by Christine Shan Shan Hou
Four women rise from the front row of the theater, shrouded in long, dark hair. They make high-pitched ghostlike moans and wails while slithering onto the stage. It’s a chilling beginning, and one that will stay with me for some time. (This is largely because the image reminded me of Samara Morgan, aka “the girl” in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, a film that led to one of my longest bouts of insomnia.) In luciana achugar’s latest work, FEELingpleasuresatisfactioncelebrationholyFORM, now running at the Abrons Arts Center, achugar, along with Rebecca Brooks, Jennifer Kjos, and Melinda Lee, examines ritual and its relationship to the primal self.
Achugar’s decision to use hair as both costume and prop is an intriguing one. After all, there’s wanted and unwanted hair. There’s good hair and bad hair. For women, it’s a troubling double standard, with pressure to get rid of excessive hair on faces, arms, legs, and pubic areas—hair is undesirable, especially when noticeable, or dark-colored. Whereas women’s body hair is viewed as uncanny or repulsive—think of the “bearded lady” phenomena at circus sideshows—men’s body hair is often regarded as natural, and their personalities, amiable. There’s a pop culture history to this: Cousin Itt from The Addams Family, Star Wars’ Chewbacca, Teen Wolf, and Harry and the Hendersons, to name a few.
I have had a complicated relationship to my body hair: I have felt pressure from my peers to shave my legs before they even had any hair on them. I watched my older sister tweeze her eyebrows in awe and then copied her until mine were stubby lines. When I started growing pubic hair, I remember feeling a tinge of excitement, only to find out, after coming across porn, that it is considered “sexier” to be hairless. I remember throwing away my razor blades and declaring that I would never shave my armpits again, only to be confronted by stares from co-workers at my summer job.
The abundance of hair transfixes me.
I watch with intrigue and a slight sense of horror as the four faceless and naked female bodies writhe like zombies in their tangled manes. The long hair does not come from a single headpiece, but includes hair sleeves that are worn on the women’s shoulders and a longhaired skirt around their chests.
Watching limbs come forth and disappear from these hairy veils is a surreal sight. The lush red stage curtain swallows an arm and then a leg.
Later, the women stand in two rows of two, mirroring each other’s movement: feet paw the floor, signaling animals on the verge of attack; an arm extends into space and then suddenly retracts. There’s something off-putting about this kaleidoscopic sequence: one of the dancers always seems to be one step ahead or behind her mirrored counterpart. The disregard to detail (their sight is perhaps obscured by their hair) is distracting. “Rigorous formalism,” as stated in the press release, must be impeccable in order to be convincing; think of Beth Gill’s stunning symmetrical feat in Electric Midwife.
Two women conjoin, forehead to forehead, in green and magenta spotlights designed by Carrie Wood, enhancing the sickly psychedelic atmosphere.
In one strangely comical scene, a partially raised stage curtain frames the dancers’ legs as they ring a pile of blue jeans. For the next few minutes, the women struggle their way into them—without the assistance of their hands. They fiercely jump up and down with frustration while kicking their legs into the air, looking almost like a commercial for a women’s weight loss product.
Live music by James Galbraith, Marisol Limon Martinez, and Michael Mahalchick (a visual artist who has been collaborating with achugar for eight years and is responsible for the musical direction) complements and intensifies the dancers’ presence. Bodies, laid out in a row, roll back and forth on the floor in front of the musicians. Order disintegrates as the progressive rock music intensifies in both volume and tempo and the bodies continue to move faster and in different directions. Noses, cheekbones, and foreheads occasionally peek between wisps of hair.
In the end, the curtain is fully raised and the wigs are gone. The women’s natural hair is pinned up revealing red lips and various shades of eye shadow. They raise their arms and sensually draw shapes in the air, dazed hippies. Their bodies spin and thrash around in wild disarray before the music stops and the curtain abruptly drops.
Achugar’s work has been informed by a dark and, gothic sensibility. It taps into something both personal and urgent about the female experience. FEEL…FORM is a disquieting reality, a dream on the verge of collapse.
Christine Shan Shan Hou is a poet and arts writer living in Brooklyn, New York.