Friday night I went to Joe’s Pub and saw B.A.N.G.S.: made in america, a wonderful dance performance full of sequins and fur, cutoffs and little black dresses, and virtuosic dance-theater movement. And some nudity. Yes, I’m writing about naked dancing yet again. I swear, at most of the dance concerts I attend, the dancers wear their clothes. But somehow my favorite questions are raised when dancers ask their audiences to consider what it means to take clothes off.
Joe’s Pub is an intimate, festive cabaret tucked in a corner of The Public Theater in New York City. The audience sat at café tables sipping drinks and snacking on fancy fries when LMnO3’s dancer-choreographers Deborah Lohse, Cori Marquis, and Donnell Oakley popped through the entrance door that serves as the only wing, busting a move and lip-synch rapping, “move, bitch, get out the way.” From the first moment, the trio played with the identities of modern girlhood, with enthusiastic goofiness and good humor. “Should I be sexy and tough?” they seemed to ask. “This feels kind of awesome!” Or maybe not: the showy poses melted into anxious faces that wondered what they were doing up on this little stage. These women never appeared insecure, exactly. But they certainly registered the contradictions involved in trying to be sexy, feminine, tough, perky, glamorous and happy all at the same time.
It was a funny show, with lots of out-loud audience laughter, and the dancers treated even their more serious moments with a light touch. At one point, Marquis became a demanding chorographer: “I want you to face left.” “I want you to make a lateral shape.” Oakley obligingly attempted to fill every request, never appearing to question the task. The requests piled up: “I want you to lighten up!” “I want you to take me seriously.” Oakley, an amazing shape-shifter, earnestly tried to fill every new request of the type you might hear from your partner, boss, or parent. Right up until she collapsed, and the lights went out for a moment, only to throw us right into the next story.
Clever costumes framed every dance scenario. In little black dresses and pretend high heels, the trio pranced and careened around the stage until they paused, opened dainty handbags, and pulled out chicken legs and pizza slices for a mid-show greasy nosh. They pulled up their picture-perfect LBDs to reveal spanx-type granny underwear, and pranced around in those. At one point, Marquis rolled on the ground struggling to pull on tight jeans, and then grabbed scissors and turned her jeans into teeny tiny cutoffs on the spot. Later, all three pulled high-cut bathing suits over their granny panties, then solemnly traded flouncy skirts until they found a color match. They danced an angstful yet Esther Williams-y trio to Tori Amos’ Precious Things, poignantly invoking the spirit of angry and earnest pre-teenage-hood. It seemed like the kind of thing I must have done with my sister when I was 10.
Near the end of the evening, the trio reversed the fabulous fur vests they had been wearing with their cutoffs, and launched into an over-the-top striptease, building up the audience for a rousing finale. As the applause died down, it was as if we were seeing the moment that was supposed to happen after the blackout, or in the wings. All pretentions to sexiness disappeared. After all that teasing effort to keep just exactly the right parts covered, they abruptly dropped their vests and casually threw them to the wings, just another discarded prop. It was as if, along with the vests, they tossed aside the goofy eroticism of the striptease, their matter-of-fact candor intentionally ruining what they had built. They grabbed microphones, and, topless, casually strode to the front of the stage. “Any questions? It’s time for audience Q&A. Anything you’d like to know?” Not surprisingly, the audience was quiet. The performers taunted for a minute, “so quiet! Are you sure? You don’t want to know about our childhood pets, or something?” Finally they threw on sweatshirts and performed a final mash-up of the evening’s dances, in the spirit of cheerful, I-dare-you-to-laugh-with-me humor that characterized the evening.
After the show, I spoke with Oakley about that final scene. She told me that she hates audience Q&As. When she and her collaborators were making the piece, she joked with them, “what could make me feel more vulnerable than doing a Q&A? Doing a Q&A naked!” In constructing a piece that was all about asking uncomfortable questions, clearly that meant they’d have to try a naked Q&A. And yet, the effect of doing the Q&A without a shirt was that it silenced the audience. Does standing up topless with a microphone but not answering any questions count as successfully avoiding a Q&A? Was Oakley vulnerable, or powerful? Or both?
That final scene, with the striptease and naked Q&A, crystalized some of the most compelling themes of the evening. Sexiness, or toughness, or daintiness, or any other kind of femininity, resides to a remarkable degree in what we wear and how we wear it (or take it off). Feminine identity can be remarkably fluid and capacious, if often problematically contradictory. And yet, whichever performance of femininity we choose, or symbolically refuse by going without its trappings, we have no choice but to live it and embody it. That embodiment makes us vulnerable. It is also the only way we can go out into the world, and claim our power. In an evening of raucous fun, the trio of LMnO3 showed us how to be boldly, optimistically vulnerable. I can’t wait to see more.