The inaugural show of the 2015-16 TACTICS series comprises two pieces that, though quite different, artistic director and series curator Bronwyn Steinberg sees as likely to appeal to the same type of audience. Both tackle experiences that, though age old, are at the forefront of contemporary life: mental illness and the street harassment women face on a daily basis, and I’m afraid both are likely to continue to haunt us for a while.
In (off) Balance, Naomi Tessler chronicles her unravelling as a first year student at UBC in the early 2000s. The signs are already there in high school but the stress of first year university and the loneliness of a cross country move conspire with latent tendencies that run deep in her family to turn into full blown chronic depression, suicidal thoughts and intrusive voices. Her understandably frantic parents and well-meaning, but seemingly clueless, mental health professionals, with their brief questionnaires, quick diagnoses and seeming propensity for throwing pills at every problem, only exacerbate the situation.
It’s a story with which many are already familiar and Tessler gives a very personal and vulnerable performance while also being extremely dynamic throughout the one-woman show. You can hardly take your eyes off her as she whirls around the stage, bouncing from character to character using nothing more than a white scarf for costume changes. Her expressive face radiates heartbreaking hope one moment and crushing defeat the next and it all feels very real. When she bursts into a Vancouver drum circle, you feel her youthful optimism while your heart sinks knowing it can’t last. The scene in which Tessler is reduced to a fetal position on her dorm room floor while accompanying musician Lucila Al Mar hums a mournful tune in the background makes for a stylized yet moving depiction of agony that really sums up the situation. Though the experience can be harrowing, the show ends on a peaceful note.
feelers, choreographed by Amelia Griffin, uses modern dance to explore what street harassment feels like for the women who experience it, which I suspect is all of them. Since I was myself groped by a man on the way to the show, it was a little hard not to relate(!). The three female performers in the show relate personal stories of being harassed by men on the street, while going through several costume changes in an effort to find outfits least likely to draw unwanted attention, finally settling on non-descript all-black ensembles, (what I was wearing!). It’s hard not to find humour in some of the truly gross things some men feel it is appropriate to say to women so brazenly going about their lives in public areas.
The choreography perfectly captures the inner panic, klaxon sounding, red alert, all hands on deck, adrenaline pumping terror of being alone on a dark street (or even a well-lit, crowded one as it turns out!) with a man you just don’t know about, and the slippery-slidey, crabwalk evasive manoeuvers employed in the performance are mesmerizing even while being disturbing.
The harasser is also given a dance that expertly expresses the other side of the coin; all swagger and confidence, and it’s just as compelling. He’s also given a voice, which to be honest made me shut down a little. I won’t deny a mild hardening of the heart at the society’s expectations of masculinity excuse. Frankly, I believe any man who feels entitled to comment on a strange woman’s appearance on the street to her or audibly to his friends, to take up her space, to intimidate her when she is in a vulnerable position, to insert himself into her life like it’s his right, to show her who’s in charge here, is a pathetic dick, plain and simple. I would really like to express some sympathy here, but it’s just not happening. And if I ever see that guy again, I may just kick him in the balls.
TACTICS continues with off (Balance) & feelers, until November 21, 2015 at Arts Court Theatre (2 Daly Ave). Evening and matinee performances available. Talkbacks are scheduled for the evening performances on the 18th, 19th and 21st. Check the website for more info. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online.