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This article was written on 17 May 2012, and is filed under Guest Writers.

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Acceptable Hair

“FEELingpleasuresatisfactioncelebrationholyFORM” Photos: Chrissy Passagno.

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.

22 Comments

  1. Rebecca Brooks
    May 18, 2012

    As a dancer in this piece, and an active member of the dance and performance community, I am happy to read reviews and I welcome critical discussion. I feel moved to chime in here. I believe that Christine missed the point in the section that she critiques quite harshly here. It is the *striving* for perfection, with *extremely* limited vision, that is the heart of the matter. Our individuality pushes through and reveals itself through the rigorous form. We have watched this section on video, we have watched it live in rehearsal with interns standing in for various cast members, we have torn it apart and put it back together. To suggest that luciana or the dancers have disregarded detail is in fact offensive. I look forward to reading and hearing more thoughts on this piece.

    • Christine
      May 23, 2012

      Hi Rebecca – thanks for reading and thanks for your response. I really respect luciana and all the dancers in the piece. Reading your response, made me realize how careful I need to be with my words as a critic. I didn’t mean to imply that either you, the other dancers, or luciana were careless when it came to detail in that section. I just found this section to be the least engaging of an overall powerful piece.

  2. Katy Pyle
    May 23, 2012

    I felt that this secton, with it’s imperfect mirroring, was incredibly beautiful. The idea that human being can or should “perfectly” mirror one another is odd to me. This is not something that occurs in nature. A single organism is asymmetrical, we, as individual humans, are asymmetrical, trees, flowers, the planet itself… I found this section, and the naturalistic brush taken to all aspects of this piece, to be inspiring and beautiful.

    • Christine
      May 23, 2012

      Hi Katy – RE: “The idea that human beings can or should “perfectly” mirror one another is odd to me…” Yes, it is odd, but it is also awesome.

      • Katy Pyle
        June 18, 2012

        It’s awesome to see trained dancers moving. But we learn unison and have probably mastered symmetry by 15. What was interesting about the dancers in this piece is that achieved an energetic unison, which doesn’t look like hard lined unison. It looks like a living, breathing, feeling organism. Much more complex and true, to someone who’s seen 20 years of symmetrical corps de ballet(which I also appreciate). It seems tk me that Luciana was attempting something much more intuitive and to me it was profound to observe the attention, the effort, and the perpetual re-integration of the group by itself to itself.
        I think its a mistake to compare this piece to Beth Gill’s. These choreographers are working from such different perspectives. And if Luciana(with dancers covered by hair and virtually indistinguishable) were to take the individual impulses away from the dancers and force them into rote unison, the piece would have, not the effect of Beth’s electric midwife, where you notice the dancers idiosyncracies, but a broad wiping out of their individuality(think rockettes).

  3. Lau Holder
    May 23, 2012

    I, like Christine, was transfixed by hair for the first 5 minutes of the piece. ‘How can they breathe?’ ‘Isn’t that itchy?’ These were my preoccupations. At the very moment Christine critiques, the kaleidoscopic leg movements, my distractions ceased. I was carried away by the fluidity of the segment. Rigorous doesn’t have to mean rigid. This piece stretched me in many ways. Kudos to Christine for writing about it, and kudos especially to the women who danced it.

    • Christine
      May 23, 2012

      Thank you, Lau. RE: “Rigorous doesn’t have to mean rigid.” – that is very true! I will remember that.

  4. Ralph Lewis
    May 24, 2012

    I enjoyed this piece much more than I thought I was going to after the first 10 minutes. It started slow, and I’ve seen/heard monotone droning done many times before to greater effect. But the jeans! They were great; both the doning of and later rolling with. I was much more engaged in those sections than the ealier hair sections, I think, because the dancers seemed to be working around the hair rather than with the hair. The jeans were much more integral to the dance and spanned a much greater range of emotion/thought. And the hair was just on the head. If the piece dealt with brow, underarm, pubic or other hair, then I missed it. From the unfolding of the piece, to the use of space, terrific live music, and lighting I liked even when it was shining in my eyes, I’d see this piece again, but not for the hair. I not only enjoyed the dance, but enjoyed discussing it afterward with the choreographer to brought me. thx.

    • Christine
      May 28, 2012

      I agree, The jeans section was amazing!

  5. Shelly Aldelenne
    May 29, 2012

    Christine, I feel the need to comment on this critique rather than on the piece, which I found to be far more provocative and enthralling than how it was written about.
    Please know that I (and others?) have no interest in reading about your “complicated relationship” to your body hair. How do you not know when to leave out certain very subjective reactions that are totally uninteresting to read? Stick to the work, which the critique is about. We want to read about the dance not about you and your hang-ups.

    • claudia
      May 30, 2012

      Hi Shelly – but surely all criticism is subjective, no? And don’t our hangups always inform our responses?

  6. Shelly Aldelenne
    May 30, 2012

    Yes it does, but it mostly informs our own personal response. I believe there’s editing to be in done in critiques that deal with the questions, “What’s sticking to the subject matter of the story here? Am I digressing into a subjective tangent that perhaps only my best friend would want to read?” In this particular review, the question could have been asked “What’s my hang-up about body hair and is that a whole other topic that should go into a piece of writing all on its own?” It dilutes the review to spiral into a wormhole and could potentially leave the reader saying “I’m going to stop reading now. I just wanted to read about the dance, not about the writer and her hang-ups.”

    • claudia
      May 30, 2012

      Well, I dunno .. Achugar I believe is interested in drawing her audiences into a visceral relationship to the body – and not, I think, to an anonymous or theoretical body, but to the actual body, in all its imperfect power. One could argue that Christine is sticking to the subject matter here – only she is doing so in a highly personal way.

      Writers always run the risk that readers will stop reading … it’s not any different from the risk that any artist runs. Audiences turn away, follow their own subjective tangents. You didn’t agree with or like this piece of writing, and that’s fine – but I’m not convinced that the 106 words Christine devoted to body hair count as spiraling into a wormhole….

  7. Shelly Aldelenne
    May 30, 2012

    Ok, so maybe I just have really high hopes and expectations for the very few critiques on dance that actually get put out there. When I read them, I want them to be critical of the work and all aspects of the show and I don’t really care to read how the critic “felt” that’s irrelevant in the grand scheme of writing about art and it’s critical discourse because we all have feelings and that’s the easiest most accessible thing to gush about, epecially for young people/people who are artists themselves (I am an artist as well). To me, it’s a waste and I lose faith in a writer that allows himself to go off on tangents based on personal hang-ups. It seems to be a red flag that the writer was not able access the medium and know what language makes sense for the piece they were writing about, and so (dare I say) they take the easy way out and use the space to ponder their inner thoughts. This is why there are personal blogs.
    I think perhaps the real problem here is that there just aren’t enough writers for dance, period.

    • claudia
      May 31, 2012

      I would say it’s more a question of particular expectations than high ones – it sounds like, for you, there are right and wrong ways for criticism (a literary ART form, let’s remember) to behave. because, of course, there are absolutely unbelievably great critics whose feelings are entirely central to their criticism (well, I will always argue that feelings are never irrelevant; this isn’t algebra. it’s messy. and if it isn’t deeply, deeply personal to you, as a critic … well, go work in a pharmacy or something. I’m not interested). I am thinking right now especially of Artaud’s essay on van Gogh “The Man Suicided By Society.” … or, if you want to stick to dance critics, you could compare Jill Johnston and Cindy Carr, both great critics … entirely different on the page, with Jill much more explicitly present as a personality than Cindy, much more insistent in showing us her innards (my god, did JJ ever write anything free of tangents and wormholes???) … It seems to me that there is more than enough room for both of these writers. The church is big.

      • Christine
        May 31, 2012

        I agree with Claudia. There are many kinds of criticisms and you, Shelly, have very particular tastes.

        I am informed by my body and personal experiences, and to a certain extent, we all are. Luciana’s piece made me especially aware of how much this influences that way I see work.

        What I love about criticism is that it’s not a “genre” and as Claudia says, there is no right or wrong way to write about it. I admire criticism that blurs boundaries, and that challenges the form itself (as well as the work it is critiquing). And isn’t the P-Club’s byline: “critique as performance”? I love Johnston and Carr, and am influenced by other writers who aren’t afraid to write about themselves and how their subjectivities inform their criticism. Take for example, Eileen Myles’ “The Importance of Being Iceland” and Ann Lauterbach’s “The Night Sky.” As Claudia said: “The church is big.” And thank goodness for that!

        Writing a very short section about my relationship to my body hair is not “taking the easy way out.” It is a way of providing a foreground–to briefly say, “this is where I come from when writing this…”. As a viewer, I can quickly say “I liked this…” or “I didn’t like this…” but to back it up in writing is not easy. It never is.

        Shelly – If criticism is not about how the critic “feels,” than what is it? Just detailed observation? Opinion? Opinions are informed by feelings too.

  8. Shelly Aldelenne
    May 31, 2012

    Of course the feelings are there and they’re at the base of the writing. We’re all humans and any form of writing is self expression. I’m saying be different! Think of the reader first and what can you offer them by digging deep into the work you are writing about as the subject. Challenge yourself by sticking to the dance at hand. It is easy to reflect oneself on the work and to write about your own experience in your head while the piece is happening. Anybody can write about that. But what of the objective qualities of the work? What of the unique (or perhaps not unique) sense of time and space the choreographer is dealing with? What of their sense theatricality or rejection there-of? And, what about the movement itself? Ah, a touchy gray subject that reviewers hardly ever really dig into. Does the movement feel unique or like something you’ve seen before, what’s in there? Is it formal, raw, weighted, light, delicate, messy, aware of itself, reckless, etc. and then how does the movement serve (or not serve) the work it’s inside of? There was so much more in Luciana’s piece than hair, which was heavily obsessed upon in this critique.
    I am critiquing the critic here. Yes, criticism is an art form, but as a reader I look for it to be a vessel for discussion of the art form, or the work of art, it is writing about.

    • ajohnny
      June 2, 2012

      I think a surface-level approach to criticism, like movement description, can be troublesome because (1) it runs the risk of chopping the dance into a string of pictures, and by extension (2) losing touch with how a dance works experientially. It’s also extremely difficult – if not impossible! – to assign discrete meaning to any given aspect of a dance. Descriptive criticism may stir up some vague image of the dance in my mind, but in the end I ask: “so what?” This phrase was delicate or that section looked like a cheap Pina Bausch knockoff, but what response ought those observations elicit…especially for someone who’s never seen the dance?

      I think it’s fine, and even constructive, that personal hangups found their way into this writeup. Personally, some warning flags go up when I see a demand for “objective” criticism. Can there be such a thing? Even if it took the shape of descriptive criticism, it would eventually turn into a dead end (as I mentioned above). What’s most honest for the writer, and possibly most engaging for the contemporary dance-goer, is an exploration of the connections between a dance and the world at large. Since many of us no longer attach certain values to certain formal attributes (pointed feet are good! symmetry is peaceful! silence is offensive!), and since choreographers have been relinquishing more and more control over the ways in which they generate movement, specific movements are losing their foothold as the basis on which a piece’s meaning or value can be determined. (Isn’t it Tere O’Connor who says he could buy movement off of eBay and still make a good dance?)

      Nowadays, value can be assigned to a dance, ironically enough, by turning away from it and looking at what informs it. Body issues seem to be an important part of what’s going on here, and though anecdote may have taken up more of the review than you (or I) would have liked, I think it represents an excellent attempt to broaden our view of the dance, and to realize why this piece is worth our attention.

  9. Fivel
    June 1, 2012

    over the years, i’ve shifted every which way as a reader as to what i want from dance writing. i think some of the points shelly brings up in her latest comment counterpoint my current position–particularly the question: “But what of the objective qualities of the work?”. at some point i know i felt there were such things as objective qualities in a performance work, and i also felt it was important to describe and analyze them in writing about the work. i don’t feel this way any more, about either point. i also don’t feel it is possible to reproduce the material (my preferred word over ‘objective’) qualities of the work in writing, and moreover, i no longer desire to see that attempted. if the writing is only trying to tell me what the work did, why shouldn’t i just see the work myself? and to go even further, i also feel that ‘the work’ is not only what the choreographer/author put on stage, but some kind of experience that happens between that and the audience that views it–that is, personal reactions are part of the work. thus, one thing i now personally enjoy seeing in dance writing is exactly what christine did with her piece, which is to focus on and explore a particular aspect of a work, and be creative with both the analytical approach (in this case relating to personal life experiences) and the writing style. i don’t care if a critique only discusses small portions or aspects of the work, because i don’t expect it to encapsulate the entire piece. basically, i want dance writing to be an artistic work itself, which means it doesn’t have to doggedly stick to the dance as its reason for being, but work in conversation with it.

    which is not to say that i don’t enjoy other approaches to dance writing. i’ll also ditto, “The church is big”, and shelly, since you prefer a different approach to writing on dance, i’d enjoy reading it. i find people end up having to be very creative when attempting to closely describe movement, and when it works, that approach can be highly interesting as well.

  10. Zee
    June 3, 2012

    I work as a dance archivist, and a part of my job is doing research on particular dances that weren’t videotaped or photographed – so essentially they’re GONE – except for what was written about them and the dancers’ and choreographers’ memories (which sometimes is available to me and sometimes isn’t). The first thing that I always do is collect and read the reviews, and what I’ve come to realize is that the best reconstruction can happen when there is a good balance of description and interpretation, and when context is somehow considered. You can basically completely picture a dance from beginning to end if Anna Kisselgoff wrote a review for it. If Jill Johnston wrote one, you can get a sense of the environment, both inside and outside the performance space. You can get a sense of the performers.

    You see my point. As a reader you start looking to certain writers to give you what you need from the review. Ms. Aldelenne didn’t get what she wanted from Christine’s review and I hope she searched for (and found) other writings on the piece that could satisfy her stylistic preference.

  11. JG
    June 4, 2012

    Shelly, looking forward to reading your critique of the original work.

  12. Cassie Peterson
    June 17, 2012

    I’ve been wanting to share this and now I think is the appropriate time…..

    “The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things… Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.”
    – From Oscar Wilde’s, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

    I could never make it as a “real” art critic because I don’t pretend to possess the certainty or gumption required to distill a piece of art and then somehow, “objectively,” attach value to it. I could never in good conscience, determine the worth of a piece or proclaim something simply “good” or “bad.” So much art criticism tries to convince us that the writer is operating from some kind of neutral or expert position and that art can be reduced or understood as one thing; and that as such, it has some kind of inherent value or (non)value. Through this process of commodification, the work is reduced, reified, and objectified, whereby emphasis is rendered solely on product and not on process or method. It closes a tight lid on an artist’s investigations and intentions.

    But the performing arts pose some difficulty to this process in that they are intrinsically body-based, durational and ephemeral and thus resist the typical, material bounds of an art object and the traditional economies of becoming known to the viewer. In this way, performance is already radically out of bounds, existing as its own alternative economy that explores and expresses value via other (more interesting) means. Therefore, I believe that performance writing and criticism should mimic and honor this alterity. I believe in a dialogic method of writing “with” art as opposed to writing “about” it. It is far more worthwhile to ask what a work is trying to do, rather than imagining what it hasn’t done.

    I believe in a performing arts discourse that offers its subject a generous and sophisticated frame, not by imposing narratives or metaphors per say, but rather by finding a way to offer multiple entry points into abstraction and kinesthesia. I believe in criticism that diligently explores the idiosyncratic and internal logic of a piece rather than judging it based on pre-determined, external expectations. Critics should write alongside the work in a collaborative effort to create something new, both in content and process. Criticism should not just exist as some cheap, descriptive or explanatory effort to document that which cannot be documented, but should rather be a creative and generative venture unto itself.

    “Art” is not an isolated domain; it is an integral part of the sociopolitical terrain from which it arises. Therefore, I am interested in and excited by criticism that works to locate and contextualize performance within contemporary social discourses and frameworks. It should work to contextualize private artistic gestures inside of public discourses. I am interested in criticism that understands Aesthetic practice as Political practice. Artistic process as Social process.

    I am inspired by criticism that reads like love letters to the form(s) it is exploring. I believe a critic’s role is to start a conversation, be part of a dialogue, offer a perspective, and help make work legible through text, whilst creating something entirely new in the process. Be curious. Be generous. Be moved.

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