Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Sissy's Progress

Yesterday evening I saw Nando Messias' extraordinary new dance theatre promenade piece, The Sissy's Progress. Returning to the site where he was beaten in a homophobic hate crime, Ms Messias delivered a brave and brilliantly performed meditation on identity politics and the dynamics of power.

The first half could well be described as an a cappella dance piece, in that the movement is not choreographed to music. Ms Messias, naked and statuesque puts on his red dress, lets down his hair and seductively swirls around the space, in a transfabulous reverie, overseen by his singing manservant. The day dream is broken by a chorus of handsome, suited fellows aggressively singing football chants and startling Ms Messias into the corner. What unfolds is a strange oscillation of power as they handle the body of our hero as both sacred and abject matter, in their arms Messias becomes both Goddess and victim, part Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and part virgin sacrifice. Interestingly, in eliding these two images we see the concealed proximity between the two tropes.

In a marvelously energetic, burst of narrative the suited chorus jostle for a microphone into which they attempt to tell inane dinner party stories, only to be silenced by the overzealous cheering of their colleagues. This moment seems indebted to Pina Bausch, in no way a bad thing, and in fact Bausch is just one of the artists whose work is summoned up by the piece. When the chorus pick up their instruments and reform as a marching band, the audience follows, through the courtyard of Toynbee Hall and out onto the very street where Ms Messias' was attacked. This promenade is packed with the sinister humor of a (good) Terry Gilliam movie, absurdity cut through with a certain fear, as the neighborhood kids (as if on cue) abuse the balloon laden brass band from across the street. Ms Messias' manservant (played by no.1 Garfield Jordan Hunt) at a certain point mutates into a creature of malice. Perhaps feeling the peer pressure from his suited genderpatriots, he leaves Ms Messias' service to become a baton wielding villain. With horrible precision he conducts the band as they harass and intimidate Ms Messias with bursts of distressing and confrontational sound. Reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange the climax if full of a terrifying abstract violence, especially chilling in our time of drones and Baudrillardian virtual reality.

When finally his attackers leave him in peace, Ms Messias is left sitting on a low wall, in his red dress, looking like a shell-schocked couture model. A wave of confusion, and then realization passes over his face, and then ripples out through the crowd as if we have all collectively come down, or woken from a hypnotic trance. Ms Messias looks about, we look about, and realize that we are standing in an unremarkable East London courtyard, next to a road jammed with late rush-hour traffic, gawped at by a string of intrigued spectators. To lead an audience through such an ordeal as the vicious street harassment we collectively received during the promenade is a remarkable thing, but to take them so deep into a performance that such a reality seems like a distraction, is little sort of shamanistic. So much more powerful,and infinitely more genuine than any of the other examples of the "performance experience" genre currently enjoying such popularity, The Sissy's Progress is in short a wonderful piece that deserves wide exposure.

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