Fight, flight, freeze or something else
In Emily Wexler’s solo performance Blood Lines, she walks into the space and starts on the floor. She moves through positions that seem to follow a blueprint we cannot see. The floor sequence establishes a series of body and spatial patterns, and develops long enough for me to feel the same confidence in the choreography as I do when I am watching two performers dance in unison.
Over the course of the Emergency Glitter festival, I saw choreographers use Abrons Arts Center’s Experimental Theater in different ways. Wexler had us sit on the floor, sequestering herself in the back of the space. To witness her at eye level as she moved with methodical pacing in the beginning was helpful for digesting what came later, when she took on a more frenzied energy. It gave me a chance to notice subtleties — black eye shadow, calm expression, black shirt slowly becoming untucked from red underwear. On the floor she travels definitively from a point A to a point B, but there are no beelines. The path Wexler’s body takes from one shape to the next is intentionally complicated. Only once she’s flipped the palm of her hand from face down to face up, for instance, does she roll from her stomach onto her side. To poke one arm out in front of her body and toward us, she first squeezes it between the weight of her body and the floor. There seems to be an argument developing through Blood Lines, which starts as an internal, bodily conflict. By the end, the performance seems to embody a very determined fight.
Wexler’s use of a young woman as her soundscore (the program notes tell us it’s “her 15-year-old lifegaurd-best-friend Amber”) was notable for the voice’s opposition to what the performer herself seems to represent. (I use “represent” cautiously here, given Wexler’s investment in tearing down objectification.) The young woman on the voice over is naive. She responds to questions about her relationship, which exists mainly through texts and phone calls, with a boy from school. “He texted me three times that day!” she says, indignant but laughing. When he asked her what she thought of him: “I said, ‘You tell me first!’” I giggled at the frivolity of her statements, but at the same time felt a deep empathy for women, and felt sorry that this role of wondering and waiting exists for so many of us. Waiting to text back, wondering what to say, wondering with what degree of coyness it should be said.
Wexler is not naive. Though her standing movement felt less intentional than those that carved the space on the floor, she gains a momentum that refuses the inactivity involved in wondering and waiting, and creates a compelling scene. Contradiction, like that of the voice we hear to the performer we see, exposes social constructs that invisibly shape how we think and do. Breaks between lived reality and the reality we are told we are living are, I think, interesting points of entry into making meaningful dances.
I am not sure how a song by Fever Ray contributed to this dance. The overwhelming (and beautiful) soundscape certainly served as a spotlight, an alert that something was going on here that I should pay attention to. But I was already paying attention. As Wexler slid down the wall on her back, repetitively crossed the space in bounding motion, closed her eyes and opened her mouth in what looked like an unsettling mix of submission and defiance, I felt curious to know how much of what I saw was enlivened by the particular song, verses by the combined the effect of the whole scene. I felt curious to know whether more choices could be made in the choreography that might even preclude the need for sound at all as the dance builds.
Though, her spinning and hurling, undefined as it was, made me feel strangely at peace. This was an unsettling feeling, which was perhaps the most interesting part of my experience of the work. In Sensing, Feeling and Action, Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen says that in women, the fight, flight, or freeze (fff) system is replaced by the practice of “tend and befriend.” Does Wexler’s performance live in this practice? Wexler wasn’t speaking for me or with me in her performance, rather she seemed to be finding a passageway between life as a woman inside social constructs, and life as a woman who simply lives. While I did not feel a sense of history in Wexler’s work, as the title suggests I should, I did see lines between the different felt realities of now.
I have had enough of dances that fizzle and fade as an “ending.” I am not asking for a projection on the wall reading THIS IS THE END NOW, but I appreciate when a choreographer has clearly considered the final moment of the dance as being, by nature, different from all the others. Wexler’s ending as a one woman game of charades is shockingly different from the rest of her piece, which had not addressed us directly until that point. At the end the performer is towering over the audience, staring at us as she rapidly passes through the phases of the game: she acts out a phenomenon, anticipates our guesses, shows frustration at our inability to associate actions with meaning, acknowledges our failure (sitting there silently, eyes glued to her, we are truly terrible at playing charades), she tries again. In positions and gestures, she acts out a transfixing portrayal of the different projections, objectifications and manifestations of self a woman can take on and/or receive. Here it is a game that is not about play, with stakes significantly higher than any round of charades I have ever played. This conclusion, as the lights faded extra-slowly on a frantic Emily Wexler trying to get a message across, was like plotting the final stage of a scattered and formidable blueprint for building bridges.