. I’m playing with this idea of juxtaposition—I’m over the metal, I’m under the metal. The journey is from one to the other with found moments in between. It’s a poem, in a way.
This might sound like a weird question, but since your performance was so multi-sensorial, I’m wondering what’s your favorite sense?
Zalek: Touch. I’ve been doing a Thai massage certification program this past year. So I get to work one-on-one. It’s so amazing: it’s nonverbal, it’s deep listening, it’s intimate. It’s sensual, not sexual. Being present in moments of touch has been amplified in my dance practice lately.
Another element of your performance that I noticed was your sense of balance.
Zalek: I had an injury a few years ago I’m still recovering from. I feel like balance was something I lost, that I worked very hard to achieve. Balance is not static, it is always shifting, just like the present moment. I was used to being very strong and easily balanced, but now I struggle with just walking. This struggle is very personal, but when I’m performing, somehow I can touch people with an intimate version of myself. Touch without touching. Then I can really play with that connection. Like tonight, too, I could sense people were having their own experience; but as a group, the audience became utterly silent. People came up to me after the performance and were telling me their personal stories, what they felt and saw and remembered. And that’s the point of performance for me. I’m not a performer who’s there to tell you a story, I’m not giving you a narrative. That’s why I feel like I’m more of a poet, you know?
So, I’m allowing you to have your own experience, to have your own associations, feelings, memories that are strong in those meanings for you as the audience. And that for me is successful performance. It’s not like virtuosic, about what I can do. That’s for me where Butoh training comes in. Some people are very virtuosic in the way they perform. For me, my way is to create a world with all of us in it—but we are all there focused on our own experiences, memories and associations through our personal histories. Butoh taught me to create a space that opens the subconscious, and we can experience that together. Life doesn’t ordinarily give us many chances to be with each other that way. If you’re doing Butoh well, it’s kind of like a living painting: you’re not just looking at the painting, you’re in it. And then, what’s your experience in it?
Can you tell me more about your Butoh practice and how it informs your performances?
Zalek: I found Butoh late, here in Chicago in 2003. But even before I came to it, my own personal performance style resonated with Butoh. In the 90s, I was performing in Seattle and [in the] Boston DIY theater [scene] with artists who would also become Butoh artists. As soon as I saw and learned about Butoh, I was driven to learn more about it. I was like, “Oh, clearly I need to study this, because this is how I make work.”
It begins with a poetic device, a drawing or an experiential inspiration for the piece. And then you develop with a live musician—right now it’s myself, but otherwise, I work with someone with real instruments because a CD is just never gonna work for me.
I’ve been taking a break from my weekly Butoh Body class, but I taught a weekly class for six years. And I bring artists from other places to teach and perform.
What are you working on now? What are you exploring?
Zalek: I’m exploring my healing, exploring music. For me, my voice comes from my moving body. I mean, words are important to me, but the voice that comes from the body is raw, it comes from movement. So I keep exploring that.
I keep exploring Thai massage and practices of healing. I’ve been thinking a lot about care, self-care and for others. In my artistic practice and life, it’s always integrated. So art is what keeps me alive.
I keep making weird sculptures. I love making things out of trash, like that air conditioner duct I used in my performance. I keep exploring my lived environment, always mining it for art objects. Trash is important to me. I think it’s gross that we just throw things away with no feeling.
I love how you find magic in everyday objects, in junk that would otherwise be discarded. Can you tell me more about that magic?
Zalek: I love to feel magical. That childlike wonder. As we get older and have to assume more responsibilities and be practical, we can lose that sense of wonder…but magic transcends all of that. With magic, you can bring the child back again. So, I like to use everyday objects and find the potential magic in them.
I love dérive—it’s a Surrealist practice of aimless wandering. You just walk with no destination in mind, just to observe what takes you from place to place to place. Ideally, dérive is part of the everyday. That every day you would have the time and space to explore, to listen, to observe, to move to your internal rhythm. Expand time instead of condescending it. Instead of walking by that door on the way to the store, actually giving it the time and space that it deserves. Just the other day I had fifteen minutes between the time I arrived and when I had to perform so I took a left here and a right here and oh and could notice, the sun is so bright on the building right now…
We are aliens in this world. We can be alienated from our own lives. But I think curiosity lets us make a real connection. How do we remain curious? But also, if you open your eyes and ears, all your senses, how can you not remain curious? Maybe it’s societal or where we are, but it’s always there, we just need to give it space and welcome the unknown.
Someone was telling me a statistic the other day—whether it’s true or not—that only 4% of all mammals are wild. 96% of all mammals are domesticated. When I perform, I am wild. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I feel like I break my domesticity. There’s something so pure in being your wild.
Sara Zalek has several upcoming performances, including the premiere of Formidable Dreams at the Cultural Center as part of Elevate Dance on October 21; a preview of Secrets with Sivan Cohen Elias and Mabel Kwan on October 25 for High Concept Labs, and instructionalist pieces at Site/Less with Zephyr Dance on October 26-27. You can find more information about Sara Zalek’s work on her website: https://www.saratonin.com/.
Noah Fields (they/them/theirs) is a genderqueer poet and performance artist from the West Side. They have written for Anomaly/Drunken Boat, Telekom Electronic Beats, and Bluestockings Magazine, among other online publications. Their first poetry book WITH is out from Ghost City Press. They are fond of techno and avocados.