Give us creative ingenuity, meaning and commentary, and hell yes, wild fun; Marta Ziółek’s confident and charged performance Make Yourself, part of the fabulous Perforations Festival at La MaMa, is chock full of it all. The work, a collage pastiche generally concerned with cultural bombardment, expressed through dance ranging from Riverdance to club bops, is possibly the most cohesive performance of its kind that I have encountered. By its nature, the work resists cohesion, yet Marta Ziółek and her collaborators have constructed something that breezes seamlessly, makes clear statements, and, while remarkably unusual, is a very specific thing. Now that is a feat.
That very specific thing is a menacing expressionistic meditation on culture and image. It is certainly a high-intensity meditation, but don’t let the high-intensity misguide you. Each section massages the circumference of its content in question -- vague notions such as high-speed, glow, and (the not so vague) beauty. The ensemble employ a performance approach that utilizes synchronicity, fierce tableau, gesture and statue, and most importantly movement, so as they deal with the content in question, they address it through those non-verbal communicative tools. They barely touch, really just lightly kiss the cultural imperative of that content -- high-speed, beauty, etc. -- while nonetheless imparting how these ideas can still affect us, how these issues shape our identities, behaviors, and relations.
The impact of the piece was expressed through the performers, an excellent ensemble of embodied movers. They began the work as single-noted expressions. As the work evolved, they absorbed the content of each section -- the cultural assault the work was generally concerned with -- into their performing and performance presence. So after a section concerned with, for instance, a cultural assault they termed “glow,” the performers embodied the elements from that section into their presence for the remainder of the piece. This was only possible because the performers had a charisma we in the theater like to call real presence, a charged intensity palpable through a simple glance or gesture. They wanted us to touch the layers of their performance.
In a very real way, the movement of the piece, the driving force of the work, was embodied by the performers, a performance concept I had yet to encounter. It has been incorporated before, but never before have I seen it so primary. While so much work of this nature has a very regimented feel -- and a keen observer could certainly point out the different sections of Make Yourself -- there was an unmistakable seamlessness to the work due to the performers' layered and layering characteristics being the movement of the piece. That’s pretty fascinating.
Lest we forget, the organization of the performers did equal work, if not more, to allow them to thrive. The choreography had a chic aplomb that just worked. Be it a runway moment, the suggestion of cunnilingus, or even simple yoga moves, the choreography had a sophistication of spacial awareness, floor patterns, and the balance of the performing space to give it all confidence, brute force, sex appeal, strange transcendence. The group choreography opened and closed, folded together and re-emerged. Performers would fall in and out of line, build and disintegrate in a fluid way that, again, gave the work a very ‘in control’ feel.
I keep returning to this point, that the artists had control of the piece, because it is so unusual in work so derivative of nothing, so trying something never done before, not to mention a work attempting to create a significant, somewhat volatile dynamic with the spectators. Artists such as Ann Liv Young make their money in the chaos; it seems that Marta Ziółek and her collaborators were more after the suggestion of danger, the notion that it is right in front of you, rather than its expression itself. That danger is about culture, is about sex and desire, all sorts of stuff, but it is danger.
Perhaps the work is mocking us? Who is to say. All I can say is that something happened within the performance matrix, a space the performers repeatedly reestablished by catwalking into the aisle. That dynamic was made abundantly evident when, near the end of the work, they brought onto stage two very cis brown-haired dudes and began, um, caressing them, dancing in front of them. I’ll tell you, no one was safe, they had just teased the suggestion that anything was now possible.
But please don’t let me insinuate anything inappropriate happened: this is the danger that the piece was concerned with, embodied by the performers themselves. The work is remarkably fun! Sexy and dynamic with excellent movement. This is genuine, bona fide theater concerned with doing something with the art of co-presence and the feedback loop derived from it. The danger was not frightening, it was the resolution of the work.
Though the work is gone, I hope Marta Ziółek and her people will be back again, and soon. More so, I hope artists take the chances as she has. We all deserve it.