I was only nine years old when Carolee Schneemann performed Interior Scroll, extracting a script from her vagina and reading the text to the audience. Being nine years-old in 1975 I wasn't among the audience—but the point is: where does an artist go from there? Nudity isn't shocking. The vagina isn't as frightening as we once thought it'd be. It may be a surprise to Hollywood, but neither is a penis. So how does one protest exploitation of the body? When it comes to sex, once the shock is gone, how do you avoid participating in the very activity you are criticizing?
This is one of the questions Maria Clara Villa-Lobos and her dancers had to face when working on their production M, An Average Piece. The press release says the performance "clearly addresses … the objectification of the body" and "sex and its seductive function in mass media".
The performance begins with two men and a woman—all masked—on a stage with a sofa, a refrigerator, some magazines, sodas and mobile phones. After a great deal of "posing" the masked figures onstage begin presenting sexual tableaus, pulling off each other's clothes to reveal skin-toned underwear. Briefs for the men, panties and a bra for the woman.
All right, please bear with me, but I've got to get this off my chest: I'm the first to admit that my understanding of feminist theory is more confused than the next guy's (sic.), but it struck me as odd that the "naked" men had nipples and the woman didn't. Isn't the act of masking the woman's nipples conspiratorial in the objectification of them? When I mentioned this to a friend the next day he laughed, "What did you want to see her wear instead? Do you think her bare breasts would have been better?" Good question. Women's breasts are sexualized in our culture in a way men's aren't. It would be ridiculous to ignore this, wouldn't it? How much energy did the director use considering the nipples? Shouldn't she have covered the men's nipples, too? They are textbook erogenous zones for men, too, aren't they? I'm obsessing.
And I wish I could stop here, but I can't. You see, maybe I wouldn't even have noticed the missing nipples if it weren't for the fact that the woman had on a pair of pantyhose as well. Yes: panties, bra and pantyhose. I didn't mention the pantyhose earlier because I don't see them as a garment so much as a form of cosmetic enhancement. Like make-up, soft-focus filters, and face-lifts, the function of pantyhose is to mask perceived imperfections: jiggling cellulite, protruding tummy, splotchy or pale skin. I wanted so much to see an indication that the use of pantyhose was intentional—a commentary on our unfair expectations of the female body. I wanted a flag to go up so I could congratulate myself on "getting it". I didn't see a flag. Not a poster, not a post-it. Did I "get it"? Was it intentional?
I'll never know, because when they did come off, it was so that they performer could change into a different pair of panties: skin-toned bikini bottoms with a bright red vertical line indicating the split in the labia. Painted pubic hair. The bikini top sported flowers to cover the nipples.
One of the men was wearing an identical bikini and both were wearing a mask featuring Cameron Diaz's face. The other man wore a bikini swimsuit and a plastic chest and stomach—a six-pack and pecs to compliment the Arnold Schwarzenegger mask. The Camerons stab Arnold with giant scissors before he resurrects to kill them both. You don't want to know what I thought about the masking of the nipples in this misogynistic sequence.
The hour-long performance was marked by frozen tableaus and cleverly orchestrated repetition. While the dramaturgy was well-structured, it was also flat and the dancing didn't have the intensity or technical expertise necessary to carry the show. This gave the audience a lot of time to think. Too much time to think?
I recently read a review of a new Norwegian docudrama about an incest victim. The reviewer regretted that the film has led to a debate about the fine line between social pornography and concerned documentary and not about incest. Well, the fact is there is little to debate in regard to incest: No one champions it. So, yeah, the café criticism is bound to center on the purpose of making films like this in the first place. After the performance of M,An Average Piece, the 30-odd people in the audience scattered. One man did tell me he enjoyed the production; he'd never seen anything like it, this kind of physical theater: a little bit of dance, a little bit of acting. Well, I had. He thought my obsession with pantyhose was puzzling. So, what's to debate?
M, an average piece is a Brazilian/Belgian production.
Idea and choreography: Maria Clara Villa-Lobos
Developed with the dancers: Denis Robert, Gäetan Bulourde og Maria Clara Villa-Lobos
Music: Vivaldi, Miss Kittin & the hacker, Bernard Herrmann
Sound: Gaetan Bulourde
Costumes and Scenography: Maria Clara Villa-Lobos
The performance at Tou Scene – www.touscene.com, Stavanger was part of the Tou dance festival and in cooperation with BIT Teatergarasjen in Bergen, Norway.