there was a breeze of disco in the air and men in jumpsuits and high heels, while a rush of disco undercurrent washed all in gathered glamour. Upon the still waters of a tranquil culture, the liquid color explosion of Evelyn splashed all in neon invention. Where are the stylish jet setters of Portland? Some wonder as they watch the pleasantly rotund denizens often seen comporting themselves amidst donut shops. My friend they were there. At Evelyn. In the night racing through dance and changing the face of the night. They mingled in scintillating outfits, stitched with mirrors, dripping with bangles, sleek in leathers. Women wore shoes of tangerine while men dressed as bashed disco balls flew past on roller skates. Outside the sonic umbrella of force field party music, the outside terrace gathered those who contrived to light a cigarette and mix. Ideas and gossip flew on tingling wings of informative instance. There was light. Faces and visages revealed themselves. Beautiful eyes. Strong chins. Lush hair. There were the elbows and shoulders of a crowd in full swing, permitting one to navigate their modest yet fabulous midst, just barely. The art of tomorrow careening through their blood, the songs of beyond dancing in their minds, this bunch of gathered beauty and humor and sly what-have-you impressed upon me the thought that tomorrow will be forward fabulous, retro informed and stellar. huzzahs in multitude to you beautiful ones and twos…. Hugh Gallagher
There’s only one person on stage in Jack Ferver’s Mon, Ma, Mes, but the work is modeled on dialogue. There is dialogue with the audience, first of all, as Ferver begins the show with a forced Q&A session. And there is also plenty of dialogue in Ferver’s own speech, as he constantly refutes or modifies the details of a life revealed to us in spurts of energetic performance.
All these dialogues are simulations, however. The questions are scripted, openly so: the audience members chosen by Ferver (spontaneously, it seems) are handed notecards with a generally adulatory and leading question on it. The exchanges are funny, the way it’s funny to overhear a bad date or a pedantic museum conversation. But the equally simulated dialogue that Ferver carries out with himself grows decidedly less funny as the work goes on. In conversation after the performance was over, the question came up of when exactly I thought the tone changed. After all, the show began with loud and repeated audience laughter, but these moments gradually faded as it progressed. I thought, maybe simplistically, that the change had come when Ferver said the word “rape.” But this isn’t exactly so, as Allegra Jongeward pointed out to me, for there had been a previous moment when Ferver responded to an audience question with a long silence that led into his first dance performance. Both the pause and the dance elicited plenty of laughter, but in retrospect they foretold the improbable mix of lightness and gravity that would follow.
We might miss it as it’s happening, but this foretelling becomes retrospectively evident in another dance sequence, this one in the middle of a therapy session in which Ferver mimes both shrink and patient. I don’t want to talk about that, says the performer in response to some question he’s asked himself, I just want to dance for you. In isolation, this desire might be silly, but in the context of a work that constantly unveils the solipsism and insufficiency of language, it feels more serious. It places two forms of expression, speech and dance, in relief, and I think it holds the latter up as an ideal.
I think so because of the way that Ferver’s narrative runs from self-indulgence to absurdity. We all need to talk about ourselves, but from the outset—already in the title of the work (three French translations of my) and definitely in the simulated Q&A—Ferver is ridicules this societal norm. It is common tic among pundits today to chalk excessive self-involvement up to new technologies of the self like social media platforms and front-facing cameras. But to be thorough we’d have to go farther back, starting with the introspection encouraged by Freud’s talking cure and before that Catholic confession. Michel Foucault has even traced the phenomenon of parrhesia—etymologically, saying everything—back to the ancient Greeks. In short, narcissism isn’t the invention of the millennial generation. When Ferver sings about being the only person in the room, he’s tapping into a long history.
And in the structure of the work, no manifestation of narcissism is as evident as therapy—both as a practice and as a diffuse cultural form. A barely mentioned trauma gives a nearly absent baseline to the performance, and Ferver’s monologues are reminiscent, for me, of classic SNL characters like Jack Handy (self-affirmation: good enough, smart enough) and Mary Catherine Gallagher (anxiety: hand and verbal tics). His intent seems to be not to mock therapy, but rather to incorporate its structure of feeling into the show as a way of revealing the insufficiency of speech.
In this way, Mon, Ma, Mes can be contrasted with Germinal, a show I had seen the night before. Here also the construction of the self is placed on stage, but its comic effect derives from the futility of things like the drive to categorize and the inescapability of the dialectic. It shows how absurd it would be to arrive at where we are today through a careful consideration of all our options. Its funniest moment was when the characters had the opportunity to order a starter kit for existence via phone. Germinal’s foils or sources seem to be Hegel and Derrida, while Ferver’s—more refreshingly, I think, because Hegel and Derrida are cold thinkers and terrible writers—is the more eloquent lineage that runs from Freud to Oprah.
That lineage gives the context of Ferver’s work, but he’s not in thrall to it. If telling one’s truth always involves some level narcissism, dance takes us elsewhere, outside ourselves. At least that’s the hope I saw in Mon, Ma, Mes. Not only does dance come in when speech becomes difficult, but it also provides the only occasion for real coexistence. About halfway through the work, Ferver asked a dancer in the audience to join him on stage. Initially, their interaction shows a one-sided collaboration, ridiculing the egomania of Ferver’s character. But when they begin to dance, the task he carries out—following his partner’s hands with his own, turning the other’s horizontal palms into the letter T with his own vertical hands—is vulnerable and soft. He follows instead of leading, as the two become engaged in an elaborate game of Twister in the air. The scene represents an alternative to both speech and narcissism: bodily movement and entanglement with someone else.
Craig Epplin is an assistant professor in the World Languages and Literatures Department at Portland State University.
Double feature, Death of the Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer by Eisa Jocson
I get great satisfaction from both being a part of and watching an audience who is negotiating whether or not they have been intentionally been made part of a performance. Comfortable or uncomfortable, it is thrilling to be in the moment and let the experience happen, as opposed to controlling it. Being surprised is part of the fun. That’s what TBA does best – surprising us at every turn, inviting artists to blow open their corners of the world and hone in on their point of view for us to see. Eisa Jocson’s audience on Saturday was rearing to go. They were excited and fully invested in whatever was to come.
Ms Jocson, a contemporary choreographer and dancer trained in ballet, with a background in visual art, asks us to examine relationships between the economics and cultures surrounding pole dancing and Macho Dance – (a subgroup of sexualized dance for men in the Philippines). It is interesting that she chose to investigate these two marginalized forms of dance.
The performance of Death of the Pole Dancer began in the smaller of the two studios at BodyVox and we, the audience, filed in forming a circle around the middle of the room, creating an anticipatory space for a pole and a dancer that had not yet materialized. How was this going to work? Where was the pole? A pole didn’t seem like a movable prop. Shouldn’t this sort of thing be set up before hand?
While waiting for the show to start, lots of questions started to come to my mind. I thought about audience expectations and how much power that has over an artist, especially when there are economic stakes. And, isn’t money always at stake? What exactly is objectification, and does it happen more often than we realize? Are we each guilty of objectifying someone? Objectification is treating a person as a thing or tool without regard for their dignity, disregarding their feelings and experience and taking away their autonomy. Ms Jocson was making us wait for her. Was she intentionally creating space for us to reflect? Was she objectifying us? Was this the audience participation part?
Eventually, Ms Jocson – donning six inch, bondage inspired, black patent leather heels, dressed in black short shorts and a halter-top – entered the room carrying a rectangular black nylon bag on her shoulder.
With an expressionless face and long black hair cascading over her shoulders, she knelt down, laying the bag on the floor. With crafted precision, she opened it taking out the different components of what was to become the pole and its mechanics in a ritualized choreographed manner. Four metal tubes – two long, two short, two round bases, one Allen wrench, one metal rod, three towels – one pink, two white, one small spray bottle, two band aids and one pair of fingerless leather gloves. Two moments of attentive self-care surprised me in how they revealed Jocson’s humanity and fragility. The first was when she took a moment to adhere the two Band-Aids to her palms before slipping on the gloves; the second was her use of the towels to protect her knees while assembling the pole. These both provided an interesting juxtaposition against the steeliness of the metal pole and her demeanor.
I am calling this a post-modern distillation of the act of pole dancing, its relationship to the audience and its emotional impact on the dance. It was brilliant! Even though she was dressed in a sexy, alluring outfit, it did not change the fact that she was executing a task. This was not a sexy task. It was one as mundane as unpacking a suitcase or rebuilding a car engine.
What is sexy? Why isn’t this sexy for me but it is for others? What makes this sexy? Who created this particular idea of sexy? Why has this particular image of what is sexy for women become the norm propagated by the media and clothing manufactures like Victoria Secret? What happened to individually based preferences? How do stereotypes shape a form?
Over the course of the performance, there were two overtly sexual moments which made me question who was in control and who was being objectified. Was it the performer or audience or both? One was when she was shining the pole with a cloth and the other was when she first promenaded around the pole. Her energy changed and for a moment her movements were sexualized and then they weren’t. It is a tool that can be turned on and off.
After the pole had been affixed to its central location in the room, Ms Jocson began walking around it shaking it vigorously to test its strength shaking it so violently that it jerked her body back and forth flinging her hair up into a crazy cloud around her head. The pole would bend in the middle but never break. She began building momentum with a series of repetitious movements pulling her in towards the pole and banging her chest against it. This energy propelled her off the ground and around the pole into a series of beautiful feats of amazing strength. Swinging around and around until her energy wound down and she slid off the pole onto the floor and finished in a heap of disheveled hair, with the pole haphazardly remaining between her thighs. It’s a rough image. We are uncomfortable and don’t know if she is finished. We stand silent for some time until a brave soul begins to clap and we follow suit. We file out of the room leaving her lying on the floor.
Eisa Jocson’s second dance, Macho Dancer is the culmination of her time spent with a small group of young Filipino male dancers who perform in nightclubs. Their style of dance is culturally specific and distinctly Filipino. It is designed to appeal to both men and women and is a social construct of what is thought to be strong, sexy, cool and masculine. It is a series of strutting, posing, hand gestures, flexing, body stroking and knee crawling that Ms Jocson performs flawlessly in a pair of cut off jean shorts, a tank top, cowboy boots and black knee pads.
“By emulating and simulating the macho dancer, she investigates social, cultural and economical conditions that ultimately unveil this perfect, normative body as a constructed body.”
Even in the “normative” state of our daily lives, doesn’t the body continue to be a construct of whatever environment we are a part of? Are any of us ever really free from such societal constraints?
This gender loop that she created as a woman performing as a man is so convincing that I easily loose track of the fact that she is a woman even when she pulls her top off and is bare chested.
Ms Jocson, with the help of a fog machine and spectacular lighting, brilliantly re-recreated the atmosphere of a nightclub, adding an array of music choices to facilitate the full exploration of emotions and movement within the form.
Her ability to shape shift and completely let go of her own body construct and adopt that of another was astounding.
She is fierce, raw and honed. She is smart and deliberate. I am moved, inspired and invigorated.
Jamuna Chiarini is a freelance dance artist, producer and dance writer, writing regularly for Oregon Arts Watch in Portland Oregon.
I’m so glad that I read Kate Sanderson Holly’s post about Cynthia Hopkins’ A Living Documentary before I began writing mine. One of the coolest things about people blogging during the festival is that you get to hear some of the thoughts that are happening in the theater with you. As Kate was wondering if this performance had meaning to someone who wasn’t an experimental theater artist, I was questioning what the experience of the piece was for its inner circle audience, those who could intimately relate to Cynthia’s story. I am not an experimental theater maker, but A Living Documentary still echoed with my experiences as a young person trying to figure out how to make my way in the world.
So many of the questions raised in this piece are questions I ask myself. Replace ‘theater’ with ‘writing’ or ‘poetry’ or even ‘queer,’ and it seems these spheres aren’t so distinct. These questions about art making may not be universal, but they are certainly relatable. There’s particularity in grant writing and theater lights, but in Cynthia’s work there’s also the applicability of how incongruent our desires are with our ability to make a living and survive.
I’d argue that Living Documentary’s ability to highlight these commonalities and parallels is fostered part and parcel by the humor and quiet with which Cynthia presents herself. Her piece was equal parts dark penciled eyebrows/wigs and naked guitar solos, getting me with both her ridiculous facial expressions and tranquil tones.
She spoke candidly (in her way, through recorded tape and characterization) of what it is like to move away from traditional ideas of artistic and financial success, to fold your nonprofit theater company, to stop paying unemployment tax on an enormous team of designers, and to envision a different freedom for yourself: freedom where artistic expression isn’t predicated on debt and fancy theater lobbies.
In humor and in nakedness, when some of the artifice of art is stripped away, when we’re just in a theater with one another, there’s a space of relatability. When Cynthia removed her makeup and clothes and stood with a guitar in low light, I was a wholly disarmed viewer. I was ready to hear her story and enjoy its intersections with my own.
I’m left wondering about the socioeconomic and biographical influences on the form of this work. Cynthia is the daughter of two English teachers, and she only very briefly experienced the spending power of financing extravagant works with her own money (which even then was tainted by its inheritance from her abusive grandfather), so when she speaks about survival, she is speaking about real survival, about how to make a living that is sustainable and safe. The intimate scale of Living Documentary amplifies the humor and honesty, but it also drew me in with its honesty about how much art costs and how much an artist needs to get by.
Olivia Mitchell is a Whitman College alum, cat-lover, and writer. Sometimes, she even writes about art. She lives in Portland, OR.
The dancer in Eisa Jocson’s Death of the Pole Dancer says, “Can you help me?” These four words are the only audible words of the whole performance, and each one punctuates the silent stage with an affect of doubt.
Can we help her? What is in our control? Who is in our control?
Jocson’s 25 minute piece masterfully presents a dancer (Jocson herself) dressed in impossibly high stiletto heels and a leather bikini. In a concert of silence, the dancer spends the majority of the performance assembling, shining and aligning the chromed stripper pole, which she stakes directly in the heart of center stage. The last portion of the performance exhibits the physical effort of the performer, visible by sweat and labored breath–both halfway covered by an invasive pop song beaming from overhead speakers. The end (oh, the end?!?) finds the dancer face down on the floor–legs dangling around the unresponsive pole. To complete Death of the Pole Dancer, the audience must exit the performance space, leaving our performer alone and sprawled on the floor.
After Jocson’s performance I overheard many viewers in the lobby expressing the desire to ask the prone (“dead”) dancer if she was okay or if she needed assistance. Eisa Jocson’s dance elaborates on the notion that the audience can help–that the audience can do something about the uncomfortable mess on stage. But what exactly are the actions Jocson asks us to take? The audience members’ expressions of pity, of shame and of insecurity point to the core of Jocson’s piece: Jocson exposes a dynamic out of balance and a relationship between performer and viewer that needs care and assistance.
Something dies in Jocson’s piece, and Jocson herself is the assassin. A woman in total control of her whole performance, she kills the presupposed power of the audience over her body. Jocson tops from the bottom. She inverts the audience’s gaze. Really, who is powerless in Death of a Pole Dancer? The dancer or the audience?
Jackie Davis is happy to be alive in a time where art can be beautifully ugly. She is honored to walk this Earth surrounded by so many creative geniuses.
Dear Cynthia Hopkins,
You may not remember this but I met you once in Gary Grundei’s music composition class at Naropa University. I was there getting an MFA in Contemporary Performance, and you were there writing the music for a production of Trojan Women. The women who sang your piece rehearsed in the studio next to mine, and every time I heard it drifting through the hallway I would freeze completely, because I didn’t want to hear any sound except for that song. It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard. You came to our class one day and listened to our songs. In my piece I harmonized with myself, played two instruments that I barely know how to play and sang about wolves. Gary told me later that you really liked my work, and knowing this carried me through a good chunk of the following year in my artistic life. Being someone who went to all the trouble to get an MFA in Contemporary Performance, I am clearly in the target audience for your new piece, A Living Documentary. I am so much the target audience that I can’t really assess whether the piece would be enjoyable or have any relevance for anybody else, but I want you to know how profoundly meaningful it was for me to witness.
Once I had a dream about the theater director, Anne Bogart, one of my artistic heroes. She was waiting at the end of a long line, like a guru, and each of her devotees got the chance to bow before her and ask one question. I wasn’t sure what I would ask until I got in front of her, but as soon as I opened my mouth I burst into tears. I wailed “I gave my life to theater, and theater ruined my life!” I guess I was hoping she would offer me some comfort, or wisdom, but instead she looked at me horrified, mouth agape, as if I had just spoken the unmentionable phrase. I cried so hard in the dream that I woke myself up, and never did hear her speak.
I was reminded of that dream tonight as I watched your piece. So many times I have shared the feelings and thoughts and frustrations that you expressed, but it is hard to find an audience to air those grievances to. With my own collaborators there was a need to keep an optimistic spirit. With my non-artist friends and family there was a gap in understanding–the response would be something like “Well you shouldn’t have gone into theater if you wanted to make a living”, or just a sympathetic smile that you might give to an astronaut talking about how rough space travel is–they want to be supportive, but they will never know what its like.
For me, this lack of understanding came to a head this year when I realized that my own husband no longer supported my artistic aspirations, because now I have somebody else who has to share my debt, my mortgage payments, and my stress. These last few months are the first in my adult life when I have not been working on a theater piece, and it does feel something like a drug withdrawal. For the most part I suffer silently, and I don’t talk about that part of myself because I don’t know that anybody can really understand. But tonight you gave me something that the dream guru Anne Bogart couldn’t–you showed me that there is somebody who understands what I have gone through. Not only do you understand, but you have made an entire brilliant, brave and wildly entertaining musical about it so that maybe some other people who haven’t been there will also understand.
As I was wrapping up my graduate education I went through a phase of being determined to “succeed”, and one of the things I wrote in bold permanent marker on a poster on the wall was “Play the Game”. I have always been reluctant to play the game that was created by others, and seemingly for others, but I knew that I wanted to make a living as a “slightly experimental” contemporary theater artist, and so I decided I should try my hand at The Game. That was four years ago, and while I haven’t yet succeeded in the way I wanted to then, and by most accounts it could be reported that I dropped out of the game, I have found tremendous freedom in my life since. In your closing song you sweetly lilted “You are free to play whatever game you want to play”. That is a conclusion that I have also come to, but I assumed that I would never land on the TBA stage (one of the ultimate markers of success in my world) unless I played somebody else’s game. Your piece was a refreshing reminder that playing somebody else’s game is never what TBA is about–its about courageously sharing your authentic truth while also bringing the full force of your professionalism to the stage, and you pulled that off in spades tonight. Thank you, and bravo!
Kate Sanderson Holly
former founding member of Fever Theater and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, currently free-floating yoga studio owner with a toddler
p.s. I will totally buy you coffee. E-mail me, girl. [email protected]
Cinema is primarily a visual medium—silent film exists, invisible film doesn’t—but the experience of watching movies has almost never been without sound. In the silent era, single narrators or entire troupes of actors used to lend their live voices to the muted speech of onscreen dialogues. Orchestras or lone pianists provided music. Film’s early period was full of attempts to coordinate speech with speakers and music with musicians.
This context was on my mind during the Friday performance of Tanya Tagaq in Concert with Nanook of the North. A vocalist who works in the tradition of Inuit throat singing, Tagaq took the stage alongside Jesse Zubot (on violin and viola) and Jean Martin (on drums), and the three were accompanied by the recorded music of Derek Charke. Behind the performers, a large screen played Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North. Almost a hundred years separate us from that film, but this juxtaposition of sound and image didn’t feel unnatural. I often found myself falling into what seems like the natural division of the senses—eyes on the screen, ears attentive to the music—until I’d catch myself and remember that there was a really riveting live performance happening on the stage in front of me. In those moments of forgetfulness, I was reliving what lots of early filmgoers experienced: visually captured, sonically enveloped.
But the point of this music was something other than to accompany the moving image. Rather, the musicians aimed to reframe Flaherty’s narrative. In this sense, the performance worked like a second interpretive layer atop the first one, which is already present in the film through its intertitles. For just as film has almost never gone without sound, it has just as rarely been without language. Images mean lots of things on their own, but since the early days of cinema the inclusion of words has served to orient the viewer toward certain aspects of the image track and away from others.
Thus a key sequence in Nanook of the North—which begins with the arrival of a group of Inuit men and women to a trading post and ends with a supposed demonstration of the workings of the gramophone—is interspersed with constant intertitles that instruct the viewer how to interpret the scenes. We learn that the group has arrived at a trading post, that they have skins and furs to trade, that they are proud of their dogs, one of whom is named Rainbow. And beyond this contextual knowledge, the words on screen also convey specific ideological and affective positions. The first one puts quotes around the words “big igloo,” which is the term, it is implied, used by the Inuit to refer to the trading post. The inclusion of this term responds to more than simple utilitarian purposes. Rather, it is meant to exhibit the filmmaker’s intimacy with the culture he is representing, even as it emphasizes its foreignness from both himself and his intended audience.
This emphasis on difference—the supposed exoticism of the Inuit family—runs throughout the intertitles. Their function seems to be to domesticate the image track, ensuring its smooth insertion into the racist clichés of settler colonialism. Over this initial interpretative layer, Tagaq and her collaborators introduced new layers of meaning. They did so sometimes by giving certain sequences an epic quality, the music building and quickening, but also through straightforward uses of language, as when Tagaq repeatedly heaved the word “colonizer” into the microphone as Nanook, the film’s protagonist, was being schooled in the operations of the gramophone. Her intervention reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s demand for revolutionary photographers, which was to give their images captions that would wrench them out of “fashionable clichés,” giving them rather a “revolutionary use value.” Over the visual captions present throughout Flaherty’s film, Tagaq added her own (vocal ones, in this case), reinterpreting the nature of trade and race relations in Canada.
Cinema scholar Rick Altman once compared the screen image to a ventriloquist’s dummy. Sound, in this scheme of things, rules the production of meaning in film. This concept can help us understand the force of this performance. That is, the sonic puppet show performed by Tagaq and her collaborators gives the characters in Nanook of the North, itself already a mash of word and image, new agency and vitality. The music—pulse or roar, or some other unnamable effect—eclipses Flaherty’s often condescending intertitles. In the process, the daily routines depicted in the film acquire a sense of heroism and dignity that the original film denies them.
Craig Epplin is an assistant professor in the World Languages and Literatures Department at Portland State University.
I have been going to TBA every year since its inception, for most of my adult life. The festival started in 2003: I was 23, fresh out of college, with an experimental theater degree and many big ideas about the potential for live performance. TBA did not disappoint–it quickly became the most important event in my year. I learned that the festival is best done through total immersion, so I would plan months ahead to make sure that I could get time off of work, clear my own rehearsal schedule, and avoid any major commitments during TBA time. I became a master of the puzzle of the TBA schedule, finding a way to see every show. I attended almost every workshop and artist talk and went to the Works every night.
As the festival gets older, so do I. In the eleven years since its inception I have gotten married, had a kid, and bought a house many miles from the center of the city. As with most new parents, my husband and I have had to put on hold many of the interests which used to define us. But for me, the TBA festival is non-negotiable–it is the last shred of dignity in a life that has become consumed by juice boxes and Curious George. It never occurred to me that I should take a break from the festival–my first festival as a mom was in 2012, and my son was only 8 weeks old. I did “slow down”, by planning only one show per night instead of my normal pace of 2 or 3. I still have the collection of panicked text messages that I received from my husband during most of those shows. I left early from almost all of them, in total defeat. This year, my son is 2-years-old and I am determined to get back to my old pace for this festival. Here’s how my first attempt panned out:
2:30pm I pick up my son from preschool
3pm Arrive at home, tempt him out of a post-nap tantrum with promises of juice and television time
3:30pm Jump in shower, try to find something to wear that doesn’t have holes or stains. TBA is, after all, a place to see and be seen. I settle for yoga pants with a dress over them–fancy!
4:30pm Coax unwilling toddler away from the television. Start the ultimate juggle: Prepare the car and the toddler for departure, get my bike to magically fit in the back of our small wagon while keeping toddler from dashing off to play in the street.
5:30pm Finally we are ready to go. Pull several sketchy traffic maneuvers to get to my husband’s workplace in Sellwood by the time he gets off
6:05pm Arrive in a panic, super quick car and toddler pass-off and I am on my bike, headed downtown for the 6:30pm Samita Sinha performance.
6:15pm Remember that I have not regularly bike commuted in over 2 years and that Sellwood is actually kind of far from downtown.
6:30pm Wheeze past a tandem bike on the Hawthorne bridge, still imagining that I might get there on time.
6:41pm Arrive at the Winningstad, defeated. Toddler 1, TBA Zero.
6:52pm Arrive at the Raven & Rose to enjoy a Manhattan, resolved to at least get an excellent seat for the 8:30 performance of Tanya Tagaq.
8:10pm Arrive to the pass holder line at PSU’s Lincoln Hall. Notice that the couple in front of me brought their 7-year-old. Eagerly interrogate them about the experience of bringing a child to the TBA fest. It turns out they saw the Samita Sinha show at 6:30. They report that the 7-year-old laughed uncomfortably through parts of it and made faces, but by the end was singing to herself as they exited, which her mother declares a success. They tell me that the show was “beautiful”, and I resolve to juggle the rest of my weekend around so I can see it.
8:20pm Sit down in my excellent seat, 5 rows from the front, and enjoy hearing the people behind me talk about how they have been attending TBA since the beginning. I am in good company.
8:34pm The show starts…
Tanya Tagaq comes out, barefoot, in a short and flowing dress. She smiles coyly and charms the audience with exclamations about how cool our city is. We are about to find out just how meaningful this statement is coming from an artist whose mother was born and raised in an igloo. The movie that unfolds before us reveals the stark landscape of the Inuits in the early 1900′s: Water, ice, wind and snow. The summers are cold, the winters are much colder. The food is raw meat, the only variation is in whether it comes from fish or mammal. Nanook of the North, we are told, is the first documentary ever made, but also controversial because some scenes were staged. Staged or not, I don’t think I have seen a movie this visceral, authentic and affecting in some time. Of course, the experience is colored by the strength of Tanya’s live soundtrack, and my focus is continually split between the remarkable, raw, humanity revealed by the film, and the remarkable, raw, humanity in Tanya’s wails, flails, rocks and shrieks. Amidst the starkness and intensity there are moments of humor. In my row I may be the only one who laughed knowingly as a mother tries to wipe her naked baby’s face with a seal skin and Tanya squeals with empathy for the unwilling child (apparently face wipes are universally reviled amongst toddlers). The movie does leave me with one unanswered question: Where do these babies poop?
The film announces “Tia Mak” (The End), and several moments go by as the artists and audience wind down from the other-world. Someone whistles loudly, and from there the audience erupts. I have a bike and I am seven miles from home, but as I chase a MAX train for 20 blocks through downtown Portland I realize how much of the wild courage of the film has gotten into me. I find myself maneuvering pedestrians, tracks, and traffic stops fearlessly, like an Inuit in a kayak on the choppy waves. I fly through the doors of my train in the nick of time and settle in to enjoy the aftermath of human effort, adrenaline and the ever-pulsing drive to live, deeply embedded in me by Tanya’s piece. I am reminded that it was never easy to have a 2-year-old. If I think its hard to make it to TBA on time, imagine if I had to spear a seal and build an igloo in just four hours of daylight.
Kate Sanderson Holly is a theater artist, yogi, mother, long-time TBA press corps volunteer, and former founding member of Fever Theater and Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble. She can currently be found teaching yoga and movement arts at her studio, Yoga Refuge.
For this years festival I am going to endeavor a few poetic responses (literally) to the work, the audience, the ambiance, etc.
The first of these are coming in the form of haikus.
Bright Moon with design
People. Our people.
Stacey -Wynne Greenwood
heads too. Reenarchivement,
The rest were written collaboratively in an exquisite corpse style with some inspiration from Mallory Mason.
Tanya Tagaq in concert with Nanook of the North
One known quantity
knees back, hand up, wailing on
Dogs, and we with chills
Tanya Tagaq in concert with Nanook of the North No. 2
Wow! Slam! Bam! Hypnotizing
Making the stage home.
Mack McFarland is the Curator for the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
Eisa Jocson speaks about gender performativity, choreographing the gaze, and much more in an interview with dance scholar Clare Croft.Clare Croft (CC): I wanted to talk about the choice to put these two pieces, Death of a Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer, together on one program. They have, I suppose, obvious potential links as physical performances of gender and sexuality. Is it interesting for you to have them both on the same program?
Eisa Jocson (EJ): The two works are situated in the same marginal spectrum of night work in the Philippines, but at the extreme opposite [ends of that spectrum] in terms of many things, mainly because of their clients [and] the gender relations [between dancer and client]. [Pole dancing usually features a female dancer with male clients, whereas macho dancing features a male dancer with both male and female clients.]
CC: You came to pole dancing as a hobby in a fitness studio, and you came to macho dancing as a spectator. How did it shape your process of creation to come to one form of dance as a participant and another as a spectator?
EJ: With Death of the Pole Dancer, the work came about because of my experience with pole dancing as, first, a hobby. In the Philippines, I was one of the first few women to take the pole-dancing class. Eventually I was also teaching, and eventually I was also kind of a co-director of this pole dance academy. I think that during that time there was a lot of stigma during the beginning of pole dancing in the fitness [studio] or in the dance studio. [What] was very interesting for me [was] the shift from the strip club to the fitness studio—the space, the context. Somehow this shift didn’t happen immediately in society: [this] acceptance and awareness of how [pole dancing] could be appropriated as something else by women outside of the club–that it could be actually used to empower [women], or as a hobby, or for fitness. [What pole dancing means] depends on where you’re coming from and what your intention is.
Death of the Pole Dancer was not actually about the movement vocabulary of people dancing in general, but it was more of an investigation of how we’re seeing the way we’re seeing. You have a universal stereotype of a pole dancer. Somehow it interests me how much I can deviate from [that stereotype], and how much general perception can’t make the shift, too. With Macho Dancer, the challenge for me was to actually embody the movement vocabulary. I did not have the movement vocabulary of macho dancing prior to working on it.
CC: How did you go about acquiring the movement vocabulary of macho dancing?
EJ: I went into macho dancing because I wanted to challenge this embodiment of the female vocabulary that I’ve learned through this fitness space–pole dance for fitness. [I wanted] to actually force myself to embody the complete opposite [of pole dancing]. In this way, [I set out to] learn a gender performativity that is situated in an opposite context of pole dancing.
Learning [how to do macho dancing] was definitely [a] more difficult process. There wasn’t any macho dancing school to begin with. It wasn’t something that was being taught—just performed in macho clubs. What I did [then was to] go to macho clubs on a regular basis and really scout for the good [dancers] and ask [them] if they could actually teach me macho dancing.
In the beginning, when I was first asking if this was possible, the macho dancers would say, “What would a girl do with such a dance?” They didn’t take me really seriously. They thought I was trying to build the relationship with them for other reasons. When they saw that I was actually serious, most of them appreciated that they were being acknowledged for their skill. And [then] the relationship with the macho dancers became more of a student/mentor relationship. I found that quite endearing in a way. This relationship could exist outside of the macho bar.
At some point I decided to go to the gym, and when I went to the gym I realized that—or at least I felt that the movement made much more sense in my body—because I found the awareness of muscle groups, the form that you actually accumulate when you go to the gym. Gym culture is actually part of macho dancing. [It’s] basically choreography of muscle and form and showing off, and it’s a lot about narcissism—appreciating your own body.
My first entry point to macho dancing was this fascination with the movement and what were the conditions that actually made this dance possible–culturally, socially, and economically. What notion of masculinity are they [the macho dancers] performing? It’s very specific to their clients, who are male and female. In the beginning, their clients were more gay, and eventually when the economy started to become more liberated and women in the Philippines started to occupy higher positions, the clients became more equalized—so now it’s more men and women. And so what is being performed is actually, I guess, a projection of a certain notion of what it is to be male in Philippines society—to be desirable as a man for that clientele. The movement vocabulary itself says a lot about the condition of the Philippines context.
CC: What has it been like for you to be exploring forms that are so explicitly economically motivated? You’ve spoken elsewhere about how these forms have a relationship with the Filipino economy and the feminization of labor in the Philippines. Hearing this, I thought about how many forms of performance have an economic exchange, but we separate the performance from the monetary element—you pay for a ticket and then go to another room, whereas other forms of performances—often those seen as less “highbrow—don’t make that separation. The economic exchange is very explicit: someone in the audience has money in hand.
EJ: The exchange that [usually] happens in contemporary dance is definitely not [about] prioritizing economic exchange. The exchange that is constructed in contemporary dance is more in the level of discourse and the level of many [other] things: I would say [its] more [of a] multi-dimensional exchange—not just economic, not just cultural, not just social. Contemporary dance doesn’t favor one layer of exchange.
The language [in Death of a Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer] is appropriated from its original context, and then placed in a different platform. The signifiers of the language shift: what does it mean for this body to move this way? It actually opens up the contemporary dance form to give space for a new discourse about this language and not just to see it as the language of dance by macho dancers. What does [macho dancing] tell beyond [its] situation? Can you actually locate it in the global discourse of economics and not just look at it in that [macho dance club] context?
CC: What has it been like to perform the piece outside of the Philippines where are less likely to have the referent of the macho dancer?
EJ: There have been stages and different ways of seeing, especially if it’s one culture to another. Even though they don’t know the language itself, it’s so stereotypical that basically you can recognize small traits or forms and positions in popular culture.
[It’s] been very interesting to tour both works. They don’t really come as a package most of the time. Macho Dancer has toured more than Death of a Pole Dancer. So, I have more feedback with Macho Dancer. Put together in a double bill, both works shift meaning as well. It really depends. I think Death of a Pole Dancer by itself poses more of a problem with people because somehow my physical appearance clearly fits the stereotype of the pole dancer. Then with macho dancer I have more of a distance from the actual image of a macho dancer—being a woman, not having the physique of an actual macho dancer, [etc.]. There’s more space between me and the vocabulary. Somehow people can somehow reflect on this absurdity [more readily]. With Death of A Pole Dancer alone—without Macho Dancer—it takes people sometimes longer to break the stereotype that is being presented, or [they] can’t separate the performativity and the actual visuality of the body.
It really depends on the individual, [and] on the feel of the festival where it’s being presented. It’s been read in so many ways—especially Macho [Dancer] because it’s been touring. The work and myself matures and grows with each performance. I’ve been touring Macho Dancer for 2.5 years, and each time I perform it I realize something new with the work. Sometimes I have these revelations. I actually feel like I get the work now after touring it.
CC: Most American audiences who’ve seen your work have seen it programmed in the Queer New York International Arts Festival in New York. Do you think of Death of a Pole Dancer or Macho Dancer as “queer”?
EJ: I never really framed the work as “queer” or “not queer.” [Thinking about this work among] the [contexts] of dance, performance, –visual arts even, [these works] kind of escapes a certain framework. They might fit nicely into dance or theater or visual art performance, so in a way that’s a strength of the work. It can really go from one [area] to another. But, as well, it cannot be put in a box. A lot of dance programmers would not say it’s a dance work, but a lot of theater people would say it’s a dance work. A lot of dance people would think it’s a theater work. It really depends on who’s talking.
For the queer context, I think it’s the same. It’s a framework that’s placed [around the work]—a way of seeing into the work. I’m not actually familiar with what a “queer” framework should be. I guess “queer” is a bit of a definition defying [word].
CC: I think that’s sort of both the pleasure and the problem of the word.
EJ: This is probably the same with the work. Maybe the work shares the sense of vagueness of what it means to be queer, because it’s a work that doesn’t fit nicely in one genre. And of course you can say [these works] tackle gender performativity, and what is normal, and what is a stereotype, and what is fixed and what is changing.
CC: Watching Macho Dancer, I was so struck by your gaze. I’m thinking specifically of you walking downstage, chewing gum. There’s some about you walking towards the audience and almost receding at the same time. How do you think about the gaze in this piece?
EJ: I think that the gaze is one of the most interesting elements in both performances. It’s a choreography of gaze. In each section of the piece, the gaze shifts and, of course, the relationship also shifts with the audience. There’s always this gazing “in relation to.” It’s a very powerful element within the work—I would say even central for both. It’s this act of seeing, how you position yourself, and the way you see what you see.
Death of the Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer