REVIEW: Provocation and Pain in Daina Ashbee’s Pour (PuSh Festival)
Vancouver, British Columbia
Jocelyn Pitsch reviews Pour by Canadian choreographer Daina Ashbee at the 2018 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver. Performed by Paige Culley, Pour is a meditation on menstruation, pain, and female forms:
With Pour, choreographer Daina Ashbee has created a piece inspired by her own menstrual cycle, that, according to her program note, aims to “explor[e] the vulnerability and strength of women, uncovering the layers of pain we absorb in our bodies through a society that does not support them.” Throughout Pour these layers are successfully woven into remarkable choreography that challenges and inspires the viewer. As the audience takes their seats, every few minutes a voice from the darkened stage sings out a loud, high-pitched note for many long seconds. It is an unsettling, otherworldly sound. The house darkens and the lights come up full in both the house and onstage. The audience must shift, squint their eyes, and adjust. Downstage centre is performer Paige Culley, staring straight out at us with a neutral gaze. She is naked from the waist up. Culley’s hands move steadily from their position down by her sides to rest on her stomach, just above the band of her jeans. She begins to unbutton her jeans and slide them down her body, but her body also bends so that the view of her lower half is obscured by her steady movement into a crouch. With her pants finally around her ankles, Culley stands and surveys the crowd.
Then she bends again and pulls her pants back up, but does not fasten them. She moves to centre stage where she begins to crawl and roll on the ground. We realize parts of the stage are wet and she rolls over to reveal that her jeans and body are now damp. She removes her bottoms and leaves them in a crumpled heap, where they remain for the rest of the performance.
This opening sequence is a provocation on the promise of the naked female form executed for the remainder of the performance. The slowness to disrobe is essential to Pour’s themes of empowerment and strength in the face of all that it means to be female here, now. The play of light and darkness between the house and the stage forces the viewer to acknowledge their voyeurism and enables Culley to refuse the fetishistic scopophilia of her nude body in performance. The house lights come back up several times throughout the performance, reinforcing this politic even as Culley’s exertions become more violent, more resistant, more troubling, and more exhilarating to watch. We are never to doubt her control over her performance or her awareness that we are watching.
The choreography moves from slow, effortful rolling with regular pauses during which Culley appears pinioned by different parts of her body to the floor, to a period of strenuous, sustained thumping against the stage floor. The pauses and strength exhibited in the rolling section come to a frenzied crescendo as Culley, laying on her back with her feet flat on the floor and knees raised, lifts her arms and then, repeatedly, forcefully bringing the backs of her arms down against the stage floor while her forearms stay raised from the elbows up. At one point, Culley turns her flushed face to the audience, as if to confront them with the disconnection between her self and the body that is experiencing this repetitive violence.
If the slow, curling crawl that precedes this section is a metaphor for the entry into socialization this female body has undertaken, these pounding movements are indicative of the cost of this conditioning: the pain, the efforts required to sustain the Butlerian repetition of “acting female,” and the way that this pain and effort – and the accompanying rage – are built into the body and struggle to find a channel out into the world. Despite the obvious capabilities and capacities of this body for enduring violence and confusion with strength, vitality, and tenacity, the struggle to find voice remains.
After a moment’s rest, Culley rises to her knees and undertakes a long series of gulping swallows, looking searchingly to the audience as she reaches the edge of making sound again and again, never actually emitting any noise. Eventually her arms begin to move in an undulating motion, outstretched on either side of her body. The high-pitched shriek from the pre-show darkness comes again, as Culley’s undulating becomes faster and she shifts about, filling the space while still on her knees. In the piece’s conclusion, Culley marches purposefully around the edges of the playing space, from front to back and then side to side at the downstage edge. She is treading the edges of her female cage; seeking a place to transgress the limits of the space that has been allotted to her. At the downstage edge, Colley turns her body away from us and begins to shuffle laterally, repeatedly shifting as though she is in danger of losing her footing along the stage edge. The stage and house lights become bright as we watch this balancing act; its movements inefficient and precarious. Suddenly she stops, and the performance ends. There is hope in this: after all its struggle and effort, the female form is turned away from those who surveil it, right at the edge of its acceptable playing space, working tirelessly to contest it.
Jocelyn Pitsch is a PhD Candidate in Theatre Studies in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia. Her dissertation tells the story of Canada’s first feminist theatre company, the Nellie McClung Theatre of Winnipeg, Manitoba. She also sits on the board of Vancouver’s Alley Theatre.