Go ahead and look
LISTEN HERE: DAVID BARLOW’S VOICE RECORDING OF HIS ESSAY
She’s in her late 20’s, at least – maybe 30’s… okay, 32. That’s my guess. Others in here say 24, but no, they must be off, she’s older than that. And straight, she’s definitely straight, right? But she’s ‘experimented’. She wonders if she ever will again. Cropped pubic hair – I don’t think she’d fully shave it, but her armpits yes. Agnostic, willing to conceive of a higher power, but estranged from the overbearing weight of her family’s Puritanism. Christmas at home though – the reassuring hum of childhood carols, mom’s rum infused fruit cake – who in their right mind could resist? She spent last Christmas with her boyfriend’s family skiing at St. Moritz, and something about it just didn’t feel right, it was all too much of a production – the two of them trundling about the snowy streets with all that gear – and anyway she’s a dancer, skiing is just plain dumb, if she were to crash on the slopes, that’d be career suicide….
I’m guessing, of course, I don’t know this performer at all, but it’s what’s been asked of me and the rest of the spectators assembled in this open warehouse of an art space: imagine her biography – pinhole this person, guess her age, her name (Sara?), nationality (Danish?), sexual orientation, body hygiene, etc… And anyway, it’s fine, I’ve already made a thousand micro assessments about her and everyone else in the room, everyone on my way here, everyone always. It’s just that now I’ve been asked to become more aware of what already is. I’d like to be free from it all, the constant onslaught of judgements and projections, especially my own, but first you’ve got to see it, right? Then own it – embrace it even. You know, the whole acceptance thing. It’s fucking endless…
One thing is certain: there was an accident. Her left arm and side body were badly burned. It wasn’t acid, it was a fire. Perhaps when she was very young? Yes, she was young. Skin peeled off in sheets until one could make out a white eye of rib bone peering out from behind flaps of still smoldering flesh. Her parents fretted wildly for weeks while their little girl recovered in the ICU. Or were they in the same fire? Did they make it out alive? I don’t know, I’m guessing again…. I think she’s naturally kind, even kinder because of her early brush with mortality, grateful for every new day, that sort of thing. I’d trust her with my secrets. But you know, like most people she’s also been caught up in the swirl of a million material concerns – which dress should I wear? Is it okay if I get the side order of fries? and so forth. She’s stiffened in the face of countless slights, big and small, the indignities of boys and older men who’d assumed she was their broken canvas to do with as they would. Never again. Cross that line and I’ll tear your eyes out, she’s murmured under her breath. Once, she even said that out loud, baring her teeth to let the guy know she wasn’t messing around. It worked, he backed off, and now there’s a quiet courage growing within – nascent, but there, like an embryo. She no longer needs men to validate her existence (not as much as before anyway). But all the same, she loves them – and why not? They can be so beautiful sometimes. A voice inside her though keeps whispering: Careful! One small slip and you might end up marrying a man exactly like your dad… In love, we always run to what we first learned was love. Or is that just me? I’m guessing, I know…
When she does remove all her clothing – the loose-fitted shirt, sports top, bra, sweats, socks, panties, in that order – she does so without fuss. She undresses here now in this room of strangers, and it is with a kind of quotidian confidence, that of the dancer. This is my body. This is my instrument. It’s a body, okay? You have one too. See past what you like about it, what you don’t like. See it for what it is, a body, in this case female, and not all too different from your own…. But the energy in the room thickens, then someone exhales – hahhh! – the quickening of pulses, the straightening of backs. I too am straddling between two states: that of my own body’s primal directive, this ever-present longing for the feminine form (Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me?) and a commitment to some way of evolution, one that is not necessarily sexless nor without desire, but that promotes a way of relating more to the frequency of someone’s energy than to her physical appearance. In other words, can I observe a body that our culture typically tends to define as beautiful without that observation centering around sex? Can I simply be moved by the humanity of this person who is exposed? I imagine the pupils of all these wealthy old men around me dilating. What conversations on their inner are they having? I feel protective of her. But shit, isn’t that just another kind of chauvinism? She’s fine, securely rooted in a sense of self that’s been hard won, anchored in the knowledge that her nudity is no exhibition, this is a moment to teach, to be together as a community. Those who are ready to bear witness, will. And anyway, when it comes down to it, we are all vulnerable and naked, no? Isn’t that a power that’s available to all of us, the power to be at ease within the softness of our own nature?
Still, what if there were no men in this room? What if the men just left, or we were asked to leave? Wouldn’t it be a safer space? For if we were to shift the context just a bit – we’re not privileged, dutiful art goers attending a moderately prestigious dance/theater festival in an affluent Northern European city, but refugees, say, or people divided along the lines of conquerors and those who have been conquered in some sectarian war – might she not then be nothing more than somebody’s prey? And the traumatic memory of those ancestral times lives on in us, it’s encoded in the DNA. So you’re right to brace yourself, you’re right to be on edge, for there are those of us in here who are more entitled than the rest. And given half a chance, who knows…?
The naked performer is asked to keep her eyes closed and is calmly guided by one of the other two female dancers to walk across the space through the jumble of onlookers until she’s told to stop, now three steps back, two to the left, feel the table behind you, now prop yourself up, lie on your back…. At first, I wonder if she’s now being presented to us under the cold light of some form of scientific examination. Then something quite unexpected and beautiful happens:
“See this spot right here?”, the other dancer asks us. She’s pointing to a large mole a few inches between the sternum and belly of the body on the table. “A colony of people live here… and over here…,” she,s now pointing at two dark freckles nearby, “these are a couple of other settlements, and the people here speak a different language, but they have open trade routes with the main colony.”
She runs her finger down to the belly button. “Here there’s a lake. It’s the largest body of water anywhere, but it’s surrounded by desert.”
She draws our attention to the nipples… “These two places are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are highly valued for their symbology as sacred landmarks.”
The third dancer now lightly drags her hand along the scalp through long strands of hair. “This is a rainforest”, she says. Then she rests her fingers upon the slope of the pubic bone and informs us that the forest there is more temperate. She says, “Here the trees are cut, but they always grow back.” The two women raise the right arm of this body, and they point to a solitary mole on the nub of its wrist. We’re told this is a far-flung outpost where loners live, renegades who’ve chosen to cut themselves off from civilization. The body is then rolled to one side, exposing the back. “Here is a long mountain chain”, they tell us while one finger rises and falls along the peaks and valleys of the spine. And finally, laying two palms over the area where the body had once been burned, they say, “Here… here there was a fire that scorched the land for a thousand miles. It’s rough, but it’s also soft.” The wrinkled lines and patches of scarred flesh that blend into the clear, smooth rise of hips and buttocks are now in my mind a huge swath of Siberia, still recovering years after a terrible drought had sucked all its timber bone dry, and a lightning storm had then ignited the forest into an immense inferno that blazed for days on end. Nothing escaped the flames, everything was ravaged. But now the soil there is as thick and rich as porridge, a quilt work of moss, shrubs and brush. Birds and insects, gophers, mice and salamanders – slowly they are beginning to return….
We are looking at a new landscape of the body, a body outside our normal range of perception. Go ahead and look. Look at it, look at every crevice. Look where you hadn’t looked before. And inside? Inside this body? (Or surrounding it?) The soul? A soul that has maybe known the lifetimes of other bodies – male and female – on its long journey across time… towards what…? And all these other souls here, these other bodies… all of us fumbling towards a deeper sense of what? Of Union? Of Freedom? Love…?
Yes… love… let’s call it love.
Essay from David Barlow after seeing Show Me by The100Hands at Theaterfestival Boulevard 2019. David is 1 of the participants of the Dance&Dare SummerSchool, an international project for creative writers who dare to look for new words for dance and performance, by Domain for Art Criticism & DansBrabant. Read all the essays on the DansBrabantBlog.