MDLSX, as a site of radical recomposition
A long table stretches alongside the back wall of La MaMa’s downstairs theater. Otherwise, the space is largely bare. A playing space is delineated by a swatch of metallic fabric laid upon the floor. On top of the table are a series of mixing boards, a microphone, and what appears to be a lamp. In general, DJ equipment. Behind, on the back wall, a circular projection screen awaits content. Here, then, is the setting for today’s revolution, soon to be rendered in strobe-washed detail by the performance group Motus, as they enact their version of a show they’ve titled MDLSX, which plays through January 17th.
From the Xenofeminism Manifesto, a quote provides the caption for one of the photos of the show (posted on their Facebook page) from a prior performance in July: “Xenofeminism is gender-abolitionist. ‘Gender abolitionism’ is not code for the eradication of what are currently considered ‘gendered’ traits from the human population. Under patriarchy, such a project could only spell disaster—the notion of what is ‘gendered’ sticks disproportionately to the feminine. But even if this balance were redressed, we have no interest in seeing the sexuate diversity of the world reduced. Let a hundred sexes bloom!”
But I still didn’t know what Xenofeminism meant exactly, so a deeper dive into the swirl of internet content revealed this course description from the New Centre for Research & Practice from their Fall 2014 curriculum archives. You can (and should) read the whole course description by clicking the link, but something that stood out for me was the phrase “…for which the future remains open as a site of radical recomposition…” I hold onto this idea because the show (as it plays out here in this article) is about to start, and I need some help in finding ways and means to articulate how this particular theatrical disruption functions in space – not just theatrical space, but political space, or even abstract space – the space between what I know (not that much) versus what is known (still not that much) versus what is.
What is is this – a performer enters the space. The performer is referred to in the program and in various locations online as she, so I will use that pronoun, albeit with some caution. Silvia Calderoni is the performer, and is the only person who will appear on the stage until the curtain call, at which point the creators of the show (Daniela Nicolo and Enrico Casagrande) will join in the bows. With Calderoni’s entrance, ambiguity instantaneously envelopes the room. Up on the circular projection screen, a young girl sings the words to a song in Italian along with some others on a stage. This girl, we think, must have been Calderoni at some earlier age. But things have changed – the performer standing before us is Mick Jagger thin, dressed in ambiguous but maybe somewhat feminine clothing, almost impossibly beautiful in that way that boys are beautiful, and is in the midst of filling her hair with a copious amount of hair spray while dancing to a new beat that has overtaken the video footage. Throughout the performance, Calderoni will transform over and over again without ever resting in a place of gender resolution – though I will see her naked body and what is between the legs (illuminated by a laser-thin ray of light, almost seeming to smoke in a particularly beautiful staged moment mid-performance), I will never be able to say to myself, “Here is a woman,” or “This is a man.” Calderoni straddles this line with easy virtuosity, in a performance bold, complex, and honest. I begin, in fact, to question why this distinction is important to me. What is it about the inability to determine a person’s gender that both troubles and entices me?
The show itself, intriguingly and perhaps problematically in some ways, contains a retelling of the plot of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book Middlesex, which tells the story of Calliope Stephanides (later, Cal), an intersex person who was raised as a girl but was hormonally male. Early on, the content of the performance has the quality of a first-person autobiographical narrative performance, retelling (we assume) Calderoni’s experience of growing up as a girl but never finding a way to fit in. But – at some point – Calderoni either becomes or reveals that she has always been “Cal,” the character from Eugenide’s novel. This revelation is doubly complex given the (intentional, one assumes) similarity between the fictional character’s name (Cal) to her own last name (Calderoni), which serves to prolong the cognitive dissonance that this narrative twist introduces. The stories which we took to be truth (tales from Calderoni’s childhood, home videos of a girl who appears to be Calderoni) are deeply troubled by this new identity shift. And as the show strikes out in this new direction, it becomes difficult to hold onto that which we took to be truth and certainty – anyone familiar with the original source (Middlesex) will recognize that the narrative is now a retelling of a fiction written by a white cis-gender man, no longer a personal autobiography, no longer a simple transaction (if it ever was to begin with).
And so perhaps this is what revolution feels like, today’s version. A story we thought we knew, told by a performer and within a frame that promises a recomposed authenticity in representation, in a transformative way. From the program notes: “MDLSX emerges from an investigation of the theme of border/conflict and a reflection on the idea of edges, visible and invisible.” To some extent, it’s all edges – mostly invisible until they are suddenly revealed theatrically, then made invisible again. Throughout, a DJ set plays through 22 tracks. The lights spin dizzily, hypnotically. The dialogue, spoken in Italian and projected on the back wall, pulls in one direction as Calderoni hurdles the invisible hurdles and races on towards the future.