(Body) language, hesitation and recoil

Rebecca Patek. Photo by Vincent Lafrance (?)

Rebecca Patek. Photo by Vincent Lafrance (?)

After seeing Rebecca Patek’s ineter(a)nal f/ear this weekend, walking up Grand Street to the B train, I tried to digest what I’d experienced. I see-sawed between “It was painfully smart,” and “It was the most disrespectful, irreverent performance I’ve experienced in my life.” A synthesizing thought, though, is a question that I feel is important to consider: the performance was irreverent, surely, but irreverent towards whom?

Rebecca Patek, who plays the character Rebecca Patek in ineter(a)nal f/ear, is a satirist. In the performance, she performs bursts of grounded, expansive dancing intermittently between video clips and dialogue. I saw her enact a spoken word piece at AUNTS in May, where she stood at a microphone using constrained body language, except for an elaborate bow as her finish. Here Patek entered the space with similar physical hesitation, as the stuttering, insecure leader of her self-developed “critical feedback response method process.” This critical process is about rape, trauma, violence, and how to heal. Her bounding movements remind us that, as a performer making a very graphic comment on society’s treatment of sexual violence and shame, she is neither stuttering nor insecure.

Patek’s character (along with fellow performer Sam Roeck, who discusses his own story in parallel) exhibits one particular rape trauma for us in three iterations. We see it on screen, watching a man follow Patek into her apartment from the street as she narrates the scene in a voiceover, we hear about the aftermath in a mock Q&A, in which she and Roeck exchange information about their experiences, and we watch/hear the story unfold again on stage in a multifarious stint of role-playing between the two performers.

I found this last part, a large chunk of the performance, to be the most compelling part of the piece. When Patek questions Roeck, “Are you sure yours was like, a total rape?” we watch the disbelief on his face, as he wonders how to respond. Patek discusses the prevalence of sexual violence in society as having effected “98%… 1/3… 11 people.” Behind the mish-mash of information, the real-life associations and truths are grasped.

Where other parts of the performance felt layered with artifice—we watch a video of Patek perform a melange of sexual acts, then discuss her artistry while masterbating, after which Patek and Roeck have sex with a strap-on on stage—the role-play exchange happening on stage was verbal, but it physically explored the mechanics of shame that Patek set out to question. This exploration happened in ways that weren’t explicitly seen: body language, hesitation, recoils from one topic to the next. The tension in the room was like every socially awkward moment you’ve ever experienced, complete with our shaky laughter, compounded into one setting. When the performers switched roles at random, sometimes asking then answering the same question, there was felt to be a confusion between victim and perpetrator, between the trauma of an event itself and the trauma of its aftermath. With every (in)articulate exchange, a veil of societal bullshit lifted from the room.

Several 90’s anthems we have all known and loved moved swiftly in and out of the piece, which probably heightened my own self-reflectivity quite a bit.  “Bittersweet Symphony” burst into crescendo when Patek exclaimed “I put the key in the door,” coming to her own narrative crescendo after retelling the story of being followed home. RENT’s theme song “No Day But Today” played at a mock moment of resolution; Patek and Roeck hold hands and smile together, triumphant, staring off toward an elevated horizon. The satirical proposal that there is an uplifting conclusion to these characters’ stories is funny because it isn’t. Or: it isn’t funny because it is. Again with the see-sawing.

Patek introduced the role playing and discussion as a “structured moment” of the night. Watching this moment, the act of working through and trying to understand each other’s stories was painful and ingenious, especially in light of recent choreographic schemes. Compared to the use of a Nicki Minaj-ish popular song, a Sigur Rós-esque soundscape, or (if you’re like me) a Spice Girls-y ode to Girl Power to allow the choreographer’s movement and message to build, finally to reveal an out of breath performer at their moment of truth as the music fades conveniently to silence, Patek’s jarring and shame-indulgent scenes offer a framework for dance I find much more revealing. It allows for a conflation of abstract feelings—what we should feel—and the feelings we actually have, which are more visceral but less appropriate to the tone or topic of discussion. When Patek suddenly tells Roeck “You can pee on me,” after a series of questions about his personal experience, it felt like an authentic commentary on a complicated healing/shaming process, without becoming so representative of the trauma itself as to disturb in a way that devalued the impact of the performance.

I appreciate Patek’s work to combat social ignorance and shame concerning the gravity and also the humanness of trauma, especially when she is such a talented satirist. Surely, risk is a welcome factor in contemporary dance-making and performance structure. The excitement of not knowing how craft and theater will unhinge our preconceived, fixed understandings is reason enough to go see a performance at all. In Patek’s work, craft is certainly lurking in her creation of a new, uncomfortable kind of performance.

But I wonder how simulating violent, cyclical scenarios and explicit sexual scenes contributes to Patek’s performance, when she is asking us to reconsider how we respond to them. Sex with a strap-on on stage is still sex with a strap-on. It was a thing that happened, like a microphone stands on stage or a dancer dances around it, that revealed no new information about Patek’s ideas, or about sex; it was just happening in front of me. I felt uncomfortable in a way I didn’t appreciate, as opposed to my previous discomfort which felt explorative and important. A video of a young woman walking into an apartment while being followed by a stranger, similarly, is still a young woman walking into an apartment while being followed by a stranger. This gave me a number of reactions, mainly a visceral bout of nausea as the video cut to Patek curled up and lying on the floor after the man left, but to what end I’m not sure. As we saw these scenes come and go I had to ask: what’s being reconsidered here?

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