I’m easily seduced by a good photo. Promotional photos are typically what draw me to a performance and dictate whether or not I whip out my wallet and purchase a ticket. Recently, I was drawn to Emily Johnson’s work The Thank-You Bar because of a beautiful promotional image of Johnson with big, slick fish taped to her arms. The photo flitted through my mind for weeks before I saw the show. Every time I saw the photo, I imagined the taste of briny raw fish on the roof of my mouth. The thin, sharp edge of a fish tail against my thumb. Similarly, I was pretty enthralled by a promotional image for New York-based playwright and director Young Jean Lee’s new production Untitled Feminist Show. The photograph, by Blaine Davis, shook me: five women in a circle, their hands thrown into the air, buck naked. It was refreshing, really.
First of all, how on earth have I been in New York for almost five years without seeing a performance with nudity? Not that experiencing performances with nudity is at the top of my list of priorities or anything. But really, I’ve lived here this long and haven’t seen a single nude person on stage? There are tons of opportunities. Performance artist Ann Liv Young is notorious for stripping down on stage (and rolling around in her dog’s ashes, might I add). And this is one artist among many. Have I been living under a rock? Okay, back to business.
Untitled Feminist Show premiered at Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York was conceived and directed by Young Jean Lee with choreography by Faye Driscoll, Morgan Gould and Young Jean Lee in collaboration with the cast. The cast includes performers from dance, theatre, music and burlesque backgrounds including Becca Blackwell, World Famous *BOB*, Amelia Zirin-Brown (aka Lady Rizo), Hilary Clark, Katy Pyle and Regina Rocke.
In the program notes, Young Jean Lee states, “…we wanted a world in which people could identify and be however they wanted regardless of their sex. I asked myself ‘What would a world like that look like? What would it look like if people with female bodies enjoyed unlimited possibilities for transformation?’ And then we started trying to make that world. Rather than trying to define feminism, say something new about it, or to make a feminist argument, we wanted to create a utopian feminist experience. Our goal was to inspire rather than prescribe.”
The work began with the performers walking down the house staircase and breathing in a fixed rhythm. This preceded a light, humorous excerpt where the performers danced with parasols, and a really interesting scene where the dancers shook and jiggled to up-tempo, electro-like music. Perhaps my favorite part of the performance was a “fight scene” of sorts. Juxtaposed with the powder pink parasols and the playful smiles, the fight scene was a curious addition. Near the end of the performance, the performers engaged in a slow motion fight scene that involved hair-pulling and rib-jabbing among other violence. But, the scene didn’t feel violent. It was actually terribly funny and poignant. Fighting in utopia? Well, yes. The scene was fitting in Young Jean Lee’s version of utopia. The utopia that the director created was more of an opening and a space for dialogue rather than some sort of paradise with rivers of gold and unicorns. Fighting, in some instances, can certainly be a vehicle for dialogue and raising important questions.
I’m interested in Young Jean Lee’s use of nudity because of the way that the performers’ nudity lends itself to an openness, a space for imaginative inquiry and honesty. The performers never felt like objects. And not once did this feel like a shock-value tactic. Rather, their nudity felt more like an invitation to explore a new way of thinking about bodies and the ways that we navigate the world and create space using our bodies. The ways that we create space for ourselves in a world that isn’t quite ready for how full and rich our identities truly are.
Lauren Nicole Nixon is a Brooklyn-based artist representative, teaching artist and poet. Nixon holds an M.A. in Arts Politics from New York University. Recent work can be seen in Bone Bouquet, Clockhouse, Puerto del Sol, Sugar House, The Tulane Review, Aforementioned Productions, Spillway and No, Dear. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her chapbook, There’s a Jukebox in the Back, will be published in summer 2012 by Dancing Girl Press. http://www.laurennicolenixon.com/