dance that eats at you, speaks to you.
The open mouth with no sound reaching anyone in the sketches, paintings, or film stills of Grunewald, Stanzione, Munch, Bacon, Bergman, or Eisenstein, a human being so utterly consumed in the act of making a sound that cannot be heard, coincides with the way in which pain engulfs the one in pain but remains unsensed by anyone else. — Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World
What would it mean to dance with the inside of your body as well as the outside? Three contemporary dance performances from the last year—zoe | juniper’s “A Crack in Everything,” Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People’s “And lose the name of action,” and Nadia Beugré’s “Quartiers Libres”—used the mouth as a vessel to move between muscles concealed within the body and those we see from without. Evoking Martha Graham’s famous choice to have the character of Medea devour and spew out a red ribbon from her mouth in “Cave of the Heart,” these three performances gave lip service to the power of the mouth as a dancing instrument, as a point of entry into and exit out to pain, frustration, and sorrow.
zoe | juniper’s “A Crack in Everything” paid the most direct homage to Graham. Similarly inspired by Greek myth and drama—Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy in their case—Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shue had dancers in this golden-hued, multimedia extravaganza pull brilliant red threads across the stage with their teeth. In doing so, the performance fused body, costume, and stage props into a continuous line of thought and act, a tugging at curiosities that might pull out something beautiful, but also, very likely, something terrifying. Among the insect-like movements and a kind of slow-burn franticness, one was reminded of Elaine Scarry’s explorations in her classic book The Body in Pain of how pain brings us to threshold points between individual bodies and the external world and her observation that the silent scream is perhaps the most powerful expression of pain.
Miguel Gutierrez’s “And lose the name of action,” whose title is taken from Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet, was a mediation on his father’s neurological decline caused by blood clots in his brain. Gutierrez researched neurology, philosophy, and somatics, as well as the paranormal, to try to make sense of watching his father’s mental and physical decline. He also researched what might most simply be called love—the love only a child can feel for his or her parent—and the sorrow one feels in watching a parent suffer. The play pushes at the edge of sense, where sense meets the senses. It was as dissociative as it was associational. There were ghosts in this performance, invisible things, and the strange invisibility of language that suffuses gesture but also which gesture escapes even while being covered in language.
Perhaps the most striking moment came when Gutierrez performed a balancing-act sort of solo dance as he stuffed toilet paper into his mouth and tugged it around, unfurling it, as if the paper were words: pure white words rolling out, words that mingled pain and love, trying to use their stream of silent sounds, their fibers uncoiled, to connect, only to experience a crumpling up. Of course, rather crassly, toilet paper was a reference to other orifices as well, and to the gastrointestinal tube that links them. It was a gesture through the mouth’s muscles to inside the body, to the mysteries of what makes a person individual, to the ghosts that inhabit that individuality, that pass into and out of it. It was a prop that gestured to the inevitable decay, which is also a disappearing act, of a body and person at the center of family relationships.
Finally, Nadia Beugré from the Ivory Coast used the mouth to dance in the most astonishing way in her deeply moving solo piece, “Quartiers Libres,” part of the “Voices of Strength” program of female African choreographers. The dance starts with Beugré as a kind of surreal pop diva, singing into a microphone in a minidress, moving into the audience, finally coiling herself in the wires that link the microphone to the PA system. She returns to the stage, stripping down and dancing against a bare wall of the theater in far more angular movements, as if she were alternatively pushing against it and holding it up. Finally, she runs into a kind of bead curtain of used plastic water bottles (intriguingly, a prop also seen in a similar dangling fashion in Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group’s collaboration with Congolese choreographer Andreya Ouamba in “The Good Dance”). Beugré then dons a spacesuit-like costume of used plastic bottles that is eerily beautiful, couture from the garbage heap, even as it inhibits and restricts her movement.
Then comes the most startling thing of all. In a performance that emphasizes all the trash and crap that a person has to absorb, take in, hold within—and all the longing and struggle for freedom, liberation, and release that accompanies this suffering—Beugré stuffs an entire black garbage bag into her mouth and down her throat. This is Graham’s red ribbon again: but now not as the entrails of a child devoured and spewed forth, as in Medea’s case, but rather a strange and disorienting mix of rot and plastic that surrounds us. The mouth becomes not so much about ingesting and perhaps digesting, but instead about inhaling, and perhaps suffocating. She plays with scales of amount: what we can take, how much can we take, all that goes in, and what will come out? The body is a vessel for terrible material onslaughts. No ghosts here. Just garbage bags. There is a claustrophobia to the piece, as if Beugré’s spirit has been bottled up and is about to explode. Is this Scarry’s “body in pain” again? Yes and no. At the end of the dance, Beugré’s pulls out her own guts and she seems to turn the words unspoken inside out. When she does, the capped bottle of her body, her mouth, is unscrewed and there is—quite suddenly, quite dramatically—a breathing room.
Video excerpts and interviews about these performances: