"The Virgin is a Lovely Number"

“No matter what life you lead

the virgin is a lovely number:

cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,

arms and legs made of Limoges,

lips like Vin Du Rhone,

rolling her china-blue doll eyes

open and shut.

Open to say,

Good Day Mama,

and shut for the thrust

of the unicorn.

She is unsoiled.

She is as white as bonefish.”

Anne Sexton, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” from TRANSFORMATIONS.

On Thursday night, I went to see Ann Liv Young‘s “Snow White” after seeing it posted on The Winger, by Gia Kourlas, who also has a good interview with the young iconoclastic choreographer in TONY. Very in-your-face, very rawly unabashedly unerotically naked, very hilariously WTF??, very post-post-post-feminist, and I LOVED it! This was my first time seeing anything by her, and I had to do some research, both on her work and the classic fairytale, to make a bit of sense (but I love that sort of thing — and I had no idea reinvention of the fairytale was so popular — in addition to Anne Sexton and Gregory Maguire, Angela Carter and A.S. Byatt have had their take). Young said it was based on the Grimm Brothers version and not Disney, which was pretty obvious, but I don’t think she needed to say that anyway: it’s really just her own thing entirely.

I’m not sure if I got what I was supposed to get out of it, or if there’s even some specific thing that she wanted me to get, but some themes I saw were pretense or illusion versus the real, tearing apart sex and gender stereotypes– rather lewdly too, subverting the (male, I guess) gaze, questioning the meaning of eroticism and nakedness versus nudity, etc.. It was kind of like a play within a play, but in a way that questioned what was performance and what was real. When the audience walked into the theater, the three performers were already standing onstage looking out at us waiting for us to take our seats. Young herself kind of glared out at us, a challenging look in her eye: she was not up there to please us, to show us prettiness and gratification. Similarly, at the end of the performance (which was rather abrupt), they just got up, took their things and walked off the stage, not waiting for or needing our applause, no bows, no “curtain calls.” And throughout the show, things would go wrong — sound devices that wouldn’t work, costume malfunctions, problematic props, etc. — and would be fixed onstage. It’s as if she’s questioning what a performance is, what are its confines, and at points, I wasn’t even completely sure if what was happening was supposed to be happening or if it was part of the show.

But back to the beginning. The three performers — one man (Michael Guerrero), two women (Liz Santoro and Young herself) — all wearing simple white ballet leotards and heavy black sneakers (the last of which is the only item of clothing that remains part of the costume throughout), play a rock song — Guerrero on drums, Santoro keyboards and Young singing. Each person, by the way, plays two characters — Guerrero the sound technician and The Queen, Santoro The Woodsman and The Prince, and Young the play’s director and Ms. White. After the song finished, all three stripped naked and changed into their next costume — all onstage. No strip-tease, nothing artful or sexy about it, just a clothing change done onstage — and therefore — really somewhat shocking. Certainly not Kenneth Clarke’s definition of “the nude.” Plus, none of the bodies are “idealized” — no makeup, no starving oneself for months on end or working out like a madperson for the idealized physique — these are real bodies.

For the next song, Young sings naked (except for the heavy black sneakers), while Guerrero works the sound and Santoro changes into her Prince costume — underwear with a giant strap-on dildo. The sound goes wrong, not enough is coming out of the mikes, and Young stops the performance mid-song to yell and scream at everyone for it. One male European blogger I read likened her to Eve Ensler, but to me, this ranting naked woman reminded me more of Karen Finley. Except, where Finley would often rant about overtly political issues, Young’s fist-pounding naked woman is political in another way: if traditional onstage female nudity (ie: for male gratification) must render (at least in fantasy) the woman vulnerable, humiliated, and subjugated to men in order for it to be titillating, Young’s dictating everyone around, forcing even the rather muscular man to run frantically about, his penis dangling between his legs, is nothing but amusing. She is hardly the vulnerable, submissive one, and is humiliating everyone else. Maybe the image is a bit shocking as well; I found it funny.

The Disney version has oft been criticized for reifying the virgin / whore dichotomy. As Sexton’s poem notes, the Queen is the sexed-up slut well deserving of her eventual demise, Snow the glorious good girl who is, for all intents and purposes a virgin — of course every woman must at some point perform those horrid ‘wifely duties’ but Snow’s “china-blue doll eyes … open to say Good Day Mama” but are “shut for the thrust of the unicorn…” Since she denies her sexuality, the fantasy of her virginity remains intact. Here, Young screws all such fantasies: the “Prince,” topless and with her giant strap-on dildo, climbs aboard Young, balancing his body over hers in a push-up, as if looking into the glass-box where the poor dead beautiful Snow lies. But instead of being a beautiful dead girl, Young is alive and active. She jumps up, pushes the Prince over, climbs atop him and straddles the dildo. Young told Kourlas part of what she wished to do was play with skepticism, so she wants the audience to see it penetrate her. The spectacle is rather outlandish and the audience kind of didn’t know how to react. Personally I don’t see how anyone could possibly find this ‘girl-on-girl action’ to be intended for male titilation — it seems way too vulgar — but Young told Kourlas that a European male viewer wrote to her that he thought the performance was quite sexy, but if she wanted to make it yet sexier she should lose the tennis shoes. In an earlier piece, entitled “Michael,” which I only read about and now wished I would have seen, apparently part of the action takes place in a trailer bearing three naked women dancing, and a male outside peering through the window, naked as well, and masturbating. He later comes inside the trailer, only to have his penis tied to the couch by the women, who pour soda over him while screaming, “I don’t love you anymore.” Is she saying that this is the fate that befalls the poor man who assumes women’s bodies exist solely for his gratification? Anyway, at one point during Snow White, Young reads to the audience some letters of criticism from former viewers, but she didn’t include this tennis shoe one and I wish she would have.

In the last section, the three performers pretend to be part of a radio talk show. One discussion revolves around how each character’s Valentine’s Day was spent. Young tells a story in which she was driving down the freeway topless, rocking out to cranked-up music and having herself a great time. A trucker sees her and begins following her. Of course, right then her tire goes flat. She throws a shirt on, jumps out of the car, and goes to the trunk to retrieve her spare, when the trucker stops and approaches her. He shoves her up against her trunk and pulls down his pants. Just then his black lab jumps out of the truck and attacks him, allowing her to run away. She flees into some bushes and hides, only to hear a shotgun go off. After the trucker pulls away, she goes back out to the street and holds the dog in her arms as he dies. A caller phones in and tells her if she’d just keep her clothes on her life would be much easier. Very disturbing, and Finley-esque.

Anyway, “Snow White” is playing at The Kitchen this Wednesday through Saturday. There’s tons of good stuff I left out. My friend, unfortunately, was disturbed by it, so I guess it may not be for everyone, but if you want to see a real spectacle that will likely challenge your notions of things and make you think, then just go and check it out for yourself.

One Comment

  1. That sounds bizarre and amazing! I love performance art that uses the imagery of sexuality to address broader social weirnesses

    I once went to a performance art show in San Francisco around thanksgiving time, that was all about the fetishization of food and eating rituals. It was presented in the format of a “cooking show”, and culminated in the host putting on an alarming strap on and violating the turkey carcass. On the one hand it was horrifying. On the other hand, it was very thought provoking. I was weirded out for days, but I was glad I went.

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