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Cecly Placenti, Artistic Director

  • Writer's pictureMiranda Stuck

Spotlight Session: Liana Zhen-ai

What are the Spotlight Sessions?

I was the child who asked “why” 150 times in a row, to the dismay and occasional annoyance of the adults around me. That curiosity and need for discovery grew with me and became a guide on my artistic path. Determination, inquisitiveness, and the drive to connect with others led me to write, dance, choreograph, produce, and educate.

I started my company, Six Degrees Dance, with the mission of creating community. Embodying the theory that all people are connected through a social network of 6 or fewer degrees, we collaborate in an environment where the exchange of ideas is the building block for innovation and growth. We approach dance making with the belief that the contribution of the individual benefits the group, and results in a body of work reflective of the sum of its parts.

To that end, we have developed several initiatives that connect artists with audiences and with each other, maintaining the idea of six degrees of separation as the foundation for those connections. Our annual showcase brings together national and international choreographers, most of whom have never met. Our Choreographic Commission series allows the dancers of Six Degrees to work with a variety of choreographers in different styles. In The Spotlight Sessions, I will present a different artist each cycle, and through interviews, short feature articles, previews, and capsule reviews, offer a behind the scenes look into their work and their process. I hope you enjoy getting to know these unique, talented individuals as much as I have, and continue to follow them on their creative paths.


Liana Zhen-ai with arms outstretched behind. Plastic bags flying around.

Liana Zhen-ai is a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist and dancer from Los Angeles, CA. Her work uses the frameworks of new materialism and object oriented ontology to examine relationships to the more-than-living world, the changing landscape of narrative in the Anthropocene, and the aesthetics of wellness. She received her BFA in Modern Dance with minors in Biology and Chemistry from Marymount Manhattan College in 2018, and completed her Master’s in Contemporary Dance Performance at London Contemporary Dance School, University of Kent in 2021.

1. How did your artistic journey begin?

This is a tricky question. I want to give the apocryphal answer and say that when I was six, I played make-believe and never returned from a world that was foundationally fantasy. Though there’s also the evidence-based truth, which is to say that I participated in an afterschool program with the California Dance Institute and that my jazz squares and high knees earned me a ballet scholarship. And then there’s the more troubling answer, that I’m not sure whether I’m an artist at all. There’s a particularly tortured paragraph in my notes app which reads “I’m not oriented toward saying anything, I’m a desire for affinity.” I don’t know if that’s the whole truth either.

If I were to tell it plainly, I started making films in my sophomore year of college with Jack Frerer, a brilliant composer. When we began producing these films, we asked questions about medium - what creates the space between a dance film and documentation of a dance? In 2018, I started working with a performance art collective called PROMPTUS, which lives in the Fluxus lineage, and asked even bigger questions about what constitutes a performance, and who performance is for. These two experiences are the primary lenses through which I create work.

Liana Zhen-ai headshot

2. What drives you as an individual artist? What do you hope to express/convey to the world through your work?

The conceit of art as billboard, art as words on a protest sign, or art as instruction manual has always been deeply troubling to me. In my experience, the most wonderful thing about seeing art is the (mis)interpretability, the lack of a coterminous edge with writing or speaking or scholarship. Which is not to say that art can’t include these elements, I think all good art, at some level, does. But making the process completely transparent to the audience has never been my project. The art that's been most affecting to me - from the reveal of a life-sized gingerbread man amid art studio refuse in Nile Harris’s, this house is not a home, to Bryan Arias’s kite-toting sprint around the stage in a rather lovely thing -has always centered the arrival of startling and beautiful images. If I have any aesthetic or ethical values in art (to borrow from Batuman who borrowed from Kierkegaard), it’s to create beautiful images on stage and a reason for those images to appear. What’s difficult about dance is that it is a value system of beauty, and that we’re constantly redefining what is beautiful.

I can tell you that I think a lot about the climate crisis, and what that means for the way we’ve constructed history for the last couple of thousand years. I think a lot about what we mean when we talk about nature and the natural. I’m fascinated by the ways that wellness discourse outlines what bodies are worthy, how that informs what bodies are allowed to be on display, and how those standards have changed over time. These ideas come with me wherever I go, and certainly show up in my art.

3. When do you feel most powerful?

I feel most powerful in artistic and scholarly projects which demand an ability to hold multiple contradictory truths. Also, yelling at cars in the bike lane.

4. What has been your biggest challenge and your proudest moment during your artistic growth?

My biggest challenge in dance and art making has been owning up to the fact that I know things and that those things are worth sharing. I love being a student and asking questions - almost all of my dreams involve being at school. The character of eternal learner, for me, means that I don’t have to stand behind or defend my work; I’m always in the process of getting at or around some great axiom. But I do think we’re allowed to change our minds; if our culture were more interested in people who were constantly revising and adjusting their worldviews, I believe we’d have better politicians. But I’ve been doing more teaching and working with young people this summer, and it’s been incredibly difficult to stand at the front of a classroom and say, “here’s one way to do a thing. Here are the reasons you might want to do the thing this way. Do you want to try it?”

My proudest moments have been working with teams who enthusiastically participate in these lines of questioning and embrace big risks. Dancing for Monica Steffey in her work UNTAMED at The Woods last year was such a delight, because Monica is so clear in her vision and so wide open to conversation. Getting to craft the character of gallery curator gone wrong, to experiment and attempt new versions of that character each night, and to all the while feel trust and agency in that process was hugely influential. I got to take that mad scientist approach into the movement direction work that I’ve done this year for musical artists EYIBRA and Felukah, and I’m incredibly proud of both of them and the works we created together.

Two dancers hugging. Red overlayed color

5. Can you describe your creative process?

Oh god. No? Maybe? The last couple of projects I’ve completed have been crafted around setlists, tracks, and soundscapes that have been predetermined by the artists. In that way, the process of creating those works has been centered on matching the mood and sentiment of those tracks and then creating rigorous reasons - whether spatial, narrative, or emotional - for us to transition between sections. I care a lot about structure, because my experience as a performer has meant that I’ve often been asked to appear as if I have purpose without being given a purpose*. I believe that providing performers with a reason to transition from one idea to another creates a sense, both for themselves and the audience, that there are rules to the world we’ve created.

At other times, my artistic process is about getting flashes of images or seeds of ideas, and then downing one too many espresso martinis in long and aimless happy hour idea sessions with trusted collaborators until some sort of coherence emerges. It usually unemerges the next day, or sometime in the middle of the process, or right before curtain opens. In a solo I presented as part of my master’s dissertation, new immortal, the image of a body transforming into a plastic bag came first, then the rest of the work, with brilliant soundscoring by J. Mordechai, followed. Chasing and double checking the thread of emotional logic that runs through a work gets me through. So do my incredible friend-collaborators, Concrete Husband, Darian Donovan Thomas, Joelle Santiago, and Tyler Cunningham, just to name a few.

*Which maybe is a definition of art. You’ll have to ask Poncili Creación who thanked their sponsors “dirt, blood, and purposelessness purpose” after their set at Dripping Festival this year.

6. What do you do when you are not creating? What things outside of the dance industry inspire you and fuel your creativity?

The thing that I am rabidly curious about in the times when I’m not dancing is food. Making and sharing beautiful meals has become a metric of my internal and external wellness in the last couple of years, and I’ve experienced a level of obsession with how to make food that feels and tastes and looks like love. I don’t know ifI’ve experienced that in any other art form. I’m thinking about what to make for dinner on the subway, in rehearsal, at 5am at the club. I’m enamored by Middle Eastern food, and at most points in the day would rather be eating a good muhammara with warm pita. I also love connecting to my Chinese heritage and playing with the sweet vinegars, the salty dried fishes, and pickled plums that I thought graced every American kid’s pantry growing up. In so many ways, my love of food and cooking allow me to rest.

7. What is next for you?

This August, I’ll be at a residency at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with Brian Golden, who is brilliant and weird in the best ways and whom I’m SO excited to dance for. I haven’t been back to the Pillow since I was twenty years old and all kinds of twenty years old angsty and reckless, so I’m in for a reclamation. The fall is stacked with a bunch of fun, spooky events that will hopefully soon be announce-able, and in the meantime, I’m hoping to give myself the kick in the butt that I need to return to writing and reading critically. I’ve been meditating a lot on the ways that our warped relationship with nature is reflected back to us in our cultural obsession with natural beauty and natural diets and natural fitness, and I’d love to carve out some time to research. I’m determined to learn how to make a pavlova before summer is over and go on at least one hike and be exhausted and take unaccompanied naps in the park.

A quick look Liana Zhen-ai's work

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