A response to The Triumph of Fame
Concept, Text & Performance by
February 24th, 2017 5:40 pm
Dfbrl8r Gallery, Chicago IL
Performed as part of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events On Edge Series
image: courtsesy of the artist
I didn’t realize there was a basement in this space.
My boots are making an incredibly loud, well-paced, heel-striking sound with every step down the stairs. Reminds me of all those beloved/groan-worthy scenes of dominant women intimidating and titillating with their slow, intentional, echo-y, high-heeled walks.
But I don’t mean to be making these sounds. If I had known I was going to walk down wooden stairs, alone, while a woman waited for me at the bottom, I would have worn sneakers.
I get to the bottom of the stairs and there she is, standing in profile on a grey carpet, positioned in its upper-left-hand corner, taking a swig from a water bottle. When she hears that I have landed, she turns her head to look at me. It is so perfect. It’s the swivel of a head that us trained dancers have learned, anatomical, rotating only from the occipital joint, no additional muscular effort, no superfluous movement. Just the scull.
It is beautifully precise. And utterly creepy. Because she is wearing a mask- technically a half mask- that just covers the eyes and forehead but leaves the nose, mouth, cheeks, and jawline exposed. The mask is also quite human. There is nothing fantastical about it. It matches her skin tone (peachy-white) and it depicts some relatively natural looking “hair” up high on her forehead in a 1960s- era bouffant. She is also wearing a brilliant muted gold coat that falls to mid-shin and has three-quarter length sleeves, funky platform heals, and tight, shiny, black rubber gloves.
Otherwise she is naked. And pregnant.
So she turns that head back and nonchalantly gestures for me to sit down in the chair. This chair is on the carpet too, much closer to her than I want. I briefly consider moving it farther back. In this moment of deliberation, I feel the pressure of time. I realize that since the moment I made my entrance down the stairs, the time of this piece has begun and I am IN it. Not just in the piece as a performer but actually caught in the space and time of it. Somehow I am aware that the timing of my movements, decision-making, eye contact, whatever I do, is already wrapped up in the meter of the piece. I have sensed the silent time structure and I do not want to disrupt its signature. So I wait for a beat. And sit.
I sit plainly, with both feet on the floor, a pleasant distance apart. My hands remain shoved deep in my coat pockets. I do not move for the entirety of the piece. I concentrate on my breathing, trying to keep it normal and steady. I pay extra attention to my face, keeping it open and shock-free. I want her to know I am present and watching. I want to give her some supportive energy and not demand too much energy from her in return.
I am definitely feeling intimidated. I assume there is at least the slightest bit of that going on for her too.
She begins. She gets closer to me, standing with her legs crossed at the ankles, and starts to remove her black rubber gloves, slowly…
Ah. I see. This IS actually going to follow a tease structure. Shit.
I’m a little disappointed because I’ve had a lifetime of people (usually men) assuming I am a stripper when I say I am a dancer, assuming my dances will be sexy, assuming my one-on-one experimental performance will be a lap dance or strip tease. We deal with these assumptions in different ways and make choices around what we do and what we make accordingly. I just wasn’t expecting this choice. I was assuming (given the costume and the set up) that the tease would remain implied, not executed. Alright, it’s fine. I quickly regroup and refocus.
Reframed with this information. Still watching.
There is a mirror in the back upper right corner of the carpet. There is a speaker and iPod on the floor. It is mostly silent but a soundtrack is playing. There is a heavily accented woman’s voice that comes in and out of the track. I can’t recall everything she says. The sentences are non-committal. She repeats herself. There is something sort of apologetic in her tone. Or maybe she has simply acquiesced. I hear the word “tease.”
I can also hear some raucousness going on upstairs. Footfall, laughter, loud male voices. For a split second I think about all those atrocious stories of girls being held captive in backyard sheds or basements with their abusers right upstairs. What fucking torture.
I know I am safe. I know Marie-Caroline is safe. And this circumstance is consensual, mostly.
At some point she gets down on all fours rather close to my knees. (I’m glad I didn’t cross my legs.) And I think, man, haven’t we all been here before? Why is this configuration of bodies and postures still so vulnerable and exciting? It is so easy and yet so fucking complicated.
She crawls backwards on a slight diagonal until her platform heeled foot hits the back wall. She stops. Her expression doesn’t change. But did she just cock her head a little? Like a dog who just heard something? She hits her foot against the wall again. Repeats. In a rhythm. “Knocking boots” as they say… It is actually funny. I offer a gentle little laugh.
Eventually, the shoes come off and the coat comes off. It is not grand. There is no climax. When she removes the coat she is kneeling, legs tight together, belly exposed, mask still on. I realize that her backside is in full view if I look at the mirror. But I don’t want to look. I really want to give her some privacy.
At this point I’m starting to feel protective, overwhelmed, maybe slightly sad and definitely saturated. She starts to untie her mask and I get nervous. I realize I am going to be confronted with her full face and the depth of her real eyes. I start worrying about how I will look to her. My body temperature rises and I remind myself to stay soft, to stay open, to BE THERE FOR HER.
She frees the mask but keeps it at eye level and extends her arm slowly forward. I still can’t see her eyes but I will when she drops her arm. And she does. And she looks sort of, tired. And raw. And maybe a little defensive. Or not defensive exactly. Her brow is furrowed but that could just be an expression of effort. Our eyes are locked and I’m trying my best to see and be seen. To give as much as I receive. I’m trying to meet her. There is a glorious tension between us. Not negative, powerful. We are suspended, holding each other. She is in control of this time, it is hers to wield and mine to witness.
Eventually, she lays down on her side, picks up a pencil and opens a notebook. She quietly asks my name.
“Joanna” I say.
She nods and says “Joanna” and writes it down. Then she looks up at me and wipes her eyes.
(Is she crying? Does she always cry? Or is it me? Was there something between the two of us that made her cry? I hope so. And I doubt it.)
“It’s done” she says.
I nod. I clap a little, but it sounds dumb. I’m pretty sure I said “thank you.” I leave. But this time I make sure to walk on the balls of my feet as I walk up the stairs.
I get to the other side of the upstairs door and stand there. I rest my head against the wall and try to digest what just happened. My body is buzzing. My mind is sloshing around the elements of the piece trying to find steady landmarks. I don’t know when or how exactly it happened but she moved me. She exposed me, differently than others at other times. She triumphed. Not over me, with me.
I realize that I can hear chatter from the back room. I know I won’t be able to hold on to what happened down there for very long. The power will dissolve as soon as I round the corner.
So I wait a couple beats. And leave.