Piñata Breakthrough: A Conversation with Liz Boubion

By Nirmala Nataraj


For the last several years, choreographer and somatic movement therapist Liz Boubion has collaborated with a variety of artists from different genres, to deconstruct piñata rituals in theaters, galleries and outdoor landscapes across the Bay Area. Aside from highlighting the end of the Mayan Syncronometer, Boubion’s unlikely subject enabled everything from engaging with themes of environmental crisis and human exploitation of the land, to exploring mixed-race identity and immigration stories—all through reclaiming the lost meanings of indigenous piñata rituals.

Boubion’s exploration of the piñata symbol as a way to explore identity, break through old paradigms, and uncover the sustainable nature of impermanence has yielded a number of collaborations with other artists—all of which have placed a premium on engaging audiences with a tantalizing mixture of imaginative storytelling, ritual, improvisation, and a narrative that implicitly points to the ways in which traditions evolve and sustain us.

She is the recipient of the prestigious Xochi Quetzal, a monthlong residency that will have taken place this spring in Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico (as of the writing of this article, the residency was upcoming). Boubion was among three artists who were chosen from a pool of 160 international applicants. The award is typically given to visual artists and writers, but Boubion is their first choreographer. Her plan is to explore movement in the external environment, and although she isn’t required to produce anything during her residency, her community-centered, interdisciplinary approach means that a whole lot of collaboration will probably stem from the endeavor.

Part of her trip is about reclaiming her Mexican roots by absorbing the culture, practicing her Spanish, and researching the environment through improvisation and exploration. “In this way, Piñata is always a backdrop to all of what I do. Because it is a symbol of impermanence,” she explains. “Like dance, like the body, La Piñata is a temporary art form that is made to be destroyed. It has a birth, death and rebirth cycle that I find very sustainable, and fodder for endless exploration.”

I recently asked Boubion a few questions about her upcoming residency, as well as the evolution of her ongoing Piñata project.

You’re of Mexican heritage, and you’ve never traveled to the country before. What’s the significance of being in Mexico as far as your personal creative journey goes?
It is the sole reason I am going there. I imagine that the spirit of my grandmother, Maclovia Duran Lujan Boubion, who was an artist and poet, is by my side, showing me more about who I am and where my family came from. I see the residency as an “Ancestral Land-Sensing” journey. There is a deep longing to bring together these different cultures within myself as a mixed race Chicana. My father is Chicano and my mother is Canadian. My grandma used to call me “Chuparosa” (“Hummingbird”) which, as an adult, I have translated into choreography and poetry. I’ve also discovered historical Piñata references to the Aztec Sun God Huitzilopochtli (“Hummingbird on the Left”). It is also true that the Hummingbird is able to fly from Canada to Mexico, so I see this residency as the beginning of an amazing journey of connections. Of course, I will not be able to stop at Mexico, or Canada…we have ancestors in the Czech Republic, Spain, Ireland and France, as well!

Is heritage an important aspect of your creative process?
I think my cosmology combined with my movement training is what shapes my creative process, and it will always be related to heritage, whether or not it is visible or intended. Much of my performance work explores personal or collective identity, yet there are so many aspects that are not limited to cultural heritage. For example, I am also queer, female, a mother, a daughter, sister…and I, like everyone else, have inherited a world that is experiencing an environmental crisis. My worldview will always be shaped by my experience, but I feel that creativity and the arts can also transcend and transform the limitations of identity and experience. I believe we are in constant co-creation with who we are and have an ability to rewrite our stories as we collect experience throughout our lives. When I enter my body in a movement exploration, I find that my process is based on physical sensation in time and space. I am opening up to the energy, the emotion, an image, or some kind of physical circumstance which can hold a metaphor for life. As dancers, we are fine-tuning multiple levels of awareness and can direct our attention into several places at once. Movement is at once personal embodiment, as well as a shared experience of humanity.

You’ve often discussed the fact that healing and performance are interconnected, for both the performers and the audience. Can you talk a bit about body storytelling, and how it helps to address trauma?
Working with trauma through movement-based expressive arts is a process that doesn’t need an audience, but having a witness, guide, or group setting to contain an experience is sometimes a necessary element. The basic premise is that we carry our life experiences in the body, so when we turn our attention toward our movement, we are directly touching the content of our lives, including the effects of trauma. If we can identify our limitations created by trauma, then we can work to physically release locked emotions, move through blocks that inhibit expression, and change patterns experientially.

My work is definitely a hybrid practice of art and healing. However, I have found that therapeutic process and creative process can be a sticky bridge to cross, particularly when working with others. The minute I call it “therapy,” I must remove my judgments completely; and when we have a performance goal in mind, the notion of accessibility for the audience and aesthetic value comes into play. However, in the realm of “ritual,” I feel that art and healing can intersect. For me, the very act of performance is a form of ritual, no matter what the content of the work—and it can be very transformative for a performer to bring something forth from the content of his/her life.

Piñatas are multifaceted objects, and the way you work with them is almost ritualistic. How was your Piñata Dance Collective conceptualized?
My Piñata dances began in 2011 as one section of my MFA final project, Maclovia’s Birds, a multimedia stage production that was inspired by my Grandmother’s artwork. I choreographed a “fiesta” dance that ended with two dancers pushing and throwing each other around the stage, while a video of me smashing a piñata was projected in the back… like when a party ends badly with someone getting out of hand. This dramatized version depicted the creative and destructive elements of my family lineage. The following year, I decided to research the origins of the Piñata and I discovered a rich history that began to take on a life of its own. I proceeded to found my company name, the Piñata Dance Collective, as a celebration of Latino/a culture, impermanence and sustainability.

What are some of the facets of this performance?
Piñata dances are experimental and different every time. There is always some choreography and improvisation, yet that is how most of my work has been over the years. I never had time to finish a dance, so I just get really clear with my framed intentions and let the limitation of studio time shape what comes through in the moment of performance. I choose to work with professional artists who are experts in their fields and are comfortable with improvisation.

How do you notice people reacting?
People generally love to be involved in the ritual, even if it is just by writing down a breakthrough wish that will be read by a stranger later. Piñatas are familiar to most Americans and people from all over the world can relate to it, even if they have never hit a piñata before. However, most people don’t know its origins and are often surprised by our distillations and re-appropriations. The piñata was originally birthed in China as a New Year celebration and was appropriated by Italy and Spain, who made it a symbol of beating away the seven deadly sins in Catholicism. In Mesoamerica, the Spaniards subjugated a similar ritual that the Aztecs performed every winter solstice for the sun god to return. On stage, we are slowing it down and pulling it all apart, so people can begin to think differently about it as a personal, political, environmental, or artistic symbol.

How do you see the project evolving?
I am presently seeking a venue and funding to produce the full length show and may continue to offer Piñata Breakthrough performance labs. In 2015, I would like to curate a show with the theme of Piñata that celebrates other choreographers of the Latina/o diaspora.

If you’d like to learn more about Boubion, her upcoming performance, and ways to support her projects, visit her website at lizboubion.org.

This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of In Dance.

Nirmala Nataraj is a Bay Area-based playwright, journalist and author.