Private Songs, Public Concerns

Eliana Otta
Rodrigo Andreolli
Gris García
November 25, 2017

An arm and a leg, intertwined.

A wrist pulling an ankle.

A hand pushing a shoulder.

A back hits the floor.

Two bodies immersed in a battle of sport clothes and bare skin. They try to escape but they can’t.

One of the bodies turns around so that who was pushing is now underneath.

Flushed face, sweaty forehead, fast breaths, the poses frozen and the gestures stuck; a scene of need and rejection. Pauses hinting at the exhaustion, the effect of the fight in their bodies, breathing together when there is nothing left to say.

The stillness after the battle.

The battle as an encounter.

The hug as a truce.

To explain a performance is always a challenge. Describing its parts in chronological order seems doomed to fail. Thus, we can only talk about what it made us feel, its effects on our bodies and minds.

After presenting Private: Wear a Mask When You Talk to Me as part of documenta 14’s program prior to its official inauguration in Athens, Alexandra Bachzetsis invited two dancers to widen her performatic research. With Private Song, she continued exploring the possibilities in performance to inquire and dismantle the way we embody gender conventions, expressed in our everyday gestures, very much informed by pop culture. Global mass culture was put in relation with greek traditional music, as well as with sports as cultural phenomena, to stage a series of vignettes where the repetition of certain movements allowed the viewer to reflect on the body as a social and politically charged construction. The contrasts are underlined, the transformations, abrupt. Alexandra’s first apparition is in the latex skin of a hollywoodean femme fatale. The thin line between the stage and the audience is quickly challenged, when she asks someone in the front row to spray her, head to toe, all over the dress that absorbs her body as a surgeon’s glove. After that first and seductive encounter with the audience, the performer shows us how easy and how fast can it be to de-eroticize a body when you know the codes that allowed its eroticization in the first place.

Deconstructing daily life gestures, individually or with her partners, and also leaving the stage for them to do so, Alexandra remarks on the arbitrariness of how certain movements are perceived as belonging to certain situations or identities. Drawing upon the power of hairdos and makeup, of elegant, sportive, casual or sexy clothes as highly charged signifiers that make us perceive someone as feminine or masculine, the artist enhances the possibilities of performance to expose the masquerade that mediates our social interactions.

The elements placed onstage to compose the piece are relatively simple and tend to a minimalistic and indexical proposition. Patterned linoleum creates a frame on center stage where most of the dance will be exposed. On either side of the linoleum a set of chairs and microphones, clothes, and a few personal props are available. The patterned area defines a space for the experimentation and divides the setting into a kind of “on-stage” and “backstage” attitude. The performers will come on to the dancefloor to engage in a movement exploration and will leave it to get new pieces of clothes or props, to reset or to add elements which will build up layers to the composition, such as singing, for example. These spatial establishments are crossed and blurred throughout the action, reconfiguring the audience’s perceptions of the space as the performers extrapolate the uses of these marked areas. By moving the objects and elements, by changing costumes and proposing new movement sets with their bodies, they interpolate the conformities of the space. Each moment becomes a chapter or a page that turns and reveals another situation recreated by the choreography of those elements and their areas of action.

The action unfolds slowly. The silence is only interrupted by the breath of the performers, the sound of their steps, or the bursts of music. A series of Greek popular songs, mostly from a style called Rebétiko, activates the bodies of both the audience and the performers.

Rebetiko refers to a musical style but also to a complex set of cultural manifestations related to the waves of migration and the construction of national identity. Its origins emerged in coastal cities of Greece in the early 1920s as a subculture associated with the working class: prostitutes, criminals, outcasts, and refugees that arrived after the population exchange event, which forced millions of people originally from Asia Minor to move to the then established Greek territory. The music and dancing that flourished in cafés, bars and ouzeries, as an expression of the stories and memories impregnated by the smoke of hashish, would then become an element of identification for these groups. Rebetis and Magkas were words used to define the people who embodied this lifestyle. The Rebetiko also laid very established gender roles, a prominently male-dominated environment, where women would eventually take the part as singers or dancers.

Despite the fact that many of us didn’t understand the lyrics of the songs, the music, with its melancholic feeling, gestures and movements, seemed to be talking to us about break-ups, confusion, separation, loneliness, distance and longing.[1]

How did they select the songs for this performance? How do the lyrics affect its narrative? Our intuitions about their constant encounters and disengagements were expanded and shifted once we read some of the lyrics: Don’t you go away from me again, my rakish man, stay in my hug. I’m coming with you wherever you go. Their longing for belonging was present not only in the relationship between the three performers, confusing their roles, but also by playing a game with the audience and transforming the stage, extending their fear of rootlessness to other domains… Like a vagabond I roam… away from my mother’s hugging arms.

Private Song frictions these images and concepts carried by the Rebetiko history, by appropriating, decomposing, isolating, and juxtaposing its elements with other modern and contemporary artistic manifestations, playing with the codes of music, dance, and show. the piece addresses questions that lay on the structure of the rebetiko culture concerning the development of the gender attributes, and disrupts them by allowing the migration of roles to rule the experimentation. The male and the female are established on a constant shift between form and role. The strength and resistance ideals which constitute the complexity of Rebetiko are also challenged by a profane approach that drags them to a contemporary form. The dance, the tradition, and the identity can no longer be analysed only through a historical perspective of the past, they have to realize the present-future when it takes place. For Private Song, the Rebetiko serves as a reference to be seen also under the parameters of a mediated society, where gestures of resistance unfold into forms of consumption.

Each shift in the sequences that construct this piece could provoke a detailed analysis of the resources through which the deconstruction of gender roles is addressed. Nevertheless, let’s focus on just a couple of propositions done in this direction. One especially effective sequence is the transformation between the representation of a heterosexual sexual encounter and a strange mix of an exercise routine and a wrestling tussle. This change is produced by a series of precise gestures that suspend the enchantment of the sexual encounter. Absurd movements are introduced, not only sabotaging any possibility of reading the bodies onstage as erotic or desirable, but also leading us to interpret them as the confirmation that, as Lacan would put it, “there is no sexual relation”, meaning that there is no possibility of achieving the jouissance or complementarity between the sexes.[2] There is nothing in the way we place ourselves in the masculine or feminine “position” that direct us to find an “other” that puts a closure to our most intimate search and needs. In that sense, any idealized or romanticized understanding of the relations between men and women, obliterates how they are conditioned by our phantasmatic experience of desiring and being desired. Since our desire is always the desire of the Other, there is nothing transparent and fully conscious about what we expect and aspire to get in our social relations. But it is important to point out here, that what Lacan does when he considers the feminine or masculine as positions is to set these categories free from their binding to an specific sex, as well as to explain them as a field that allows our displacement through them. Nothing is fixed, at least not as much as the normative practices around us suggest. This unlocking of the circumstances that make us circumscribe our relation to gender and sex is pointed out in Private Song, when the performers put in practice a critical exercise towards the use of their bodies and the possibilities it offers to communicate a non-fixed identification with femininity, masculinity or heterosexuality.

The performer is
her own mask.

The climax of the performance took place when the curtains behind the performers opened. The space, which initially looked like an experimental theatre, with improvised seats and a low stage, became something else. A majestic theatre appeared, with red velvet chairs, golden ornaments, and balconies, together with a feeling of amusement when we realised that it was actually us, the audience, who were on stage, sitting down while being observed by an empty theatre. In the forefront, Alexandra was trying to fool us, legs spread, completely exposed, the jacket reversed and her head covering her face, as if she were giving her back to us. As if she would be giving her back to both sides, or any side. That sudden, even violent surprise, disrupted our perception of what was going on onstage. A sort of penetration of the space towards a body which responds playfully, seducing us, faceless. The performer is her own mask.

This woman, without identity or subjectivity, seems trapped between us as audience and the non-existent one, which can represent anyone. In a sense, a double-ended situation arises, throwing our presence into a phantasmagorical projection on the empty chairs and at the same time, we become the spectacularized objects of that phantom gaze. The beauty of the Pireaus Theatre imposes upon us as emblematic of a specific understanding of this kind of space. An understanding that generally implies the construction of a canon, with its subsequent tradition, and the merging of art and spectacle for the entertainment of the bourgeoisie. In that sense, the abrupt unveiling of the material conditions of the space that hosts us makes us rethink our position as spectators, after being comfortable sitting and observing a contemporary, experimental experience, happening as far as possible from the heavily charged conventions that theatre may carry as a cultural institution.

If Walter Benjamin wrote that there is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarie, this moment invites us to consider the role of scenic work in shaping our beliefs and practices regarding womanhood, femininity and masculinity.[3] How long will the culture of spectacle continue sustaining itself on representations of women that reinforce their historically subaltern position in society? How long will the culture of spectacle continue to capitalize not only on women portrayed as objects instead of as subjects, but also on work done in unequal and restrictive conditions, that defines what a woman can or cannot do on stage? Alexandra’s body stands between us and the theatre as a desubjectivated being, who stands in an awkward, subjected posture, posing the question: How do we position ourselves as spectators? What is the responsibility of the spectator today? How can we avoid being accomplices of the barbarie that systematically reproduces itself daily, against women, in most scenarios and screens?

[1] The lyrics were translated to English and German in a small publication handed out to the audience. Click the links below to hear renditions of each song:

Crazy Gypzy

Before Daybreak

Be it today, now or tomorrow

The Path

[2] LACAN, Jacques. El Seminario, Libro 18, De un discurso que no fuera del semblante (1971), Paidós, Buenos Aires, 2009.

[3] BENJAMIN, Walter. Sobre el concepto de historia. Obras 1 – 2. Madrid, Abada, 2008.

Gris García

Gris García

Gris García is a mexican artist and an independent curator. Her work is centered around contemporary practices and hybrid productions which emerge from dialogue and correspondence with others. She holds an MA in Artistic Research and Production and has also been part of MACBA’s PEI (Independent Study Program), a Master’s program in Museistic studies and critical theory directed by Paul B. Preciado.

Rodrigo Andreolli

Rodrigo Andreolli

Rodrigo Andreolli transits through the performing arts, and is especially interested in researching the body as an element for sensitive activation of the visible and invisible layers of the public matter. He acts elaborating production structures in multidisciplinary art projects. Rodrigo is also part of the Capacete Residency in Athens, Greece, which ran concurrent to Documenta 14.

Eliana Otta

Eliana Otta

Eliana Otta is a multidisciplinary artist. Her work explores how to live together in neoliberal, individualistic urban spaces, the conditions of precarious labor, and possibilities for crossing feminism, politics and poetry. She has a Master’s Degree in Cultural Studies, and was the coordinator for the Lugar de la Memoria's curatorial team, a national space dedicated to the period of political violence experienced in Peru between 1980 and 2000.

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