The dancer, Korean-born Sung-im Her, picks up the martini she’s poured at the beginning of the program, reaches between her legs to pluck an olive from her nether regions and plunk it gracefully into the drink, and takes a sip. “Perfect,” she says, and thus ends Belgium-born artist Jan Fabre’s newest piece Quando l’Uomo principale è una Donna (When a Leading Man Turns Out to be a Woman, 2004), which just closed at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Oh, and did I mention she was completely naked and dripping with olive oil?
The title Quando l’Uomo principale è una Donna gives away some of the binaries through which Sung-im slips and shimmies during the 55-minute solo performance, though the quandary between masculine and feminine is perhaps the most straightforward and easily navigable. The piece begins with Sung-im sitting on a stool, back to the audience, and dressed in a black suit, her hair held up in a loose bun by chopsticks. The juxtaposition of Western suit and Eastern accessory begins to address both geopolitical and gender bends, but this might be too easy an assumption—why should a suit be read as Western, and chopsticks as Eastern, even if the dancer wearing both is Asian? [They were my favorite way of holding back my own tresses when I was growing up in a very non-Eastern Appalachia.] And why should the aggressive gestures and pelvic thrusts suggest a particularly masculine sexuality? [Pelvic thrusts were my favorite way of... wait, I’m not going there.] Throughout Quando l’Uomo binaries are presented and then tossed away—sometimes even rolled away, much like the chiming metallic orbs Sung-im plucks from her trousers in the first third of the piece. Gender becomes something negotiable, something to dance with, something to name [one of the balls, as Sung-im announces, is named “John from New Jersey”], and something easily discarded. Sex, on the other hand, might be more constant.
An overtly sensual performance, both in the sense of sexual and sensory stimulation, Quando l’Uomo brings together the visual, aural, gustatory, and olfactory; and in being so blatantly of the body, manages to accord what otherwise might be perceived as an experiment in objectification into an affective and autonomous, and quite brilliant, event.
Stepping off the stool, Sung-im pragmatically levers bottles of olive oil in metal structures hanging from the ceiling, effectively covering the entire stage. Some of the corked bottles begin to drip, the bubbles forming in the bottles and the slight pings of oil hitting the stage creating a shimmering aleatory to the otherwise highly organized procedure. Sung-im’s movements when she is finished with this task become less fluid—fluidity is not only a material element of the production but also choreographic, Sung-im’s movements taking on by the end the viscous quality of the oil—and, after greeting the audience, Sung-im removes her jacket to reveal her breasts constrained by black tape, much like a censor strip. The choreography through this section is often violent and generated through the sound track, sometimes a rockin’ guitar riff, sometimes something more like a helicopter in mid-flight, that seems to send Sung-im crashing across the floor. Eventually, after uncorking the bottles, and after more charming of the audience with casual chatter and even a couple magic tricks and juggling of the balls, Sung-im drops trou and tape and choreographically revels in the now pool of olive oil—and there are olives as well, dispensed from a separate hanging container—covering the stage. The dance at this point is lower to the floor, Sung-im sliding over and through the oil, spinning across the slick stage. After the turbulent previous section, in which her movements were at times intentionally encumbered rather than loosened by the liquid, much like a bird caught in an oil slick, this is pure joy.
The slick nudity presented quite explicitly is frank in its sexuality, and there is not just a little shift to the erotic, and the potentially pornographic [the elderly woman sitting next to me gasped at every crotch shot], yet the very obviousness of this reference keeps it from being gratuitous. Rather, by having Sung-im speak to the audience and by having her be the only body—and let it be clear here that hers is an amazing body—on stage, affords the performer more agency than the women Yves Klein used as paintbrushes in his Anthropometries of the late 1950s, to which this piece is an homage. There is still a man directing the woman’s actions onstage, though this time through a different medium, yet the fact that this woman speaks, that this woman is only body performing, and that there is no trace, no canvas, left as the product of the event, allows the experience to be of the woman’s body and of that body in its glistening materiality only. Even as Sung-im flies across the stage to land in awkward and presumably uncomfortable positions, it is her own force that pushes her, not a man’s hand dragging her along behind him.
An artist, author, and theatre maker whose company Troubleyn is far better known in Europe than the States, Fabre often works with the naked body, and certain poses from Quando l’Uomo reminded me of his 2002 piece Parrots and Guinea Pigs, in which he “focuses on the distorted relationship between man and the animals,” adding another layer of binaries to this rich and provocative performance. As does Fabre's intention, from his program notes, of “see[ing] the whole piece as a ritualistic preparation for the highest leap, which takes us back to the matriarchy.” While the piece is referential, to the artist’s own repertoire as well as the larger scope of experimental performance—Carolee Schneemann and co. rolling around in raw fish, chicken, sausage, paint, etc. in her 1964 Meat Joy comes to mind—it also very much stands, and slithers and slides, on its own, offering that rarest of theatrical events: something that, through the risks it takes, feels startling and new. Sung-im looked like she was having so much fun during the last section of the piece, I wanted to come right home and try it myself—with plenty of plastic tarps on the floor.
This, however, was not to be, as I was off to Williamsburg for two ICE performances at Monkeytown. As, after my trek to New Jersey and dreading my subsequent trek back to Park Slope on the G, and after a dirty martini I couldn’t possibly resist, I was very, very tired, so I’ll be brief.
Tonight concluded the first half of ICE’s 2006 Young Composer’s Project, featuring the works of not only composers from around the world, but also around the ensemble. Percussionist and composer, Nathan Davis’s quasi-improvisational piece for four triangles, which he amplifies with a microphone used somewhat like a “stethoscope,” was gorgeous, tones ringing from the instruments and resonating through the small, dark room that one would usually never notice. And the intimacy created between the microphone and metal instrument was strangely sensual, though perhaps I was still reeling from the Fabre. ICE percussionist David Schotzko brought back composer Du Yun’s San 1 (2002) for multi-percussion and tape, a lyrical blend of drums, wood, and electronically maniupulated Chinese zither. And Suzanne Farrin’s Vibraphone and Clarinet (2003), with its cluster tones and multiphonics, fluttered over and around the shadows throughout the room. Farrin and I briefly spoke about the idea of “personality” of composer rather than “style” of composition, and ICE’s week-long tribute to these young, international composers represented this shift in a globalized and postmodern sound world.
Mario Diaz de Leon’s Trembling Time for seven players and electronics (2006), premiered Wednesday night at Merkin Hall, felt far more expansive in this cozy room than in Merkin, the individual lines from the strings coming out from the fabric of glissandi more evocatively than in the concert hall. This made me stop and think about the division between uptown and downtown performance that even while no longer necessarily specific to geography, still remains conceptual. Though the New York “downtown” scene now extends to Jersey, these distinctions are important ones to keep in mind, no matter which slow train line one has to take to get there.