ELEMENTS OF ERASURE
Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smiths Rude World
I walk into what looks like a small black box theater with risers on either side of the floor and a cool black marley under foot. Thick, black curtains and dim lights line the entire room, creating an ominous sense of depth and mystery. Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith have completely transformed the Chocolate Factory’s industrial, all-white space, rendering it a barely recognizable version of its former self.
To begin the piece, Lieber sits alongside the audience in a chair on a riser while Smith stands above, straddling her. They are both completely nude. For many fully silent minutes, Lieber swipes at Smith’s naked body, gently, like an energy worker dusting off the residue of some karmic knot. Lieber and Smith continue this subtle gesture for a long, quiet duration, making the space feel buffered and eerily intimate. I hear nothing but the low rumbles of someone’s stomach digesting an early dinner. The audience doesn’t move and barely breathes. I become afraid of the sound of my pen on paper and cease my own small note-taking gestures so as not to disrupt this total stillness. I feel self-conscious, as if it is I who is naked.
Then in an instant, Smith propels herself onto the black marley and begins a solo composed of strange, almost tentative movements. Lieber pensively watches from her seat in the audience while Smith works tirelessly to hold tension and angst in her body, appearing to excavate some very dark, internal material. There is a stark simplicity to all of this, and at the same time, a voyeuristic charge arises. It feels as though we might be watching something that is not fully meant for us to see.
When Lieber enters the stage, her face hidden behind her shaggy, dark mane, she goes to the curtained wall and starts to slowly slide down it. Bending her knees, she holds, slips, holds—her mouth the only thing making contact with the wall as her arms hang limp at her sides. Smith sidles up beside her and replicates the pained gesture over and over again, faces chaffing against the black curtain. Their mutual movements are imbued with a kind of repressed agony, a kind of masochism. This is an apology, an erasure, and a giving up on the agency of the self to fully represent its own totality. We can only see their bare backs.
Rude World climaxes as Lieber and Smith’s muscular bodies join together in order to roll around on the floor, entangled, and ultimately merge into one organism. While this joining produces extraordinary images of two bodies becoming one beastly presence, its meaning and intention is not clear. What does their merge achieve? And why is it not moving me?
Perhaps it is because there appears to be no palpable relationship between these two bodies. They feel like two stripped down objects functioning side by side, forming a new mechanical process once combined. But, it is difficult to decipher what lives inside of the exchange between them. Maybe they have become so perfectly merged that they no longer encounter one another as “an other,” instead relating as parts of the same whole. Regardless, there is a loud emptiness and a pervasive flatness that passes between them as they occupy space together. They themselves appear unmoved, unchanged, and resistant to the alchemy of intimacy. Their “oneness” produces a nearly flawless physical design, but it lacks any evidence of process or insight into its own formation. Rather, their “togetherness” feels like a kind of dissociative, loveless (non)connection.
I no longer feel self-conscious. I am now lonely and alienated.
Rude World is chock full of intimate images without sentiment or affect. These are bodies seemingly devoid of personhoods. How can two nude bodies roll around on top of one another on the floor, repeatedly, intimately, exploring every part of each other’s body, without any relational residue? I keep looking for places to enter the dance, to understand it on some level, but it remains elusive. I am unable to find the frequency with which they are moving, relating, being.
Perhaps their intention and connection is not accessible to me because it is engineered for the male gaze. I cannot find a recognizable way that women relate to one another except for the emptiness that is inherently borne of their objectification. Does the male gaze know this piece better than I? Am I utterly limited by my own subject position in relation to this piece? As I exited the theater, I felt nothing lost. But also, sadly, nothing gained.
CASSIE PETERSON is a New York-based writer and thinker. She works as a psychotherapist by day, and moonlights as a dramaturge, essayist, and contemporary dance critic.