Wednesday 30 May 2018

Everything I See I Swallow

I've just seen a woman tied up and suspended from the ceiling. Her pale naked body contrasted with the red ropes that criss-crossed her skin as her flesh swelled slightly around the cords. Her entire shape was transformed as the ropes cut off her ability to move and forced her into an unnatural position. As she swung round and round, she was no longer like you and I, she looked helpless and immobile, bound fast, but she was far from powerless, she was completely in control.

I've just left the theatre from a showing of Everything I See I Swallow, a commissioned production taking place at The Lowry as part of their Week 53 celebrations. My mind is humming with thoughts of the things I've seen and heard.

Using a mixture of aerial skills and Japanese rope bondage known as Shibari (or Kinbaku) Everything I See I Swallow explored the complex and difficult relationship between long standing feminist ideologies and modern feminist viewpoints as portrayed by the play's characters, a young woman called Olivia who has found empowerment through submission and her mother, a woman who has tried to bring her daughter up to own of her own body, and steer away from damaging female stereotypes.

When the mother finds out that that her treasured peach of a daughter is posting naked images of herself in rope bondage on Instagram she is horrified and dismayed. In an attempt to protect her precious offspring she hammers home the feminist theories she herself has been educated on and the words of feminists past tumble from her in desperation, words we know she has read and memorised from the piles of feminist literature heaped round the stage.

Is Olivia doing this just to get online followers? Does she realise how harmful these type of pictures are? Or what a bad message they send out to other young women? Has her mother taught her nothing?

For the daughter the experience of being tied up is anything but exploitative. The beginning of the play starts with her hanging chrysalis like bound in her ropes, and like a butterfly, she hatches from their bonds a new person. As she carefully removed each knot, untying them herself and stepping to the ground she explained her journey to freedom.

For Olivia it was the pressure of living up to an acceptable version of femininity placed on her by society that truly confined her. It was good to be pretty, but bad to be pleased about it. It was expected that she should be flattered that men found her attractive, but bad to act on her own sexual desires. In time she felt ashamed by her own sexuality, hiding her body away. Yet, having the realisation that what really turned her on was submission was a turning point for her. A chance to actively play out the role of passive female through choice.

Choice is the really important message Olivia is trying to convey. No-one is forcing her to submit, it's a completely free decision and one that she gets pleasure and her own agency from. For her mother its hard to accept that something so intrinsically derogatory can be positive. As Olivia tries to explain her reasons for bondage, the mother is conflicted by her need to protect and nurture her daughter and get on board with such an alien idea.

To some degree this is an argument I've heard many times before. Topics like burlesque, Grid Girls, even make up and high heels have been compared to constraints invented by men for the pleasure of the male gaze; for every woman who feels legitimised by these sensual and sexual tropes another feels belittled and stagnated by them. It's never a simple issue of who is right or wrong but a tangled web of time and place, personal experience and choice.

For me, the play spoke eloquently about these precarious arguments in a focused and engaging way. It was easy to like both characters and understand where their very opposing views came from. The daughter's inner monologue describing her daily struggle to find her place in a male dominated world where she felt both comfortable and respected touched on unspoken emotions I, and I suspect many women, have often felt. Modern living for the younger woman really can be an ongoing journey of awareness and analysis, measuring your worth against a man made scale of what is acceptable and realising you can go against the norm. However finding the strength and understanding to do this isn't always easy.

The daughter character found that being tied up through choice and enjoying it subverted the struggle. It turned the power play on its head. Essentially she found full ownership of her body both physically and mentally by fully living in a moment where she was 100% compliant and enjoying herself. This was beautifully illustrated by a segment of the play where sensual music thrummed, the lights glowed red and through a crimson haze we saw Olivia look directly at the audience with a suggestive grin. She moved with fluid motion across the stage wearing diamante and little else. Finding the coils of red rope she expertly began to tie specific knots winding them over and around her torso, between her breasts and down her back. Within no time she was transformed into the living work of erotic art swaying gently above the floor suspended by her bondage.

Then her mother entered. The music stopped abruptly, the lights turned white and her mum's disapproval stole the moment of all it's magic. Olivia was instantly unsure and awkward and clawed at the ropes to remove them. 

The mother character, like many feminists who grew up during the 60's 70's and 80's had first hand knowledge of what it was like to be sidelined and marginalised to a much greater degree than the young women of today. It is because of the older generations relentless fight for equality that young women like her daughter have been able to find their own voices and make such unlikely life choices while they are still young. The disconnect occurs when these choices seem to go against the older generation's moral compass. What this play reinforced for me was that the fight was for nothing if the old school don't support the freedom of choice even if it may seem to take on a patriarchal leaning. Choice is a huge step towards the ideal of equality. Understanding, conversation and support are key to moving forward.

Everything I See I Swallow was a beautiful and moving production that often left me in awe at the incredible aerial work which was used to describe memories and emotions. Both actresses, Maisy Taylor and Tamsin Shasha were fantastic at climbing high above the audience and creating elegant effortless shapes that defied gravity. The ropes they climbed could be both a device to bind them or give them opportunity to fly, depending on their state of mind. 

This was a thoroughly insightful look into the psychological, sexual and emotional journey of feminism within the modern world, an ongoing journey that is taking new and unexpected turns. It is up to us as a whole to make sure we don't get tangled in all the politics along the way.

Sunday 6 May 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #20 - Taking the Mic!

Friday was a very exciting day where The Hidden Pin Up got taken to the next level via song and spoken word as we spent the morning recording our very own vogue track!

Since we have the first half of the fan dance performance mapped out to a chosen song that evokes the bluesy burlesque of the vintage era (see this past post for details), it was important that the second half was just as strong yet gave our dancer the chance to move and tell her story in a totally different way.

Myself and co collaborator Darren (house mother of the House of Ghetto) decided to go down a vogue route as that is something the House of Ghetto are especially famous for and can be tailored, much like burlesque, to convey whatever message you want. 

With his strong knowledge of dance and music Darren suggested using the words from the feathers on the burlesque fans as direct inspiration to create our own customised track. Cue the arrival of talented performer Justina Aina (check her out, she's great!) who came with us to the Salford's Lowry Theatre to record some samples that will be laid over music.

It was fascinating to see how Justine worked. Having already been given the full set of stories from the fans, she had put them into sections and created a poetical arrangement that could be broken down, repeated, spoken and sang.

With technical manager David Wimpenny on the sound desk (he really knows his stuff and is a technical wizard, thanks so much Dave!) we were able to record several layers including, repeats of lines, whispered paragraphs and free-styled sections.

The next step will be putting everything together and creating the finished track, however we will be having a trial run of the performance including the fan dance and live vocals later this month, more info to follow!

Here's a sample of Justina's freestyling over a track, this wasn't recorded for our final piece but gave everyone an idea of how the live vocals could work. Hearing the stories put together in this context is both uncomfortable and funny. I'm loving how this is turning out and I am looking forward to sharing the finished thing with you!