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Body Politics: Penelope Freeh on Voices of Strength, Program I

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnightreviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Wednesday night’s Correspondances by by Kettly Noël and Nelisiwe […]

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnightreviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Wednesday night’s Correspondances by by Kettly Noël and Nelisiwe Xaba and Quartiers Libres by Nadia Beugré. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Created and performed by Kettly Noël and Nelisiwe Xaba, Correspondances was a performance art/dance theater romp through the imaginations and experiences of its artists. Beginning with a fashionista talking to herself and us, I was instantly taken in, won over by child-woman Ms. Xaba as she sported high heels and mini skirt. Her monologue, the geography of her steps and her contorted determination added up to a charming entry into this work that gained depth and nuance with every section.

Enter Ms. Noël, kissing random audience members as she brought in a battered suitcase from the back of the theater. Again, charming, disarming, childlike. A duet ensues where the smacking kisses turn sinister. Bumping and grinding turns gorgeous then aggressive within seconds. The childlike stance was just a ruse; these two are potentially dangerous, grown-ups with experience for sure.

This sectional work had some clunky transitions, messy as the performers changed their clothes, their shoes, dealt with microphones. But for all that, and perhaps because of it, they created a world at once flighty and contemplative. Ms. Xaba’s solo with “a satin doll” sustained the length of a long song. Beautiful and grotesque, she was puppeteer to the helpless doll, sometimes with her hands, sometimes, and alarmingly, with her spiked heel. The segment began as disarmingly innocent, slow reveal of imagistic anger and sadness.

What became the final scene also sustained itself for an extra-long duration. Standing atop a table, utters loaded with milk flew in, hanging just within reach of their teeth. Each one plied her utter, with hands and mouth. Tiny holes allowed the white liquid to burst forth, thin streams of determination. This scene implied suckling, blow jobs, showers, gagging, whale spouts, cleansing, dirtying. As the performers moved from table to floor we had frolic, slide, escape, entrapment, desperation, celebration.

Correspondances added up to way more than the sum of its parts. Poetic pastiche, the work felt necessary and implicit. Its subtle complication can perhaps never be fully comprehended by those of us who do not share their experience, but I am so thankful they offered it in such a raw and artful way.

Quartiers Libres, created and performed by Nadia Beugré, was a dangerous, gag-inducing, confrontational exposition of images and amazing dance. What started with a song and a gentle prodding of the audience to join her ended in Ms. Beugré becoming overcome. Another song, emanating from the sound system, ousted her voice. She initially complied with lip-synching but then degenerated into a sort of guttural howling, primal and directed at no one in particular, a protest nonetheless. Then laughter.

A tangled dance ensued as Ms. Beugré duetted with a microphone and its long cord. More audience interaction and this time all were speechless. The mic fell off somewhere along the way and she stuck the connector in her mouth. This woman is viscerally and literally hooked in, connected to her art that is her body that is her politics. She is above nothing. She is willing to go to any length to demonstrate.

A sculpture-hanging upstage right is a floor-to-ceiling flag, sparking like diamonds and constructed entirely out of empty plastic water bottles. More bottles litter the space along with a globe of bottles, waiting like a thorny threat. Her body enters this landscape. She rails into and against it, swinging on the hanging and tumbling onto the plastic terrain. She acquires a garbage bag, but instead of cleaning up, she slowly and deliberately stuffs it into her mouth. This is a processional along the downstage, it is a making-sure that no one misses this moment, the lengths she is willing to go. She gags herself even as she continues to take in the bag. I had to look away. I studied her feet for a bit and some folks silhouetted in front of me. Perhaps the most visceral theatrical moment I’ve ever observed.

The dance continued. She wrestles into the round sculpture, wearable as it turns out. (Yes, the bag is still in her mouth.) There was dancing and echoes of dancing, tribal references and fast-footed stepping. She crossed over into the audience yet again, bounding all the way up the stairs to the back of the house. The audience burst into applause and then were caught, complicit, participating in her bitter oppression, even though self-induced. She came back down, a tamed though still feral figure. She removes the bag from her mouth as the lights dim. It is wet, glistening like an oil slick.