Some genius once said that it’s not experimental theater if you’re not feeling at least a little desperately uncomfortable. Full disclosure: that “genius” was actually just me, but the statement, while slightly reductionist, effectively communicates what I find most titillating – and terrifying – about the more avant-garde productions that I see.
Terms like “experimental” and “avant garde” get thrown around a lot. Like most theater-goers, I’m not entirely sure of the precise definition of either, but would be loathe to fully cop to that fact. However, I think at their best, such productions are unique, surprising, and a little scary. They push the boundaries of theatricality in exciting ways. At their worst, however, they are pointless spectacle that verges on the unnecessarily lewd. They quite literally create their own parodies, and are the reason theater is branded pretentious, elitist and inaccessible.
Essentially, it’s hit or miss.
However, I’m as easy a target as the next girl, so when you tell me of a feminist theater show featuring 6 naked performers, uhm…I’m in. And that is how I found myself, just last week, part of the sold-out audience at opening night of the New York premiere of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company’s Untitled Feminist Show at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. (phew! That’s a mouthful!)
[Another full disclosure: Basically, if a show has the word “feminist” anywhere near it’s title/description, I’m pretty much predisposed to love it, but I attempted to maintain an open mind for the sake of, oh…let’s say… journalistic integrity.]
According to its website, in Untitled Feminist Show: “six charismatic stars of the downtown theater, dance, cabaret, and burlesque worlds come together to invite the audience on an exhilarating, nearly wordless journey through expressions of a fluid and limitless sense of identity.” Which, had I really been paying attention, has a few serious gives that would have let me know what I was in for — see, “wordless” and “fluid”.
As in: dance. Yep, dance.
Now, quick word on my relationship with dance: I have none. Beyond a very traumatic winter-long course in Ballroom Dance in elementary school (what 5th grader wants to be told that the evening is “ladies choice”??! My choice of partners was quite literally limited to a series of bros who had inevitably flashed their boogers at me the day before), I have never attempted the art form myself. Maybe it’s my own complete and utter lack of rhythm, but I really – REALLY – struggle to make heads or tales of dance. Watching gorgeous people spin around in tandem, while aesthetically pleasing, doesn’t make me “feel” much beyond envious and befuddled. And while I hate to use the “b” word – sacrilegious, as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to the arts – with dance, I can easily get (yikes)…bored.
It didn’t take long for me to suspect/fear that, beyond the initial shock of 6 naked performers, Untitled Feminist Show is more straightforward dance concert than avant-garde play. In fact, the show, which runs a gaunt 55 minutes, felt at first like a dance recital, broken up by songs, where various permutations of the 6 dancers would writhe and gyrate and spin and do all those dance-y things that lovers of dance are much more poised to appreciate than uncoordinated duds like me.
However, simply and totally because of its spectacle of nakedness (and probably also, because the 6 performers in question are possessed of, although it pains me to say it, “normal”(??) bodies), Untitled Feminist Show will forever enjoy the designation of “avant garde” and “experimental”.
Now, a word on the nakedness: my fear with this kind of stuff is that it never rises above the level of “gimmick”, and although I spent a bit of time inwardly giggling behind my hand at the sight of boobies, I’ll admit that ultimately it did exactly what I imagine it was trying to – it was aggressive, confrontational, disconcerting and unabashedly beautiful.
But, of course, nakedness alone does not make an avant garde play. Although I spent the first 10 minutes or so of the show feeling victimized by a cruel bait-and-switch (promised: cool experimental theater, delivered: mostly conventional dance), I must now cop to being pretty darn wrong. Yes, the performance style of the show was much dancier than narrative-ier (official theater terms, by the way), but once I got my head out of my ass and stopped mentally bitching about it, it turns out that Young Jean Lee was actually saying things that even an idiot like me could digest. Yes, some of the dances went waaaaay over my head, and I recall them now only as a blur of spinning and pirouettes (not totally sure what those are, but they sound dance-y…). There are clear highlights, though.
One, about halfway through the show, involved the dancers, who made copious eye contact and often smiled warmly at us, the Super-Eager-To-Prove-How-Comfortable-We-Were-With-Nakedness audience, beginning a series of synchronized choreographed moves that, when I actually studied them, turned out to be inspired by/based on a series of traditionally “female” activities – ironing, weaning babies, cooking, cleaning, etc. Done to some sort of agonizingly awesome hip-hop song, by dancers who performed their choreography with such mother-fucking coolness, it essentially took my breath away. To me, this was reappropriation at its absolute best.
Another memorable scene, and one of the piece’s few obvious non dance-y bits, involved a single performer, who started what I can only call “militant flirtation” with certain male audience members – pointing one out and miming sexually suggestive behaviors re: said audience member’s penis, which quickly became sexually grotesque and violent suggestions. I watched this, growing increasingly more uncomfortable along with the rest of the audience, who tended to display its discomfort by laughing more loudly and obviously. It was an interesting moment – god knows, anytime the house lights go up in a show like this EVERY audience member feels a pang of dread in his or her heart of hearts. In this case, the moment was made all-the-more unnerving by the proximity of the performer, her nakedness, and the creepy way she smiled while miming sticking her hand up an audience member’s you-know-what. The group of men in front of me were laughing so loud and with such false heartiness at this point that I really wanted to take their hands and tell them to take a deep, cleansing breath: it was going to be OK.
The “point”, from the performer’s perspective, seemed to force our discomfort as quickly and urgently as possible – the kind of shameless confrontation feminism does so well/terribly (depending on your perspective). In this case, though, the audience, which seemed to be entirely filled with theater insiders and Enlightened, Artsy Folk, responded uniquely. It was one of the stranger confrontations I’ve ever witnessed: rather than sit back and take our misogynist spanking, this audience (which perhaps wanted more credit for having found, sought out, and Behaved Completely Properly during the strange, naked show), was more-or-less unwilling to suffer such punishment. Instead, the chorus of self-aware laughter was as much a retaliation as I’ve ever heard – a vehement insistence to the performer that We Were In On It Too. Ultimately, it was a stand off: one that was one-part uncomfortable, one-part exciting, and one-part confusing: in other words, everything I could have asked for from an Avant Garde show.
There were other moments like this, too – during the show’s climax, wherein the dancers began shaking and jiggling their bodies to pounding techno music, basically shoving gyrating boobs and bellies in the faces of the closer audience members (I was not among them), the audience burst into a spontaneous round of enthusiastic applause (we were determined to get an A+ on Audiencing, it seemed). It was infectiously thrilling to be surrounded by such approval of such a primitive, aggressive confrontation with the female body.
Untitled Feminist Show was a lot of things at once: sometimes embarrassing, sometimes boring, sometimes scary, sometimes profound, sometimes ridiculous and always surprising. When it comes to Avant Garde, you really can’t ask for anything else. (Well….whatever “avant garde” means, anyway…) If you want to get your naked dancing on (that’s a lie, those of you who are stripping and running for the door — only the performers are naked in this one, I’m afraid)…run, don’t walk to the Baryshnikov Arts Center – the show only runs thru Feb. 4th.