Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TBA festival: Maria Hassabi's power is in the pain

By Barry Johnson

The seconds ticked by and Maria Hassabi was spending a lot of them in the most uncomfortable positions -- weight on one hip and one elbow, say, as her legs splayed in different directions, toes pointed, and her head was thrown back, exposing her neck. Sometimes she stayed there for a long count -- of 20, say, even 24, and then she would stretch in that position, making it even more uncomfortable, legs quivering and neck muscles bulging, before she slowly started moving out of it, rolling her torso inch by inch or pulling a leg over, which led her into a new position.  As I watched, I thought of it as the anti-yoga.

The positions were often obviously connected to runway model conventions, it seemed to me, or the way the ballerina holds her hands, limpidly but deliberately, just taken to an extreme, a painful extreme. At one point, toward the end, I though I recognized the pose of the young woman in Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World." Hassabi's expression alternated among sad, concerned and emotionless.

Sometimes press materials don't provide very useful descriptions of performances, but in this case the Time-Based Art festival catalog copy was accurate:
"SoloShow extends choreographer Maria Hassabi’s interest in representations of the female body embedded within art history and pop culture. Staging the movement between sensation and its display, the performer moves beyond rhythm, ideal postures, and coherence as hundreds of images are seamlessly, physically collaged."
Although the next sentence mentions "duration," it still doesn't prepare us for the intensity of the experience, of course, or the series of tortured positions attained after great effort and then left behind at a glacial pace.

This has a psychological effect on the audience. For example, I started counting the time Hassabi spent in various positions: I found three distinct intervals. The longest was my count of 20 or so, and it was often followed by a shorter burst of four. A few fours might lead to an 11 or 12. Was my count a full second? I think so, but maybe not, maybe it was longer. And it was hard to decide when to stop the count -- when she moved into an even more exaggerated example of the same position? Or when she started to move out of it altogether?  So don't take this count "literally," please. It just gives some sense of the rhythm of the poses. And it's the "escape" I took to moderate the effect of watching Hassabi's exertions.

Another thought occurred to me as I watched Hassabi attempt to find the balance point in positions with far-flung and gravity-defying extremities.  My own default "position" has to do with sports, though I was an indifferent athlete -- feet a little wider than shoulder length, one about 18 inches behind the other, knees slightly bent, a slight incline forward, hands raised in front of my body. It's a comfortable position, with lots of bounce and cushion in it. It allows me to move laterally or give ground quickly, but also move forward rapidly, if the occasion demands it. Socially, it's less exaggerated than that, of course -- like a defensive back waiting for the snap count or a wrestler for the referee's whistle -- but that "set" still lurks.

Wrestling: The wrestler was an important model in the Greek "technology of the self," according to French philosopher Michel Foucault (in "The Hermeneutics of the Self"). By technology, he simply meant those practices and methods intended to prepare one for the world, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Because one never knew the nature of one's opponent, it was best to be prepared and alert, not overtrained in one technique or another but balanced, ready to parry anything and thrust when the opponent showed an opening.

The Greek technology of the self was intended for men. It didn't involve exposing one's neck in public or throwing oneself into radically unbalanced positions. Quite the opposite. And I think that's one of the points of Hassabi's dance, perhaps: These exaggerated positions are ones we ask women to assume, and they couldn't be more vulnerable. They are positions of weakness.

But Hassabi's performance is transformative: By taking those splayed legs and arms akimbo and pushing them into yet more uncomfortable degrees and angles, and then holding them beyond what we think possible, she takes command of them. And by taking command, she gives herself power. She isn't a fragile model exposing her neck to the wolves, she's something else, someone formidable, physically powerful. She defuses those poses, those displays, by finding the power in their weakness. I like the audacity of that, the audacity of the impossible pose held for 20 counts and then amplified before seeking relief by very slowly moving to another painful position.

Tonight's the last performance of SoloShow.


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