Whatever you might expect from a performance about a woman reclaiming her sexual identity, Cutlass Spring by the Canadian performance artist Dana Michel, which had its Dutch premiere last Wednesday at Julidans, is probably not that.
Before you see her, you can hear her, scurrying around backstage, behind the four platforms where the audience is seated. When she finally enters the central space, which is decked out with nine simple plastic chairs standing in three neat rows on a large white felt carpet, she seems more like a drifter who has accidentally walked in on a performance. Her arms are loaded with stuff and everything she is wearing is too big: her black shoes, her white shorts, her red overcoat – with nothing underneath.
She places a cushion on a low table with wheels, sets herself down on her knees, her legs spread, and starts rhythmically moving her rump on the fabric.
And that is about as sexual as it gets. Dana Michel is no Goedele Liekens, the famous Flemish sexologist who also gave frank sex ed classes at British schools for a British television series (called Sex in Class). Cutlass Spring isn’t so much about sexuality as about discovery. Michel, the performer, is discovering her surroundings, and occasionally herself. Which she does in a weird, yet also playful way.
For one thing, she doesn’t seem capable of normal forms of locomotion. Instead of walking, she makes the table move with the rhythm of her body. Instead of grabbing objects with her hands, she reaches for them with a slightly too big fork she had tucked away inside her coat. She pulls the plastic chairs towards her by tugging on the carpet.
There are no clear rules in Cutlass Spring. A couple of times Michel just walks away from the stage – you can hear her rummaging behind the scenes, mumbling to herself – to come back minutes later with different clothes and a new heap of junk. There’s a blanket filled with ice cubes, and one with an electric hotplate. She even finds a huge pink foam cowboy hat that swallows her head whole.
The performance is wholly unpredictable (according to an earlier interview, a lot is improvised during the show), but also mesmerising. It is like leaving a toddler alone in a room and then waiting to see what happens. If anything sexual actually occurs, it is mostly inadvertent. It’s just some new, pleasant sensation to be catalogued on Michel’s road to self-discovery.
The starting point for this performance was when Michel (born in 1976), noticed that the curiosity she had for sex as a child and as a teenager, had slowly faded during her adult life. In this light Cutlass Spring is a rebirth, a reawakening of her seemingly lost curiosity. Her big white shorts are strongly reminiscent of a nappy; the too-big clothes and hats of playing dress-up as a kid. Michel displays the artless openness of a young child, for whom the world outside and the world within are not yet clearly separated. And for whom sexuality is not yet something loaded with meaning, but just one of the many sensations the body has to offer.
Seen: July 11 at Theater Bellevue, Julidans.