The Emperor’s New Clothes

By Mary Theresa Kelly
  • Su-Feh Lee and Benoît Lachambre in Body-Scan: Sweet Gyre / Photo by Annabel Vergne
  • Benoît Lachambre in Body-Scan: Sweet Gyre / Photo by Yvonne Chew

Body-Scan: Sweet Gyre

Par B.L.eux /battery opera

February 14-16, 2013

In the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a voice disrupts the crowd, shouting out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, challenging what the court had told folks. Believe me, I have no desire to be that voice, but no matter how many times Lee Su-Feh and Benoît Lachambre dress and undress in Body-Scan: Sweet Gyre (a substantial aspect of their 90-minute performance), I would still feel compelled to question the work. This includes the oceanic gyre and disconnect between battery opera’s persuasive narrative about the show and the actual choreography and performance.

The promotional copy, news stories, website and blog statements articulating the work prior to its premiere read as intelligent, thoughtful and innovative: a work about the sensation of touch; the experience of pleasure; the body represented as a microcosm for the larger universe. In a short video clip, Lee talks about the process of scanning the interiors and sensations of the body, and how this process connects to the audience as witness. 

I was excited about this show. I wanted to love it.

The practice of body scanning, systematically directing one’s attention throughout the body-mind, is common to many traditions: Buddhism, Tantric yoga, Taoism, secular mindfulness and Western psychotherapy. Despite the artists’ inference that the work is related to such systems, and despite the fact that Lee self-describes as a martial arts practitioner (a system that grounds awareness in the subtle and inner bodies), some of the choreographic choices tend to reduce pleasure and the miracle of the human body to sexual posturing. The artists’ attention seems to get stuck energetically at the second chakra.

For instance, the first time Lachambre undresses, he lays down on his side facing the audience, mindfully and deliberately tucking his penis between his legs, which does construct a curious image, and in subsequent scenes, he humps a metal ladder repeatedly. Lee chooses to lay on her back several times, swaddled in sleeping bags, mindfully thrusting her pelvis with gentle rhythms and in the final scene, Lee and Lachambre delight in oiling down their bodies, greasing their crotches deliberately, milking the audience for a laugh. What the viewer finds at first curious dilutes to boredom and bewilderment; such a narrow interpretation of pleasure is cliché.

In all fairness, Lachambre is the kind of enigmatic dancer who is intriguing no matter what he does. He could stand on stage texting and manage to transmit an intense, embodied state. Lachambre constructs many short movement events that surprise and capture our attention: his detailed abdominal breath work is a mini performance in itself; entangling himself in multiple pieces of clothing produces a human Rubik’s cube; hanging his body like laundry from a wire stretching horizontally across the stage is mysteriously interesting; and fixing paper clamps all over Lee’s clothed body is positively strange.

Some of the richest sensory moments are sound based, created by musician-composer and collaborator Jesse Zubot. Zubot mixes live violin with recorded sounds, loops and melodies, producing a range of effects and moods. In one section, he blends the sound of his acoustic violin with crystal-clear electronic bell tones, offering an instance of pure auditory enchantment. Unfortunately, these separate elements and events are not enough to create a sense of choreographic unity or make us care about the performance narrative.

Body-Scan: Sweet Gyre relies more on props than movement: heaps of sleeping bags, metal stepladders, screened photographs of huge, beautiful faces projected onto fabric, synthetic lawn turf, and oh, so many changes of clothing from dark hoodies and parkas to latex garters and red plastic camisoles. The self-involved clothing changes may signify the layers that hide our authentic selves, but the end effect, for the viewer, becomes not a rich witnessing of sensation, but of two characters lost in solitary worlds.

The most exasperating section for me comes after the hour mark, when Lee takes a microphone and delivers a long list of “acknowledgments,” that include the reptilian brain and her funders. She also makes some oblique statements such as, “what is the square root of two minutes ago?” I understand the intent. On the one hand, Lee attempts to disrupt our linear perceptions and habits of time and memory, but by dropping a collection of terms into the space, the verbal narrative also functions as a way to dishonestly inform us, in case we’d missed the point up until now, that this work is informed by ideas such as postcolonial theory. Really?

On reflection, perhaps it is the underlying ontology in this work I question. As evolving human beings, we are not bodies only, as fascinating and necessary as bodies are. When identification with the body is exclusive of other aspects of our humanity, desire and touch cease to amaze. For me, Body Scan: Sweet Gyre conflates the beauty of our evolving body-mind-awareness with body fetishism.

Finally, there may be movement artists who shrug off the importance of language; but, the capacity for language, a form of complex symbol-making, is one of the primary distinctions making us different than the animals. Language does matter, which is why Lee speaks into the mic; it constructs reality and reveals the inconsistencies and contradictions in our thought and creative processes.

Contemporary dancers and battery opera, in particular, have always had the courage to keep “pushing the line,” in terms of what constitutes art, challenging the status quo and refusing to settle for athletic feats, rigid movement vocabularies, good-girl femininity and other gender stereotypes. At the same time, the noble project of integrating subtle body awareness, language, intellectual ideas and a progressive movement system appears to come unzipped if the connective interface is not coherent. Body Scan: Sweet Gyre disappoints in this regard.

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