Mathilde Monnier & La Ribot’s Gustavia at the French Highlights festival

Gustavia, image by Marc Coudrais

Gustavia, image by Marc Coudrais

Gustavia was the kind of show that makes me angry. Angry that it’s so good, so unique, so necessary and yet only here in New York for one performance, so it’s already come and gone by the time you read this.

Ah well, that is the festival lament! I suppose we should be thankful to the several French cultural agencies that came together to bring the piece here at all, as part of the new French Highlights festival, which is yet another addition to the busy APAP calendar.

Two 50-something choreographers/performance artists (Monnier, French, and La Ribot, Spanish but based in Switzerland), looking a bit like sisters, variously make us laugh, stun us to silence and leave us in wonder at unexpected shows of anger and strength, in the evening length duet. They work on a stage enveloped in black fabric, including the floor, a rather frightening and thrilling choice – we watch the women stride briskly backwards through the deep black whorls, in heels (and fall, and get up, and fall again) on the unstable surface. Makes sense- this gutsy piece blending burlesque, text and movement wants to share ideas about women and the ways we attempt to be strong.

Initially one tries to gain dominance over the other via competitive weeping and keening. In a following section the audience was riveted by a violent slapstick scenario, the statuesque La Ribot crisscrossing the stage with a huge board (foamcore, one hoped), knocking her more petite partner out again and again – but eventually the much abused Monnier joins La Ribot and takes on the board, which now comes to seem like the act of a religious pentitent.

Image from video of past performance, by Sylvia Dubost

One section was a competitive ‘knee striptease’ – the women changed into loose black slacks and race to bare their knees for us as fast as they can, over and over, falling off chairs and hurting themselves in the effort, revealing for me the inherent meanness and smallness in objectifying parts of the body via striptease, and the lengths women will go to best one another regarding the display of the body.

Several other moments knocked me out, but none moreso than the the final section. Both women stand tall in leather boots on high black stools, flanking the gap in the upstage curtain.  They engage in a simultaneous duologue about an ideal woman, each sentence beginning, “A woman..”  I dashed a few of these declarations down in the dark.. these were offered in La Ribot’s growly strong voice, quite a wonderful instrument, and Monnier’s higher French-accented tones,  and accompanied by sharply descriptive hand gestures.

“A woman fucks with her navel.” “A woman has three tits.” “A woman has no shoulders.” “A woman cooks only organic food.” “A woman has no plastic in her house.” “A woman puts a carrot in her ear, it comes out her mouth.” “A woman has hair all over her body.” On and on, swerving from comedy to pathos, absurdity to quite real, seeming to address the modern need for the woman to be everything- sexual goddess, stunning body, good mother, caring wife, career woman, politically aware, etc- in other words some sort of perfection monster.. The last few were slower and sadder, the lights dimming on the two.. “A woman prays..” “A woman, alone, in the dark..”

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