At the start of the show, dressed in sharp little black dresses or suits and tie, one by one and then in two groups of five defined by gender, the cast of Motherland enter the brightly lit, all white space, stop and smile or just make silent, friendly eye contact with the audience and then leave.
This opening underscored the fact that the ages of this extraordinarily multi-talented group of performer/ dancer/musician/ singers, spans from 12 to late 70’s, always exciting to see on stage. It also established a ‘cool’, distanced and distancing aesthetic for a piece that is structured around a series of short, self contained (sometimes repeated) ‘episodes’ or ‘actions’, embroidering around the theme of motherhood and other gender related concerns. These embrace questions of masculinity but particular space is given to those of sexual objectification and violence against women. As this implies, to borrow from Marshall McLuhan, Motherland is actually ‘hot material in a cool vehicle’ and driven by a passionate anger.
There are upbeat and humorous episodes but this is frequently a matter of the tempo of the music, partly composed and mostly performed by Alexandru Catona, Scott Smith and Patryca Kujawska. Covering a wide range of styles and idioms this music is as often discordant and grating as it is as melodic. and even when this is the case, there can be a sting in the tail. For example, early on in Motherland an exuberant group movement and voice which appears to celebrate the abundance and fruitfulness of nature and culminates in an energetic sex act, is performed to a riotous, tumbling folk-style song. All seems joyful and celebratory, except the lyrics of the song touch on issues of despoliation and ruin.
Similarly, comic sequences tend to be acidly parodic or satirical. In a series of vignettes, Kujawska gradually transforms herself into a gurning parody of ‘attractive blonde femininity’. In a similar vein (and I am fairly sure, in a self-conscious quotation of a Nigel Charnock piece from a decade or more ago), Janusz Orlik drags up in a dress and high heels to execute an exaggerated version of the sort of ‘exotic dance’ moves commonly performed by women strippers. In another episode, Kujawska, Aurora Lubas and Andrea Catania impersonate a thrash metal band and the raw energy of the sound functions an abrasive counterpoint to their ‘sexy posing’ and lyrics underlining the need to ‘please’. All of these acts provoke laughter but push towards the grotesque, conveying a savage critique of the ways and means by which our culture endlessly replicates the same worn out, limited stereotypes of female sexuality and sells them to both women and men, as representing the epitome of desirable femininity. Underlining this in a chilling fashion, one of 12 year old Leah Yeger’s roles in the show is to be at first puzzled by these images but then in blank, mechanical fashion, start to reproduce them.
Unquestionably, however, the darkest elements of the show are linked to the theme of motherhood with images around this concept literally ‘bleeding’ into those of violence. At intervals throughout the show Lubos throws thick, fake blood on the white backdrop, hitches up her dress up and squats above this mark, staring out to the audience impassively, while the viscous liquid drips down between her legs and pools to the floor. If this speaks of the pain and loss of miscarriage, 78 year old Benita Oakley’s first story in a series of accounts of the births of her children is one of isolation and desperation but even the later ones seem infused with sorrow and anxiety, whatever their circumstances. This is perhaps because she speaks from a prone position on the floor in low tones to an accompaniment of sombre music that is intercut with echoing cries, and at the end she outlines her lips in fake blood that has been spilt on stage, a gesture she repeats throughout the show. In another action, after the application of fake blood to her thighs, Orlik roughly forces grubby looking ‘stuffing’ up Lubos’ dress to create a ‘pregnancy’ and her screams and cries could either signify labour or the agony of a vicious sexual assault. Again smearing fake blood between her thighs, Catania arranges herself on the floor across a wooden box in the unnatural and uncomfortable position of a body that has been broken and discarded. After a long interval, she drags herself slowly across the floor, pulling her lower body behind her in a grotesque tangle that implies irreparable injury. Eventually she leans against the back wall, hand raised in a silent plea for help or attention that never comes.
This last image has remained with me, pointing towards how for far too many women in our globalised world the consequences of being defined as a ‘sexual object’ is not in anyway a joke, even the most savagely grotesque one, and too often, help or attention doesn’t ever come. It also points to a general sense of female isolation in this show that extends to the relationship between the women performers. By the end of the piece, the originally pristine set and elegant appearances of all the cast, regardless of gender, are muddied and bloodied. Nevertheless, on the way there have been moments of connection and playfulness in duos and a group dance sequence between the male performers and occasionally in male and female interactions, especially the tentative, interrogative dances between Grieg Cooke and Yeger. Yet overwhelmingly, the women tend to perform either alone, or alongside and separate from each other, and with the exception of a comically vicious fight sequence involving the whole cast, seldom touch, lift, hold or even just look at one another. As indicated in the programme notes, this may be due to the way Motherland ‘embraces societal archetypes’ as part of a bleak vision of ‘women failing to find any visible power’. Yet it is also described as questioning ‘how women take up space, find a voice, make some noise’ but the lack of connection between the female performers does not allow that one of the ‘answers’ to this question and to that of women’s ‘visible power’, might be -collectively – through personal support and social and political solidarity. This even though, the full list of contributors to this show and the personnel in Vincent Dance Theatre is balanced towards, women and of course, is directed by the internationally esteemed, Charlotte Vincent.
If then, I am dazzled by the skill and accomplishment of Motherland’s performers, admire its rigorous and creative exploration of form and am in sympathy with its critique, as a feminist I am somewhat dismayed by the bleakness implied by the way its female performers ‘take up space’. This bleakness extends to its embracing ‘societal archetypes’ which align women with the body ‘earth’ and nature, so that their worth is measured not just through limited norms of physical attractiveness but through their biological functioning. As exemplified by Oakley (speaking from the floor, still and prone) or Catania (face down in the pile of earth, painfully draped across a box, dragging herself across the stage) or Kujawska (rolling on the floor against the back drop, smearing the bloody marks made by Lubos) the women in Motherland are frequently literally earth–bound. In this respect then, the choreography mostly chooses not to exploit the paradoxical way that dance can suggest, if not exactly a transcending of the physical, at least a refusal of bodily limitation.
Maybe I am just being romantic but I longed for just a few more intensely pleasurable, hopeful moments like the one where from her position, hand raised at the back of the stage Catania first of all insists ‘I’m still here’ and then breaks out of her isolation and her earth-bound framing. Taking control of the space she rushes giddily round the stage, directly addressing the audience in a cartoon –style re-creation and comment on the images she and the other women have created. And then, effortlessly stretching out her long, flexible limbs, for a few, brief dance steps she seems to float upwards; free and untethered.