Manipulative Tendencies

I couldn’t shake this sense of dread, a deep-seated anxiety; I couldn’t stop thinking about the way perspectives can be warped and abused through a gendered lens—and how this has the power to annihilate a sense of self, emotionally and physically. Rarely has empathy and repulsion been so bravely and viscerally portrayed. Rarely do I leave a performance feeling the way I did on this October night, walking away from Heather Kravas and Jeremy Wade’s shared program at Danspace Project. I felt violated.

Jeremy Wade. Photo credit Doro Tuch.

Kassidy Chism, a new solo by Kravas, meticulously examines emulation, endurance, brutality, and the often-punishing limitations of exercising control over our bodies. The work calls to mind an eating disorder mentality, the way women obsessively examine their bodies. Named after YouTube sensation Kassidy Chism, a 10-year-old competitive hip-hop dancer, Kravas’s performance takes place on a simple set: a large, mobile, rectangular mirror supported by two triangular wooden structures and two looming, unwieldy spotlights on three-legged stands. Enter Kravas, sporting hot pink high-tops, matching fingernail polish, bright red lipstick, and a short-sleeved, thigh-length black dress cinched at the waist. Kravas opens the piece adopting Chism’s poppy and ecstatic dance moves in a free-ranging, hip-hop performance filled with flare and jazz to the soundtrack from electronic musician Preshish Moments. The beats get turned up. Dogs bark. Arms square off and then spin like pinwheels with exacting precision. Kravas’s presence is highly theatrical to the point of unsettling fakery. Something eerily animal and primal lurks beneath.

Kravas slowly and steadily morphs from a cheery, dancing child star to a deranged feminine monstrosity—a sort of freakish and bizarre woman-child, jaw stretched to maximum capacity, veins about to explode in her neck, eyes completely rolled back revealing only her whites. Cats screech in the background. Her head slowly and painfully tips forward, saliva dribbling in a perfect stream down her dress. After her slow-motion exorcism, she systematically shifts the mirror so that it is directly parallel to the audience, a mechanism to simultaneously deflect and intensify our gaze. She takes off her shoes, pulls her black lace underwear down around her ankles, and hitches up her dress, duct taping it at waist length, exposing her pubic hair and genitals. The lights go out, birds begin to tweet, and the houselights slowly brighten. As if activated by the flash of the two spotlights, Kravas moves mechanically to aggressively cranking sound cues. She bends over. She falls hard on her knees. She falls hard on her hands. She faces the mirror. We are faced with her gaping asshole and cunt:

Fuck me.

Help me.

Do you see me?

Do I sadden you?

Do I disgust you?

Do you quiver in fear of me?

Heather Kravas. Photo credit: Jason Starkie.

After engaging in a series of extreme and violent cat- and cow-like yoga poses (I feel nauseated just from watching), she stands up and rocks and bangs her head back and forth, eyelids aflutter and mouth open wide. “Stop,” she says, then adjusts her positioning in the room and starts up again, “Please.” She pauses to change her positioning in the room and then methodically repeats it several more times.

I feel guilty and ashamed. Please, stop.

A childlikeness that can sometimes bleed into childishness—I know I’m not easy but I’ve always loved with an unguardedness…like a child or an animal… It’s confusing to encounter people whose love is complex, a doling out and then withholding, an obsession with control.

—Dodie Bellamy, The Buddhist


Kassidy Chism is torturous, disheartening. Something beautiful yet despicably honest is going on here, and I can’t look away.

A childlikeness that can sometimes bleed into childishness…

Wade’s fountain is a logical companion piece. Wade, like Kravas, bears a magnetic presence, possessing the ability to gather, sway, and rile the audience—he’s a cultish leader of sorts. He starts off by using speech to cultivate a threatening energy in the room. He draws our attention to the interior architecture of St. Mark’s Church, the industrial carpet, its neat seams and perfectly aligned corners. He frantically races across the floor to the stained glass windows that allow light to pour into the space, “illuminating all the dancers that were here.” “This is my blessing!” he shouts. After a few more rants and raves about the liveliness of the space, he asks the audience to join him at the altar, to feel the energy within and “gaze backwards over the arches.”

Heather Kravas. Photographer unknown.

Wade comes across like a tweaked-out meth-head, a schizophrenic shaman indoctrinating us into a bizarre circle jerk. Funnily enough, we are asked to sit in a large circle. He makes eye contact with individual audience members and slurps the air with growing intensity. Wade is a captivating, growling demon, spastically continuing to “suck” the life out of each one of us. His transformation into a revolting beast is fountain’s strongest moment. Wade eventually returns to his disingenuous charismatic persona, asking us to hum aloud, harmonize with each other, press our hands against the wall, send our “energy around the world,” and swing our arms upward in unison, as if we were in a self-help seminar. Why does he do this? To mock us? To show us how easily we can be emotionally manipulated? To show us that he, in fact, is the one in control? I’m not entirely sure, but I wish he hadn’t.

Contributor

Christine Hou

CHRISTINE HOU is a poet and arts writer living in Brooklyn.

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