It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually entail? In this interview, the seventeenth in a series, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with Alejandra Ortiz, author and co-founder of Papaya Kuirand the Somatic Lab.
Alejandra Ortiz and I meet at BOOST, a gathering place in Amsterdam’s Transvaal district where people with and without a refugee background get together to work on integration. As well as learning Dutch, English and Arabic here, you can learn how to ride a bike, sew clothes and fix tyres. There’s also cooking, dancing, kickboxing and volleyball. And there’s a free lunch available every weekday. ‘It’s the best place I know in Amsterdam,’ says Alejandra, ‘and though they don’t mention it, it’s LGBT-friendly, too.’
Alejandra: ‘Last Monday was Transgender Day of Remembrance. On 20 November each year we commemorate all the trans people who have been murdered around the world – the official figure was 320 in the last year. The country with most murders of trans people is Brazil, with Mexico and the US in second and third place. The real figure is higher, because countries like Egypt and Russia don’t record these deaths separately, because the victims’ gender identity isn’t respected.
I’m from Mexico myself. On average, a trans woman in Mexico won’t live beyond the age of 37. That’s the reason I fled to the Netherlands in 2015.
Am I right that it was in 2020 that you founded Papaya Kuir with five other queer and trans women?
That’s right. Papaya Kuir is a lesbian trans feminist collective. It’s our self-made family, a network of love and support for queer and trans women from Latin America. It often happens that it’s other people who speak out for marginalised communities, but we wanted to represent ourselves, to let our voice be heard – to be visible.
It was through Papaya Kuir that two years ago I met Paula Montecinos Oliva, a Chilean choreographer who practices Somatics. A year later I also got to know the Brazilian choreographer Flavia Pinheiro. Both of them operate within THIRD, the research group of the ATD. Our connection led to us setting up a collaborative project called Somatic Laboratory – Trans*latinx Memories. It’s a bit of a complicated name, but what it basically comes down to is that we offer a kind of movement workshop for queer and trans people from Latin America – particularly people living in asylum-seekers’ centres. As well as being one of the organisers I’m a participant. I reach out to people in centres outside the Randstad conurbation [Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, The Hague], where the need for a network, exchange and contact with like-minded people is even bigger than here in Amsterdam. I should know, because I lived in Limburg for several years.
I understand that Somatics is concerned with the physical, inner experience, and somatic therapy takes a body-based approach to releasing tension and trauma. Could you tell me about how that works in your group?
If you’ve fled your home country because you’re queer or trans, it means life hasn’t been easy for you. It means you’ve experienced violence, stigmatisation and discrimination. And especially for trans people from the Global South, it means most of us have been sex workers. Our families have cut us off, and we know what it’s like to be homeless and to lack access to good health care, adequate education and paid work. On top of all that, the percentage of trans women infected with HIV is four times the worldwide average. The traumas we’ve suffered are physical, mental and emotional.
The Somatic Laboratory is a place we can get together and heal through our own bodies, through self-expression – by dancing, drawing and writing, by dreaming, and by talking with each other. We talk Spanish and Portuguese together, because we believe that when a process is as personal as this it’s important to go through it in your own language. At the end of each workshop we have a meal together. After that, for most of the participants it’s time to take the train back to their asylum-seekers centres in Schalkhaar, Eindhoven and Maastricht.
How do people generally experience the Somatic Lab?
Many of them feel shy and awkward at first – they find it difficult to let go. Many of us have difficult relationships with our body. We’ve all been told too often that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re ugly, or too masculine or too feminine, or just over the top. Along the way people start feeling more relaxed, and we find the courage to do things we never would have been able to do otherwise. Personally, I just love completely throwing myself into it and taking my lead from Paula and Flavia [and Pau(la) Chaves Bonilla] and discovering what I’m capable of. It’s incredibly reassuring for me to know that my body is completely good, just as it is.
I don’t share your history, but I can identify with the combination of physical work and art opening up a whole new space in yourself.
Absolutely. As well as changing your relationship with your own body, it changes your relationship with your environment, with the universe. It’s wonderful how the workshop leads to new friendships, and a network.
I think we can honestly say that we’ve really made our dream come true through Papaya Kuir. I don’t mean that in a capitalist way, like ‘Take a look at how successful we are.’ We’re just saying ‘we are here.’ We’re living what we stand for. We help people from our community and we’ve got a network of people and organisations who want to help us. We’re connected. Everything changes once you know you’re not alone – even if the conditions are suboptimal. There is light!
That’s the best thing you can give each other.
Exactly. Community. Knowing you’re not the only one.
By Hester van Hasselt
Alejandra Ortiz is the author of De waarheid zal me bevrijden (The Truth Will Set Me Free), from Lebowski Publishers.
Somatic Laboratory – Trans*latinx Memories is co-ordinated by Paula Montecinos Oliva and Flavia Pinheiro (THIRD), in collaboration with Papaya Kuir, the ATD Lectorate and the ARIAS network. The project is also made possible by CoECI and Platform 2025 and is part of the AHK Thematic Collaboration Program.
The complete series of interviews Artistic research: New pathways to new knowledge? you can read here