Coil, the annual festival of performance sponsored by P.S.122, has set up an inadvertent battle of the sexes at Baryshnikov Arts Center. On the fourth floor, you have the boys in blue, a quartet of cops inhabiting Newyorkland from Temporary Distortion. And a floor below, you have the girls in nothing at all, the six naked women enacting Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show. Both shows are hourlong genre hybrids, yet they differ markedly. It’s video vs. dance, violence vs. sex, guns vs. boobs. Let the pheromones fly.
Temporary Distortion likes to call its work “assemblages,” a term that borrows from art installations, found objects, and collage forms. Newyorkland—a ’70-set, multimedia look at the lives of police officers—seems to draw form all these traditions. As lush video plays overhead, the actors pose stalwartly beneath it. These four men, all attired in police uniforms, many supporting impressive moustaches, share three cubicles, booths cobbled together from plexiglass, caution tape, and tangles of wires.
There are visual and aural pleasures aplenty—from video designer William Cusick’s typically meticulous projections to the stammering poetry of the police scanner to the play of dark lights on an actor’s skin. Yet there’s little sense of liveness. While the video characters—some of them played by the same actors—walk their beat, chase down suspects, and administer the occasional beating, the 3-D actors stay remarkably still. They might dial a rotary phone or speak a deadpan description of brutal crime into a radio mic—sample dialogue: “And they still haven’t found the other half?” Mostly, though, they merely sit or stand, seeming barely to move all.
This seems to undermine one of the production’s stated goals, to fully explore the lives of cops, like those in director Kenneth Collins’s immediate family. But we never really get to know the men featured onscreen or the ones standing below. They remain the stereotypes the occasional video captions describe—the rookie cop who can’t catch a break, the desk jockey who can’t get no respect. Collins has decorated his set with swathes of neon ribbon reading, “Police Line Do Not Cross.” It’s a legend he’s taken to heart.
By contrast, Lee’s Untitled Feminist Project feels intensely live and engaged, though also less focused than either Newyorkland or her usual fare. This wordless dance piece–created by Lee with choreography by Lee, Faye Driscoll, Morgan Gould, and the performers–involves diverse, disconnected portrayals of feminine identity and gender fluidity. However, it begins in a somewhat dreary second-wave fashion, with the nude women entering through the aisles, all descending slowly and breathing in unison. The high seriousness of the moment, which concludes with what the porn mags used to call a “split beaver” and combines with a series of projections that even Georgia O’Keeffe eight consider unsubtle, suggests an evening of empowerment, herbal tea, and the odd Wiccan ritual.
Thankfully, much of what ensues proves as clever, scurrilous, and silly as you expect of Lee. Take, for example, a ballet—set to a Mozart violin concerto—in which an evil witch (Amelia Zirin-Brown) attempts to assault/cannibalize a trio of nymphs. The jolly delicacy of the strings contrasts amusingly with the coarseness of the mime (there’s much disemboweling). And then it ends with a celebratory bop involving pink parasols that bring Busby Berkeley to mind.
Not all the dances are as ridiculous or as involving. There’s the inarticulate rage of a heavy-metal routine, a sequence centered around jiggling, and a couple of decorative duets. There’s also a fast-paced number in which the aggravated cast mimes various domestic chores, which seems too on point. But these are crowded out by exciting and amusing dances, like one in which Zirin-Brown locks eyes with different male audience members and begins miming a lewd act that often ends in castration. And there’s a splendid solo by the muscled Becca Blackwell, which launches as a girly strut and morphs into a pugilistic display.
Lee writes in a program note that she and her actors set out to create a “utopian feminist experience,” in which “female bodies enjoyed unlimited possibilities for transformation.” I’m not sure it succeeds on those terms—personally, I prefer my utopias with less evisceration. But amid the varied swirl of dances, a feminist message does more or less emerge. Lee’s piece suggests that a pair of X chromosomes don’t determine or doom their holder to any particular fate. The female body, as displayed here, encompasses a colossal range of desires, abilities, and experiences. And considering the assorted physiques among the cast, the female body isn’t itself such a settled thing.
It’s a cheerful dictum, even a mildly liberating one. On the way out of the theater, I bumped into a male colleague. “Well, now I can feel happy about having a vagina,” I joked. “Yeah, me too,” he replied. So let’s chalk this one up as a win for the women.
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