It’s reading week, and I’ve flown over to North America to give a talk and a seminar at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Drama Interest Group, and to visit my mom and dad, who live nearby. I landed in Toronto on a snowy Friday afternoon, and after dropping my bags with friends I headed out to the theatre to see Untitled Feminist Show (2012) by Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company at Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage Festival.
For those of you who don’t live and work in the Performance Studies bubble, Young Jean Lee’s TC is one of the hottest properties on the NYC scene, and Untitled Feminist Show is just the latest in a tidal wave of stunning, contrarian, pull-no-punches works. Here’s how the company describes the piece on its website:
In Young Jean Lee’s latest experiment, UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW, six charismatic stars of the downtown theater, dance, cabaret, and burlesque worlds come together to invite the audience on an exhilaratingly irreverent, nearly-wordless celebration of a fluid and limitless sense of identity.
What this promo doesn’t say (though the review grab-quotes below give the game away) is that these six amazing women perform the show without an interval, and completely in the nude.
The nudity is obviously “the hook” for this show, but my experience of seeing the piece live was that it’s not a gimmick in any way; rather, it is a profound call to audiences to think about what it is that we do – how we look; what we think; what we expect; maybe even what we desire – when we watch provocative theatre now, especially such theatre made by women. So the ladies are naked, but it’s me that feels stripped bare. How do you watch a piece of theatre like this? No, really: how do you?
I was enormously surprised by my reaction to the performers’ nakedness. After the first few alarming minutes – watching and listening to Becca Blackwell, Katy Pyle, Desiree Burch, Lady Rizo, Madison Krekel, and Jen Rosenblit enter from the back of the raked Fleck Dance Theatre auditorium, their rhythmic, heavy breathing punctuating their descent, and feeling like I might be about to witness, uncomfortably, a kind of Bizarro porn show – I was amazed to realise that the nudity was slowly beginning no longer to matter to me. Or, perhaps more accurately: about 15 minutes in, it stopped filling the frame. That’s not to say I did not see, notice, or experience it through every minute of the show; as my friend Rebecca Burton remarked to me of her own experience after the performance, I could not stop watching the women’s naked bodies – their exuberant, joyful, playful, powerful naked bodies – and yet at the same time those bodies’ nakedness simply did not register in any overwhelming way. Which is also a way to say that they did not register in any way that I could have guessed before the show.
How, then, does Untitled Feminist Show ask us to look at women’s bodies, at femininity in our cultural landscape, at femaleness in the theatre? I’ve read a few comments online that suggest that the show somehow manages to divorce sexuality from gender, and gender from the body, to render gender exclusively as a performance and the nude female body somehow “neutral”; while I respect these analyses I also don’t quite agree with them. For me, the whole show was about looking at, past, through, around, and every which way in relation to the women’s nakedness – the nakedness of six bodies that were, for me, always ultimately female, always marked by a political, aesthetic, or labour relationship to femininity. Now, I want to note here that Becca Blackwell does not identify as a woman, and I do not mean for this comment to try to write past or over Becca’s experience of her work, her body, or her politics (read her compelling reflections on making and performing in the show here) – or indeed over the experiences of any other cast or crew member. But as a feminist spectator, I found the gendered dimension of the show writ provocatively large. For me, UFS is a piece of political performance drawn from dance, mime, physical theatre, and other performance genres that openly invites me to look hard at a group of naked women and then figure out how to deal with my experience of their nudity so we can get on with the show. The figuring out is left entirely to me – it’s thrown overhand, and hard, at me as they deep-throat their way down the steps of the rake and onto the stage in minute one, in fact – and it’s the political part.
UFS is basically a cabaret (naked feminist vaudeville!) featuring a series of both funny and poignant vignettes – from a slightly off-kilter fairy tale witch-versus-mean girls bit, to a killer dance number featuring mimed vacuuming, breast feeding, cooking, and other chores (so much cooler to a beat, ladies!), to a strong, gorgeous, and loving pas-de-deux between Pyle and Krekel choreographed counterintuitively to “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”. Many of these deliberately dramatise hackneyed feminine stereotypes (loving friends! Hateful bitches!) or typically “female” issues or problems (harried mommies!); in each case, however, the nudity offers a simple yet incredibly powerful, living and breathing counterpoint to viewer expectation – and to feminist expectation! – in the wake of what otherwise seem to be too-too-conventional scenarios for a “feminist show”. I “get” the thing the vignette is targeting/taking down, but it’s never (or, at least, for me was never) oversimplified because the women’s naked bodies stand squarely in the way of my urge to either over-value or dismiss the ubiquity of the story and its attendant, rough-and-ready acting-out as feminist lore. For me, then, it wasn’t that the nudity “neutralised” each bit, taking gender out of the equation at the moment it seemed most relevant; rather, the women’s profoundly material nakedness made me consistently look twice at everything I was watching – once at the story and its potentially overdetermined place in our culture’s sexology, and once (at the same time!) at the bombshell of the performing body, in all its physical, fleshy, unanticipated glory.
What about those bodies? They are varied: some quite large, some relatively small, some entirely middle-sized; in keeping with the fairy-tale theme of a good portion of the show, let’s call them Goldilocks-sized (aka: just right). All of them are powerful, and all of them are vulnerable: we see them stroke one another, we see them batter one another, we see them weep for one another, we see them tear one another’s hair out (literally). These women’s bodies fight, love, giggle in the pure pleasure of dancing (beautifully but imperfectly) together, jiggle and shake and sweat and writhe in the struggle of being naked female bodies on stage together. (I’m pretty sure it’s hard fucking work.) More than once the choreography punctuates a dance sequence with a full-frontal vulva shot (reminding me of the divine Jess Dobkin). The effect is like a command: hey you! Look here, dammit. See this. What are you going to do about it?
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking that’s a bit cheap, a bit easy; in truth sometimes it did seem that way in the moment as well. But mostly not. Mostly Untitled Feminist Show seemed at once passionately amateur and shockingly sophisticated; exceptionally risky and unbelievably joyful; genuinely loving, hilarious good fun. And this odd, unexpected blend makes it much more than the sum of its parts. Each of those parts on its own might not be all that amazing, original, or insightful as a “feminist show” (as the Globe and Mail‘s Kate Taylor predictably concluded in her meh review). But as components of the raw, bare, stunning collective whole that is an hour of glorious, unashamed, energetic female nakedness, those parts blend into the pleasurable provocation that is UFS‘s political remainder. Next time you have to look at a (naked) woman’s body, how will you do it? No – how will you really?
Rock on, World Stage!