Apples. Laundry. High heels. Stones.
On Tuesday, July 7, I went to see Sol Picó’s W.W. (We Women), part of the GREC Arts Festival in Barcelona, at the Mercat de les Flors.
W.W. (We Women) investigates the status of women today worldwide. To make this piece, Sol Pico asked women artists and choreographers from many parts of the world to respond to the question:
“What does it mean to be woman?”
From this research, W.W. emerged.
I felt and wondered a lot of things going into this piece. Although I am a staunch feminist, I shy away from work that is overtly so because it so often seems too one-dimensional. I wondered whether I would feel preached at. Also, as a privileged, white, middle-class American woman from a progressive family, I am detached from the realities of violence and overt oppression many women in the world face. I wondered if I would see myself in the piece.
There are no curtains around the stage when I enter the theatre, allowing me to take stock of the scene before the performance begins. There are no wings and no curtains around the theatre. Sand covers the floor, and white military tents are set up onstage. I think of refugee camps, modern nomadic groups, and the book The Red Tent. Transient and ancient.
A stream of sand begins to waterfall from the ceiling. One by one, the women emerge from the central tent, dressed in bikinis and high heels, and walk a runway path to the stream of sand. They don’t walk like models, but like human beings. I take in each body as she walks.
Eight women enter: four musicians and four dancers.
Each body is strikingly unique. Of the dancers, Minako Seki is bird-boned and appears frighteningly breakable, with a curtain of hair that she can wield like a whip or retreat behind like a curtain. Julie Dossavi is muscled, dense, and earthy, with power coiled in her stance. Sol Picó has the compact and chiseled stature of a 1980s aerobics instructor. Shantala Shivalingappa’s svelt and graceful body holds surprising strength. I don’t remember the musician’s bodies so well, because I didn’t spend as much time looking at them.
The performers speak in many voices and languages. In addition to French, English, Spanish, Catalan, and Japanese, there are the precise languages of gesture and movement, and the voices of the violin and guitar. One woman sings.
It’s clear that although Sol Picó is credited as the choreographer of W.W., this is not “Sol Picó and Company.” Each woman is an artist in her own right, and a collaborator in the work.
The diversity of the performers reminds me that the world is bigger than me. Their individuality makes clear that within the broad strokes of culture, nationality, and religion each woman’s experience is different. The question “What does it mean to be a woman” is answered in different ways at different times. For example, Shivalingappa portrays a woman speaking with pride about a matriarchal culture she was raised in (but she speaks in English, so no one can understand her). Dossavi rants in French about the injustice of being given a bitter green apple as a prize for being the last one standing in a grueling dance-off. There are many subjective narratives, rather than a universal truth.
In time, as these experiences compile, themes and common threads emerge. Images and objects heavy with symbolism--apples, laundry, high heels, stones--anchor the stories and create a sense of continuity.
Take stones, for example.
There is violence in the piece. There are no men, and no external forces of oppression. All of the violence—explicit, symbolic, psychological—is inflicted by women, on women—on ourselves.
In one scene, the women silence each other. They put their hands over each other’s mouths, hold back the insistent motion of limbs, intercept the musicians hands that seek their instruments.
In another, which feels all too familiar, one woman, a cross between a drill-sergeant and a zumba instructor, goads the women to dance until they drop in a frenzied contest for the best bikini body.
One of the most disturbing sections of the piece is a duet between Julie Dossavi and Minako Seki. Dossavi embodies an abuser, her fury provoked by Seki’s insistent and childlike repetitions of a phrase. Seki’s bony frame is flung over and over again to the ground, and over and over again she persistently rises. The repetition is not defiant or triumphant; it is more like the repetitive bed-wettings of an anxious, fearful child. Out of her own control. At the end, Dossavi has tied Seki to a laundry line by her rope of hair. She hangs there, limbs flailing, a useless marionette.
I wonder about the gender of Dossavi’s character in this scene. Then I decide it doesn’t matter. Abuse is abuse. Sometimes women are the oppressor, sometimes the oppressed.
What else ties the piece together? Well, there is a lot of laundry.
Laundry lines span from the tents to the corners of the stage. When not dancing, the women are hanging, shaking, folding laundry. It is mostly quiet background music, except for one time when the crisp snap of a shirt takes center stage in a performance of domestic skill.
The women cling to their duties, never at rest. Always they are moving. Exhausted from the dance-a-thon contest, the women crumple to the ground one by one. When they can no longer dance they are given a broom to pick themselves off the ground and begin to sweep at the earth. They accept this task without question and sweep all the sand from the center to the edges with a resigned efficiency.
At the end of the piece, it seems the women will finally stop. They set a table for themselves: juicy apples and heaping plates of dirt—and call each other to it (“Por fin!”). With ceremony they fling a spoonful of dirt over their shoulders like a toast and take a bite of the apple. Just at that moment the roof springs a leak. Dust comes pouring down again from the ceiling. Someone springs to her feet to catch it with a bucket. The apples, half-eaten, remain on the stage.
Internalized violence. The demands of the mundane taking precedence over the beautiful or the extraordinary. The hands that never stop moving. Yes, that feels like woman.
I am surprised by how familiar it feels. Even if I may not have known the full depth of it, I can always recognize the taste: The inability to stop myself from doing the dishes, even when I come home exhausted and it’s not my mess. The strange self-punishing pride of standing so that others may sit when its your feet doing the hurting. The unexplainable rage I sometimes smother when I see other’s weakness, because it reminds me of my own. The petty stones I hurl at others and heap on myself. The sour apple I eat when what I really want is a slice of cake. And the wild nights of being pulled to dance by the full moon and the sadness I didn’t know I carried.
Is this it? Is that all? How sad.
I find myself thinking that there is something missing. I find myself thinking: Where are the mothers? Where is the comfort and safety in each other’s presences? Where is the joy? I have been blessed by friendships with incredible women. They are strong, giving, and compassionate. I hold these women close and dear to my heart, and I want to have this seen and celebrated.
There are moments that hint at it. They happen within the lit domestic haven of the tents; swapping stories and gossip in an easy companionship, quiet laughter, the undercurrent of hands on a drum. Or they happen in moments of rare solitude when women are pulled into dancing and their voices ring out suddenly and powerfully. But these moments are few and far between. More common is the sense of loneliness, competition, and isolation that keeps us from each other.
Maybe it’s impossible to tell it all. Maybe there just isn’t room. The performance is less than two hours. The stage is only so big. And pain is more interesting to watch than joy.
I leave the theatre feeling the weight of it all, not knowing what to do with it. I came with a group: five women and one man, and I am hungry to talk. I want to know if they saw themselves in the piece, too. But no one can seem to find the words. I can’t tell if my companions are afraid of diving in to the mess of emotions, or if they are genuinely baffled by the foreign language of post-modern performance and don’t know how to engage. (That happens).
I ride the metro home by myself, thinking of the women I would like to talk to at this moment. I wish they were here to listen, process, and share. Since they are not, the next best thing is to write it all down.