Yesterday I had a chat with the artist Lester Arias (aka ARIAH LESTER), an artist living in the Netherlands, born and raised in Venezuela. What began as an interview about the themes of his performance and his sources of inspiration, led to an open and honest conversation: about his relationship with his mother; about the competitive atmosphere in the Western creative industry; and it even led to an invitation to all neo-Nazis to come see his show.
If my guess is right, we can expect just as much honesty as surprising twists in his show WHITE [ARIANE], which he will perform at the Jonge Harten festival on the 16th and 17th of November.
I believe there are two main reasons to be very excited to see Lester’s show: the deeply moving story he will share with you, and his unique way of doing so. To start with the first, this performance is inspired by a diary that Lester’s mother wrote when she was pregnant with him, but still convinced that she was going to give birth to a girl.
“I have to make a piece out of this, because this is a love to be put into the world”
I asked Lester what it was like to read her journal: “It was very emotional, because I understood that my mom loved me so much and I represented something so big for her. Many people want to have kids, but what’s the source of that desire? I think that in many cases that source is hope: the hope of having someone to give all that hasn’t been given to you. And the moment I read the diary I was like ‘wow I have to make a piece out of this, because this is a love to be put into the world.’ It is not so much about me, it is about what this kind of love represents for our world today, emotionally, politically.”
“I have enough distance to look at my life as an object”
Lester explains why he wanted to take this private diary to the stage and make a public performance out of it: “I have enough distance to look at my life as an object. Some people might say that it is very selfish, but I don’t feel that way at all. I just think that honesty is a very strong source to create things today.”
Quickly it becomes apparent that this movement from very personal stories to more universal themes and experiences is characterizing for Lester’s work. He tells me that WHITE [ARIANE] is best described as “a story of hope and battling your own demons, to make your dreams come true.” As he tells you about his own demons and struggles, he invites you to think about your own. One of the ways in which he extents this invitation is by interacting with the audience during the performance.
“The piece became a mirror of her own past”
“I just feel that some people are ready to be provoked and some people are not. It is my responsibility as an artist to figure that out. I had a friend who came to my piece WHITE [ARIANE]. She felt totally ‘locked’, because the piece just brought a lot of memories to her, she felt that I was a very angry person and that she somehow had to deal with my anger. For her, the piece became a mirror of her own past. But I’ve also had marvelous experiences with people that cried because they are were ready to step out of that [past that is holding them back]. The performance becomes a space for them to understand something about their own life and their relationship with their family. It is rather a liberation.”
“As they say in Venezuela: ‘everybody’s asshole is a vase, but you decide which flowers you put in’”
This sense of liberation and empowerment is what Lester hopes to achieve with his performance. As they say in Venezuela: ‘everybody’s asshole is a vase, but you decide which flowers you put in’. In other words, everyone will face demons in their life, some bigger than others. In the end, you are the only one who can defeat them and decide to pursue your own dreams. One demons that Lester had to face, was to find and defend his own unique aesthetic style.
The program describes WHITE [ARIANE] as “a cross-over between a concert and a theatre play, a one-man-show-opera and a burlesque act.” Although this description may come across as a little confusing, it is telling of Lester’s fight to stay true to himself and not give in to labelling (too much).
“I said: ‘I am old-fashioned, baby? Well, I will go for it!’ And now people love it”
“You have to put this in the interview. You even should put in there that I said ‘you have to put this in the interview’. When I just arrived to choreography school, I was being told by some teachers that I was an ‘old-fashioned performer’. Perhaps because I came from this ballet and modern dance background, fine arts and classical acting. You know, all things related to structure, form, aesthetics, are very hardcore. There was something that really struck me about it. Why am I being old-fashioned? Is it because I come from Venezuela? Is it because classical theatre is old? What is it to be old-fashioned? Later, there was a really pivoting moment in my artistic development in which I thought: what is all this shit that does not belong to me and that actually judges my belief-system, my emotions, my way of looking at the world? In that moment I said: ‘I am old-fashioned, baby? Well, I will go for it.’ And now people love it.”
“Artists are not supposed to talk too much about their hopes and fears”
Lester explains that his talent is not something that ‘came to him’ one day, like some divine or creative intervention. He explains that it is the result of fighting hard for what he believes in, even when others did not recognize the potential in his work. He explains that in many Western countries, and especially in the art educational system, artists are not supposed to talk too much about their hopes and fears. They are not supposed to admit their ambitions to rise to the top. They are only supposed to talk about their artistic statements and concepts, and not about the money they need to make from their art; to pay the bills; to keep their residency permit; and to make sure their families can eat.
“I decided: ‘I’m going to be Beyoncé’”
“In general, artists are allowed to work, not to dream, and institutions are more likely to support the work, not the dreaming. But for me working and dreaming are one. In that old-fashionedness there is a truth, which I believe is mastery. When I started singing three years ago, I couldn’t sing like now. But you know, I wasn’t going to stop there. I decided: ‘I’m going to be Beyoncé.’”
Indeed, by now, Lester’s work has gathered a crowd. With his unique style in which he mixes freely; pop; soul, some opera-like singing with sexy electronic beats. Hence, he has become known amongst a diverse audience. Yet another sign that Lester does not care for strict labels or stereotypes.
“Everybody is welcome, I don’t want to recreate the exclusion that I’ve been part of.”
“Once, I was performing at a home for people struggling with dementia, and I was really like: I don’t know if my music is good for this environment… But when I performed it, there were some really old people starting to dance with so much energy. They were smiling and dancing together, so lively! In that moment I thought: My work is more accessible than I ever woul’ve imagined. My work is really about emotion. It’s about the heart. It’s about hope. It’s about our desires. Everybody is welcome. I don’t want to recreate the exclusion that I’ve been part of.
“We have to imagine futures where the impossible becomes possible”
I know that this will sound dangerous in many ways, but I would even welcome some of these neo-Nazis groups. I would love them to come to my show and to see what I’m doing. These are people who’re just spreading fear and hate, but I think that some of us are simply missing love, care and mindfulness in connection to the heart. I find theatre to be the perfect space to provide that. We have to imagine futures where the impossible becomes possible, in a positive and transformative way”.
It must be an adventure for Lester to perform his work wherever he goes, sharing his story, inviting you to enter his wild, fun and deeply personal aesthetic universe. To me this sounds like an adventure I would not want to miss for the world.