The Extinction of the Pantomimic Literary Imagination: Desire (2019)

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

Desire (2019)

Within the postmodern aesthetic, pantomime functions to bestow fluidity or uncertainty of identity to performance, so that performance itself signifies unstable or dynamic relationships between text and action, speech and bodily gesture, music and sound, performer and spectator, the imaginary and the real, the solitary self and the communal persona, or technology and “humanness.” These fluidities of identity become equivalent, at least theoretically, to an enhanced state of freedom, of release from the constraining, ideologically formed barriers or “limits” defining identities. But fluidity of identity in relation to the concept of “performance” perhaps inevitably requires that postmodern performance expand its power through its ability to intensify fluidity of sexual identity and desire. But with this goal in mind, pantomime is merely doing what it already had done for centuries during the Roman Empire, revealing the “metamorphosis” of the body when neither speech nor dance is able to prevent the spectator from seeing it. 

            A good example of a postmodern pantomime of fluid sexual identity is Iha, which in Estonian means Desire or Craving or Lust, a performance piece by an undergraduate student in the Choreography Program of Tallinn University, Keithy Kuuspu (b. 1994). Desire was Kuuspu’s graduation piece. It had its premiere in April 2019 at the Kanuti Gildi SAAL in the Old Town district of Tallinn. The Kanuti Guild Hall operates primarily as a space for experimental forms of performance, but for Desire, Kuuspu and her colleagues cleaned out several storage rooms in the cellar of the building and shaped the performance in relation to these spaces made available to them. The piece involves seven performers, all women, and Kuuspu inserts herself into the performance at various moments. Lasting about an hour, Desire depicts erotic and domestic interactions between women living together, although none of the performers embody “characters” or named identities: the point of performance is to show tropes of interaction that are not specific to particular motives or personalities; they are specific to female-to-female desires. The relation of the performance to its audience is dynamic insofar as spectators move from one site or room of performance to another, but not together. However, the audience is together for the first and last scenes. The first scene takes place at the entrance to the cellar, with the audience standing and watching from the lobby of the Kanuti Guild Hall. The performance begins with a muscular woman (Agnes Ihoma) slowly gyrating and caressing herself behind a transparent plastic screen, as if she is looking at herself in a mirror and trying to see how she looks when she signifies erotic desire or provokes it. Soon the audience hears the recorded sound of a woman gasping or panting, as if she is pleasuring herself. From out of the audience, the other women in the ensemble, wearing shiny scarlet pants and black sweaters or shiny scarlet robes, approach the transparent mirror-wall or another transparent mirror-wall perpendicular to the one before the muscular woman. One dark-haired woman in a scarlet robe, pressing against the transparent sheet, reproduces the movements made by the muscular woman as she presses herself against the transparency. Other women slowly undulate before the perpendicular transparency. Then all the women converge on the mirror-wall separating them from the muscular woman. The woman in the scarlet robe begins to touch the muscular woman’s image in a manner that is independent of the muscular woman’s movement. This distinction inspires the other women to retrieve damp cloths from a pale of water and begin scrubbing the transparent screen, as if to wash away the “invisible” barrier between them and the muscular woman. They kneel down while the muscular woman stands tall, with her arms upraised, like a priestess before her acolytes. The whole scene appears to dramatize the erotic fantasy the muscular woman devises while gazing at her own image. She imagines herself wanting and desired by more than one woman; even if all the women she imagines wear variants of the same “uniform,” one woman is not “enough” to complete her desire. A group or community of women is necessary for the fulfillment of rapturous self-reflection. When the fantasy women tear down the transparency, they pass by the muscular woman and descend into the cellar rooms. The muscular woman gazes at the audience before she turns and leads the audience into the cellar.

             The audience passes through a dark, narrow corridor, against the walls of which some of the women, illuminated expressionistically by soft-glowing copper light, writhe and pant, as if performing a strange, solitary exercise that they share with the public without actually being a group. At the end of the corridor is a sunken space designed to resemble a living room bathed in a flaming orange light. The audience can move through the scene as it plays and view the action from a staircase on the other side of the room. A television set is on, but it displays only a blizzard of electronic “snow.” After sitting on the couch watching the television set, the muscular woman and another woman (Dana Lorén Warres) engage in a kind of slow ritual of putting on and removing sweaters, of putting sweaters on each other, of removing their sweaters, of trying to bind each other within the same sweater, of pulling down each other’s pants. With the sweaters discarded, they fondle each other on the couch. Kuuspu enters, fixes herself a drink, sits on the couch, and stares at the television set. The muscular woman and her partner tease each other with a sweater as they amble, staring into each other’s eyes, up the staircase and into a corner of it, where they nuzzle each other. They then return to the positions they assumed when they began the piece and perform the scene over again, as if it is a loop. All scenes in Desire occur as loops to allow all portions of the audience to see all scenes but not together or in the same order. The spectator chooses which room to enter, but all scenes happen at the same time; the “looping” of the scenes enables the spectator to see different things happening at once. 

            In another room, two women in black Spandex shorts and tank tops (Silvia-Kairet Põld and Amanda Hermiine Künnapas) perform actions that apparently occur in a public restroom. A pillar in the center of the room supports two wash basins and mirrors, but these point in opposite directions, one bathed in green light, the other in blue light. One woman slowly approaches the green basin, the other the blue basin. They undulate and caress themselves before the mirrors, then suddenly dart away and “discover” each other in the shadows. They run in opposite circles around the entire space, as if trying to avoid and attract each other at the same time. One woman stops to splash and refresh herself at the blue basin. The other woman slips behind her and makes caressive movements, which they both observe in the mirror. They move away from the basin and start embracing in the shadows. But they emerge from the shadows performing combative actions, with both women performing both stalking and fleeing strides until one of the women abruptly halts and the other woman studies her closely, making caressive gestures. The two women begin dancing together in a sexual, voluptuous manner. Kuuspu enters the scene and pours something from a jar into the “blue” basin. She tries to insert herself into the dance, but this leads to conflict, with the two dancers uncertain who should “possess” Kuuspu or if Kuuspu should even be in the dance. An ambiguous configuration of movements makes unclear if the dancers expel Kuuspu from their dance or Kuuspu ejects herself from the dance. But with Kuuspu gone, the dancers exchange desiring glances at each other, touch hands, and retreat slowly and separately into the shadows. The scene begins again for another portion of the audience that had watched another scene in another room.

            A third scene takes place in a room dressed to resemble a small kitchen. Two young women, dressed in shiny scarlet pants and black sweaters, inhabit the space. Pink tones pervade the scene: pink coffee cups, pink spoons, a pink clock, a chandelier made out of dangling pink gloves, even the lighting is pinkish. Woman A (Kristiina Heinmets) does something at a stove in a dark corner of the room while Woman B (Alma Nedzelskyte) stands up from a chair to watch her. When Woman A returns from the stove and goes to a cupboard on the other side of the room, Woman B moves a kitchen utensil on a wall from one peg to another, and when Woman A returns from the cupboard, she returns the kitchen utensil to its original peg, while Woman B adjusts the item that Woman A had handled at the cupboard. Woman A and Woman B face each other with Woman A holding a pink plastic spoon; when Woman B does not accept the spoon, Woman A lets it drop to the floor. Variations of this sequence of actions occur three more times, once in slow motion, until Woman B catches the spoon. Woman B goes to the stove and retrieves a pot of coffee, while Woman A adjusts the pink wall clock. But Woman A blocks Woman B from returning to her chair until Woman B dodges her and they both sit down, side by side, and begin to assume different sitting poses without looking at each other. Then they swivel and face each other. Woman A places both hands on Woman B’s hips, but Woman B flings her hands away. They repeat this swivel-touch-fling movement several times while Kuuspu, holding a pink goblet, enters, opens the refrigerator and peers into it before bending to pick up plastic spoons dropped on the floor. Kuuspu’s “intervention” disrupts the game playing of the two women. Woman A goes to the stove, while Woman B resets the pink clock, Kuuspu tidies pink objects on the little tea table. She leaves the scene; Woman A and Woman B then ceremoniously stand and pour water from a pitcher into each other’s tea cups and sit sipping from the cups until Woman B reaches for a cigarette, which she lights with a match. Woman A draws a cigarette from the same pink pack and awaits a light from Woman B. When Woman B notices Woman A awaiting the light, she leans toward her and lights her cigarette by touching it with her own cigarette, as if the women kiss each other with their cigarettes. They smoke languorously for a moment, then simultaneously put out their cigarettes. They stand and embrace; they walk to the stove, from which Woman A withdraws a pan. She holds the pan ceremoniously before dumping the contents on the floor, spaghetti apparently. So the scene ends and begins again for another section of the audience. 

            The final scene occurs after all sections of the audience have seen the previous scenes performed simultaneously in different rooms. The entire performance ensemble appears together in the final scene before the entire audience. The action takes place in the same room where the bathroom scene occurred, but now the scene evokes the atmosphere of a nightclub, and the music here as elsewhere in the production is disco-electronica, although no one really dances in the scene. Virtually all of the action revolves around a large pillar in the center of the room; the audience surrounds the performance space, seated against the four walls of the room. A small metal railing, about a foot high, surrounds the pillar and enables performers to stand on it to reach and hang on to fixtures attached to the ceiling. The scene begins with Kuuspu, dressed, as elsewhere, in a black blouse, black pants, and sneakers, treading stealthily through space, scanning the audience for people or opportunities. She draws to her a pair of women in transparent tank tops and Spandex shorts; the women surround Kuuspu, but she slips away and leaves the two women to interact with each other. These women play a kind of game, encircling the pillar, darting and looping around each other, alternating stalking and evading each other, so that it is not clear who desires whom—or rather, the women convey an ambivalence about desiring or being desired. The appearance of another woman in a transparent tank top and shiny red pants complicates this game of ambivalent desire. Three women sneak, wind, and coil around the pillar, flinching when one woman touches the hand of another gliding down the pillar. Further complication ensues when a fourth woman, in transparent black tank top and Spandex shorts, enters the game, with the movements of the women becoming somewhat both predatory and furtive. A fifth woman enters, shadowed by Kuuspu, and the women study her before drawing her into their game. When a sixth woman enters the game, the action becomes very complex, with some women stepping onto the railing around the pillar, where they display themselves voluptuously, while other women gyrate and undulate alone or in pairs or slip into fleeting, unsustained or incomplete embraces. Every time, women form pairs, a third woman intrudes to break up the pair and form a new one. Whenever a woman seems drawn to another woman, a third woman distracts her. The women radiate away from the pillar into the shadows and gyrate voluptuously and individually before the audience. But the pillar draws them back and they all step onto the railing and display their bodies, prowl over each other’s bodies until finally they all step down at once to the floor and bend over in a circle around the pillar with each woman resting her head on the buttocks of the woman before her. They simultaneously raise their heads and lower them so that the other cheek of each woman rests on the buttocks of the woman before her. Each woman supplements this gesture with caressive strokes on the thigh or hip of the woman before her. But the body-chain collapses when the women break away to form pairs, three of them. The couples embrace, rather passionately, and perform provocative, gyrating movements within their embraces. Kuuspu re-enters the scene and approaches one couple; immediately this couple ceases to move as they and Kuuspu stare at each other. But when Kuuspu moves on, the couple begins to perform combative movements, as if each is fighting the other to prevent the other from attaching herself to Kuuspu. Yet Kuuspu drifts toward another couple and embraces these two women, starts dancing with them as a trio, until one of the women breaks away or is thrust out, so that Kuuspu is now a couple with the remaining woman. But the woman who left the trio causes the disruption of the other two couples when she tries to insert herself into them. Bodies become entangled and dispersed. A dispersed woman orbits the pillar and encounters Kuuspu and her partner, who thrusts Kuuspu toward the gang or “pack” of other women. One woman “confronts” Kuuspu, and the two stare at each other until they embrace and kiss. The other women form a line behind Kuuspu, with one woman embracing her from behind, leaning her head against Kuuspu’s neck. Each of the women embraces the woman before her and rests her head against the preceding woman’s neck. But this communal, physical unity does not last long: Kuuspu slips away from the chain and wanders off; then the other women separate and each wanders alone out of the space (Kuuspu 2019) [Figure 121]. 

            Desire constructs an impressive postmodern ideology of homoerotic female desire without relying on either speech or dance. Kuuspu fragments her narrative across different performance spaces and in doing so, she fragments her audience, so that the culminating scene in the nightclub does not result from an “objectively” linear progression of actions but from a linear progession of actions shaped by the desire of the spectator, who chooses the order in which to see the scenes. Desire drives the narrative organization of life within the ideology of female homoeroticism. Yet all of the scenes show women disclosing an ambivalent attitude toward the desire for another woman. In the living room, restroom, and kitchen scenes, pairs of women perform actions that alternatively provoke and depress desire, creating an intensifying tension between the women that eventually produces an oppressive stasis, an atmosphere of emotional stagnation. In all of the scenes, each woman uses physical actions alone to signify her desire for another woman but also her ambivalence about desiring the woman before her and her ambivalence about being desireable to the woman before her. But this ambivalence does not arise in relation to homoerotic feeling; it arises in relation to the idea of pairing or couplehood. The scenes in the living room, kitchen, and restroom show pairs of women seemingly trapped within a domestic milieu in which they repetitively perform mundane actions they hope will manifest some measure of vulnerability in which desire might reawaken and enable a desireable “metamorphosis” within the couple. But Kuuspu’s intrusion into all of the scenes implies that such metamorphosis is not internal to couplehood. Desire always deepens or expands in relation to another woman, a third woman, a woman outside or “free” of the realities of the couple. It is not relevant whether this other woman is real or a fantasy: she functions to reveal that desire cannot be contained within a couple; desire invariably includes “someone else.” The opening mirror scene and the corridor scene suggest that erotic desire is both the negation and revelation of one’s aloneness. You look into the mirror and see so many “others” gazing back at you with desire. In the corridor, solitary women pose voluptuously and writhe with masturbatory pleasure, as if the “other” one desires could be any of the shadowy spectators passing through the darkness of the passage to scenes of couplehood. The concluding nightclub scene provides relief from the desire-draining stasis or stability depicted in the domestic scenes. In this scene, women try to make contact with each other, they even try to form pairs, but they cannot become couples: another woman invariably “distracts” a partner or the shadowy Kuuspu appears and inserts herself between a pair. The women are actually closest when they form a chain, with all bodies connected and pressed against each other, as if the desire for any woman entailed desiring all the other women. Yet even this omnivorous desire cannot sustain the communal sharing of bodies: the desire for “more” or some “other,” more powerful body disrupts the chain, and the women disperse, disappear alone into the shadows and out of the space. As a whole, the piece asserts that erotic desire reveals itself most accurately and transparently through physical actions, not speech or dance. These physical actions are largely mundane: gazes and glances, “confrontational” stances, timid or tentative touches, predatory approaches and evasive steps backward, darting toward and flinching away from others, the handing of spoons or cups to another, the putting on or removal of an item of clothing, voluptuous poses and lurid gyrations, uncertain caresses and incomplete embraces. But none of the actions derive from the institutionalized movement vocabularies that define the sequestered studio aesthetics of mime culture and dance. Kuuspu and her ensemble appear to have devised a pantomime aesthetic that derives from their observations of female interactions in life. It is a pantomime aesthetic that arises out of a unique personal, sexual, and subcultural experience. Yet it is this uniqueness of physical experience that accounts for an exciting infusion of freedom into the postmodern performance scene.  

            Some spectators complained that Desire was not dance and that some of the performers did not have “dancer bodies.” They insinuated that Kuuspu had not sufficiently applied what she had learned in classes or in the dance studios. But perhaps these complaints cannot be detached from more subtle objections to the content of the piece, the physical rhetoric of homosexual desire, which perhaps cannot achieve accurate and insightful representation through the idealizing, institutionalized control over the body imposed by dance with its elaborate, step-bound movement vocabularies governed by schools. Homosexual desire apparently “moves” outside of this institutionalization. But in a sense, the performance of female desire as given by Kuuspu’s piece may also be outside of history or outside of the aesthetic “tradition” of performing desire as preserved through academic institutionalization. Kuuspu produced her piece without any knowledge of Estonia’s remarkable and imaginative contributions to pantomime in the decades before she was born. Possibly she conceived Desire without much, if any, knowledge of pantomime in general, for pantomime was not in the curriculum of Tallinn University. Indeed, she relied on pantomimic action because in her mind history offered no models for accurately embodying female erotic desire. But that is the peculiar irony of pantomime history. Pantomime startles and grips the viewer because it seems to discard whatever history of performance the spectator brings to a performance; it is so strange because it is such a brazen break with the past. The “unregulated” performance of the body produces a momentous shift in the way spectators read the body and read performance, a shift away from the past and toward a new way of deciphering bodily significiation. It is always “new” when the body “tells” about the world without relying on speech or dance. From this perspective, the history of pantomime is the history of a mysterious and even intimidating possibility of bodily freedom, a history of a future realm of exploration.

Scenes from Iha, directed by Keithy Kuuspu, Tallinn, Estonia, April 24-25, 2019: a) the mirror scene with Agnes Ihoma, Dana Lorén Warres, Silvia-Kairet Põld, Amanda Hermiine Künnapas, Kristiina Heinmets, and Alma Nedzelskyte; b) the living room scene with Agnes Ihoma and Dana Lorén Warres; c) the restroom scene with Silvia-Kairet Põld and Amanda Hermiine Künnapas; d) the kitchen scene with Kristiina Heinmets and Alma Nedzelskyte; e) the nightclub scene with Amanda Hermiine Künnapas, Alma Nedzelskyte, Silvia-Kairet Põld, and Agnes Ihoma. On the left side of the image is visible the right arm of the shadowy figure of Keithy Kuuspu as she intrudes upon the scene. Photos: Fideelia-Signe Roots. 

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