by Jai Arun Ravine
September 19, 2014
The question that is central to my research is, “How do we move across space and time with respect to our collected histories?”
—Marissa Perel, artist statement
Passing Through the Gendered World
Are you conscious of your body when you walk into a space? This is the question I asked myself as I walked into the world created by Marissa Perel’s More Than Just A Piece Of Sky installed within The Chocolate Factory Theater. As I watched audience members cross the floor instead of walk around the edge, as I overheard small conversations, the rustle of bags, and the scrape of metal chairs, I wanted to ask everyone, Are you conscious of what is not moving, of what is still?
More Than Just A Piece Of Sky begins with our entrances. We encounter Perel curled up on their left side on a white bed with a white frame and white sheets, lit up by fluorescent white lights from underneath. The floor and walls are white. Books are stacked on the floor by the bed. On the other side there’s a rug and end table, upon which sit a Fisher-Price record player and a shruti box. Projected on the wall, paint chipped in many places, is a video of Perel and performers Jumatatu Poe and Lindsay Reuter talking about their relationships to religion, the body, queerness, fathers.
As the video plays, Perel is still, eyes closed, in bed—perhaps dreaming, but in my mind, listening and taking everything in. Is this a state of rest? A place of stillness? A pose of recovery? A burrow of comfort? A feeling of safety? A need for privacy? A memory of internalized shame? Is this posture a consequence of exile from one’s home, from one’s body? Is this posture the fatigue of race/gender/sexuality/disability written “all over myself”? Is this posture a reflex when [I] “take my body away from sight and disappear into self,” or “cross over into another world” to die, to disappear?
More Than Just A Piece Of Sky is a project that began with the mythology of the character Yentl, from Barbara Streisand’s 1983 movie musical and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story. Yentl leaves home, passing as a man in order to gain access to religious and spiritual knowledge within a world of men, and falls in love with a man (Avigdor) in the process. In an interview with The Dance Enthusiast, Perel says, “I remember watching Yentl, being mesmerized by the character’s passing… how Yentl moved through landscapes, ran through the woods, passed between her inner world and the outer world, and between different gender identities. In my version, Yentl is seeking to pass through the gendered world and find a different way of being altogether.”
In an early section, Poe and Reuter sit in chairs on a small platform; a mic, hanging from the ceiling, dangles between them. Passing the mic with a tender, tense, and teasingly sexual care, they begin by asking each other, “What is your name?” Reuter says “I’m Lindsay / I’m Yentl / I’m Anshel” and Poe returns with “I’m Avigdor / I’m Jumatatu / I’m Avi.” With each statement, the performers shift their tone subtly, which breaks ground for the subtle shifts between genders that the performers enact, engage with, and imagine throughout the piece.
They continue having a conversation together, and Perel begins, from their place curled in bed, to echo them softly, contributing to and creating these shifts. Perel becomes an alternate imagined self, another possible being, a conduit or channel, a localized dislocation. Then in an incredible climax to this section, both Poe and Reuter speak their strands of text simultaneously, and Perel echoes both simultaneously, opening up a gorgeous and heartbreaking spaciousness intersected with pathways of relation orchestrated by way of language.
Later, Poe joins Perel in the bed and they begin reading from the books piled around. Reuter also reads from the chair on the platform. With each book and each passage, they begin to have a conversation with each other via the text. They pull from such sources as Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary; Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks; Kathy Acker’s Pussy, King of Pirates; David Wojnarowicz’s The Waterfront Journals; Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip; Carrie Lambert-Beatty’s Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s; Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue; and Perel’s recent chapbook from Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, Angry Ocean 1-10.
The most powerful moment in my witnessing of More Than Just A Piece Of Sky was when I realized that the ways Perel, Poe, and Reuter related to each other using spoken language were kinesthetically entwined with the ways they related to each other using their bodies (by moving without speaking). The section I just mentioned culminates in Poe’s crescendo-ing articulation of a passage from Wojnarowicz. As he rises and treads along the edge of the bed frame, the sound and breath of his voice creates a physical altitude of cuts and pitches in the space. Then he moves into a section of breath-taking solo movement, that for me was of an indescribable texture, something like the onset of tears within the thickness of yarn threaded against fibrous bark, which attenuated, stretched, and recoiled.
I realized that both these ways of relating [by speaking] [by moving] were borderless when held in concert with one another. I felt it when Poe and Perel opened up books and then placed them face open on their stomachs and legs, when Reuter and Poe tenderly entangled themselves from one embrace to another, when Reuter’s (dis)articulation of her pelvis became an unhinged socket, the texture of an accidental rupture becoming cartilaginous, migrating away while the rest of the body moves in an opposing direction. As Poe and Reuter exit the space with a playful ease of touch, asking each other, over and over, “When does day become night?,” I unlearn and learn again that, be it sundown or twilight, the line between language and the body is a seam unbound.