My experience of Borrowed Prey was bracketed by scent. I walked into Dickson’s Farmstand Meats for Friday’s P. Club outing worrying about what odors were waiting for us. And when I walked out, an hour later, I was enveloped by the warm, comforting aroma of baking bread in the shop across the hallway.
My worry was tied to my memory of experiencing Ishmael Houston-Jones’ darkly beautiful Them at Performance Space 122 two years ago—specifically, to this memory, which I wrote about when I reviewed the work then:
But there’s no escape. [Arturo] Vidich, still blindfolded, ends up on a thin mattress wrestling with the carcass of a goat, its throat slit. The smell of the dead animal, meaty and thick, is almost unbearable. Blood smears the white fabric. It’s horrible to watch. It’s also somehow beautiful and, despite the uncomfortable ethical questions, necessary: The us witnessing the them.
I knew that Carrie planned to butcher a lamb during Borrowed Prey, a solo which examines our relationship to our food, and which developed in part from her research hunting and slaughtering animals (the animal behavior scientist Temple Grandin is another influence). All I could think about was that musky, overpowering stench, the way it washed over the P.S. 122 audience in a heavy, horrible wave. Dickson’s was too small, I thought, a little panicky; the odor would be too intense and I would have to leave (I wasn’t surprised to learn that at least one other P Clubber, who had also seen Them, had this same fear….).
But, of course … there was no smell. The lamb had been refrigerated. It had also been stripped of its hide; its denuded head and thin neck appeared at times almost bird-like, and young. I am not a vegetarian, and so … there are a lot of disturbing things to think about here, beginning with remembering that lambs, as well, are babies. (After the announcement for this outing was sent out, one P Clubber wrote to me: “I feel like it can’t possibly be good. It’s possible for suicide to be good art, but I think that murder can never make for good art!”)
But I am thinking about these disturbing things now. I was not thinking about them during Borrowed Prey. Not really. Not in the way that I could feel the work wanting me to think about them…
(Funny how that happens, the way our relationships with art works are so much like our relationships with people, how we resist or evade the very thing that is pressed upon us. After the show, when we were at The Grey Dog for our post-performance drinks and giant cookies—no one ordered meat—we talked about how difficult it is for art to get at causes or messages earnestly and head on, what a knife edge the artist has to walk.)
I was thinking, instead, about how vulnerable Carrie seemed during the solo, and how easy it is, when you go to see numerous shows a week, to forget what it is for people to get up in front of other people and speak to things they feel strongly about. What a big deal that is.
And so, perhaps, in a way Borrowed Prey worked its way into my system. Carrie talked a lot about empathy, about a need for closeness even when we cannot stand to be close (here she borrowed from Grandin, whose autism, which sometimes isolated her from other people, also helped her to empathize with frightened livestock, eventually making her a galvanizing figure in the animal welfare movement). I loved the moments in the dance when she got very close to us, breathing on our necks or nuzzling our bodies. I was amazed at how good it felt to have my knees rubbed, gently, for a moment, how important that brief touch could be.
But but but … I wanted something else, too … afterwards, one of the P Clubbers said that there was no “dissonance” in the solo, that the emotional tenor stayed too firmly in one place. Someone else mentioned the theatrical overlay that didn’t allow her to simply sit with what was already plenty dramatic… I agree with both of these points. It isn’t, after all, every day that you stand inches away from a knife-wielding dancer as she slices into a dead animal.