Empowerment Waltz: Patricia Noworol's TREMENDOUSby Ivan Talijancic
Patricia Noworol Dance Theater | TREMENDOUS
LaMama Downstairs theater
June 1–3, 2017
As the current U.S. administration begins to make its presence felt globally—e.g., the U.S.’s recent exit from the Paris Climate Agreement—a new crop of work emerges as contemporary artists formulate their responses to the issues that are making an indelible imprint on the American socio-political landscape, leaving a trail of controversy in their wake. In recent weeks, we have witnessed a beloved TV comedienne Kathy Griffin lose her contract with a major network over a leaked post depicting her in a pussy-bow shirt, holding a beheaded POTUS; and New York’s very own Public Theater defunded by corporate sponsors, outraged by a gruesome murder scene of the President’s look-alike in their Shakespeare In The Park production of Julius Caesar. Patricia Noworol Dance Theater’s (PNDT) TREMENDOUS, premiered in early June as part of the annual La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival does not seek to stir up such kind of in-your-face provocation. Yet, what hits me as the burning question at the core of this complex new work is: “What does it mean to exist as a woman in the age of Trump?” With a nod to D.T.’s reductive and hyperbolic verbiage (to quote a Tweet: “I have tremendous respect for women and the many roles they serve that are vital to the fabric of our society and our economy.”), the director/choreographer Noworol bravely explores this treacherous terrain with a striking, powerful, and diverse cast of five female performers (Kayla Farrish, Rebecca Margolick, Troy Ogilvie, Mei Yamanaka, and Mika Yanagihara,) accompanied live by the electro-acoustic musician Lisa Maree Dowling, who composed the haunting score for the piece.
Noworol makes her intentions clear from the work’s opening moments. As the spectators enter LaMama’s Downstairs theater, a kimono-clad woman (Yamanaka) is neatly positioned on the floor against the rear wall, reading out a seemingly endless list of rules for female etiquette, presumably written as entries in her own diary. While Yamanaka negotiates her way through the work’s opening moments with a delicate touch, the next performer (Margolick) enters the stage with a do-not-fuck-with-me attitude. As Margolick occupies the space with a confident stride, Yamanaka exits downstage, removing her kimono and saluting the audience in the first row while looking them straight in the eyes. Her gaze is not seductive; it’s inquisitive: more “Is this what you expect?” than “Is this what you want?” From the get go, Noworol’s knowing juxtaposition of coyness and badassery sets up the material on display to be questioned rather than accepted at face value.
Noworol worked in close collaboration with her performers, weaving in their individual experiences and conflating a wide array of female perspectives into an impressionistic collage rather than a neat linear narrative. Consequentially, her production elicits a range of deeply personal responses from the viewers rather than “tell it like it is.”
With impactful contributions from her designers—particularly Dowling’s gritty, textured sonic environments and Solomon Weisbard’s evocative lighting—Noworol morphs the bare stage into a fluid dreamscape, conjuring a relentless ebb and flow of contrasting images. In the world of TREMENDOUS, constructs of femininity and womanhood are erected only to be immediately dismantled in order to exorcise preconceived notions: her own, those of her collaborators, and the audience. For instance, in another particularly effective sequence, five dancers enter the stage one at a time, each wearing a costume that is more outlandish than the next. A Karenina, a Cleopatra, an exotic dancer, a southern belle in S&M boots, a lady in a bare-bone hoopskirt, all gingerly shimmy across the stage, while making eye contact with audience members with “come hither” expressions on their faces. Moments later, the dancers gradually shed this bizarre veneer of seductiveness and begin to adopt an increasingly aggressive and animalistic stance, eventually sneering at the spectators like a pack of rabid dogs. Later still, they interrupt the barking fit abruptly, laughing it off dismissively.
Time and time again, Noworol’s imagery takes surprising and frequently unsettling turns. As the piece layers in my mind, it insinuates that, as a society, we are trapped in a troubling cycle that perpetuates itself, where stereotypes that have been projected (and often adopted) by women have resulted in a form of toxic femininity that is really difficult to eradicate. Even though the performers seem to be subjected by an invisible hand (perhaps Noworol’s?) to a kind of nightmarish boot camp, the exercise of cycling through the learning and the unlearning of reductive stereotypes has ultimately an empowering effect. It is, in a way, as if each protagonist of this work had to transition through a purgatory or dismantling, to rebuild herself from scratch, and emerges better for it.
This world premiere production powerfully showcases Noworol’s considerable dance-theater acumen—in her early years, the choreographer trained and performed with the companies of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch, among others. TREMENDOUS finds PNDT’s ensemble and creative collaborators in fine form. Moreover, it is always encouraging to see works that successfully negotiate relevant issues of our treacherous times with a sense of levity and hope.
IVAN TALIJANCIC is a founder and artistic co-director of WaxFactory, a New York-based interdisciplinary art group. He is currently completing his first feature film, 416 MINUTES, and regularly writes on the arts for BOMB, London-based Bachtrack, and the Brooklyn Rail.