It is international women’s day… and I am not one.
I am frequently mistaken for a woman, in fact I have been for most of my life, and I could probably still pass for one if I chose. So what are the political stakes of deliberately choosing to step outside of the identity – in fact the political position – that is being a woman, and say: “no, I am something else?” Feminist and theorist Laurie Penny writes that she is biologically non-binary, but politically a woman because she believes that the experiences of her life in her body make it fundamentally necessary to speak to the position of women in today’s social environment. What is it, then, this political identity that is “woman” that I have never been a part of? Where does it intersect with “feminist” – which I am? How can that identity and politics and weight and necessity be communicated to those who sit outside of that identity and politics in every direction? Well, if you believe Alexandra Stilianos, and I usually do, you start with anger.
Unbound, We Howl is an unashamed polemic on the state of women in humanity. It begins with seventeen dancers – women and not – seated on the floor of the stage, facing away from the audience, watching a collage of found footage and scrolling, distorted headlines on transgender suicide and bathroom bills. Rather than setting up transwomen as the limit break case on the breath of identity, Stilianos places them right away at the center of her community, and then gets on with the serious business of exploring the heart of what being a woman actually means. In this space, what it means is these dancers, captured in life-size portrait on the backcloth of the stage. The seated cast rises to take their place in a two-dimensional pencil outline of themselves, fitting into the shapes that have been left by them in a moment of captured time, filling them out into three-dimensional reality. And then they move.
It starts very simply, with a short run and a one-handed appeal to the audience. We begin to hear fragments of text from Sylvia Plath, Jeanann Verlee, given voice by the dancers, or by electronic distortion, or even Siri – reminding us that we have consistently chosen a women’s voice to anthropomorphosise the idea of passive service. (Incidentally, while Siri, Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, Google Home and Facebook M will all tell you they have no gender, they all present as female, and advertising literature refers to them interchangeably as “she” and “it.” Woman or object… why not both?!) The dancers on stage emerge, explore, trace the present materiality of their bodies, crawl towards us, all with a gradual undertone of wary tension – a coming storm.
It is Andie Altchiler who breaks the tension first, with a stumbling, tripping, whirlwind of a solo that flings her legs and arms and hair all across the stage, only brought to a halt by a shout from another dancer. The cast retreat back into their portraits, but only for a second, crawling straight back out to make tornadoes of their own. The portraits become a home-base, a space owned by the dancers inhabiting their bodies, from which they can emerge to speak out amidst the tumult of cascading voices. This play between the general torrent of opinion and the specific kinesthetic appeals of each dancer, belies an easy theorization of the piece’s thesis or driving point. Each dancer becomes a manifestation of her own identity, gathered within the collective umbrella of a shared political identity: woman. At last they run forward and stand shoulder to shoulder at the front of the stage, visible and present, ready to be seen.
But the dancers are not interested in us, yet. Instead their gaze drags ours upwards to where an additional cast of dancers marches above us in silent protest, trapped by the bars of the lighting grid and unnoticed until this moment. The unusual perspective that keeps them from us and us from them shows us the vulnerability of bodies hitting the floor, but also renders their protest partially illegible – we are not used to seeing from below, and we cannot access the complexity and completeness of what it is they are trying to say.
Back down on the stage the tornadoes continue, but now the dancers add their individual voices into the play of sound around them. Stilianos joins her cast onstage to create a live mixing of light, sound, and projection, lending a sense of authenticity and spontaneity to this impassioned moment. Kat Sprudzs cranes her “poor, female head” into the microphone as she writhes across the floor, Laura Deangelis clambers on top of another performer to say… something about sex that she can never really quite get high enough for us to hear. The thwarting of the dancer’s voices and the impossible attitudes they have to enter into in order to amplify themselves explains why some simply try to stand by themselves and shout without the microphone, trying to make their point against the noise and movement all around them. The work begins to expand into the audience, the performers linking hands in a long, anchoring line as Emily Gaffga – finally in control of the microphone but with her voice distorted, walks among the seats asking questions about make-up: “Are you selling your body?” The line breaks down and struggles within itself as dancers fight to be heard, while above us more and more of the marchers collapse to the floor and shout at each other – the text on the back wall reads: “RECKONING.”
Some kind of accommodation: the dancers run and walk around the stage, are picked up, stand above the crowd, fall, roll, return to walking and running again. They return to their portrait line and stride forward together. Chaos. Dissolution. One dancer lays down erratic taped pathways while another dancer flings herself behind to stick them to the floor. Text drops from the ceiling to be read, the back of the stage reads “FEAR.” The dancers appeal to the audience for help but the project remains unclear – we don’t know how to productively intervene. Each dancer shouts, runs, dances, implores us to understand, but most of all we are asked to bear witness to the struggle in front of us: the performance that lacks unification but which is fundamentally about unity; which is as complicated as politics and as difficult as it is to define what it means to be human. Given torches, all the audience can do is shine a wavering light on the movement or image that makes most sense to them in the moment.
Just as I am beginning to understand, the lights cut out and – for a moment – we all breathe together. Exhausted.
Links to the full work can be found at Stilianos’s website.