The word radical applied to art today is one of the most misused and misunderstood concepts. Radical is used too often today as a synonym for shocking. From the late Latin “radicalis”, radical means from the roots. A radical experience is a change, a shift occurring at the very roots of itself. This is the complete opposite of shocking, which tends to be a surface experience, a surface reaction, one that is done to us and after the initial shock wears off, is easily dismissed.
To be radical is to effect a fundamental, deeply rooted change. What does it mean to be radical in the theatre in 2012? Certainly it is different than what it meant to be radical in 1968. One must measure what would be radical to the current status quo. We are living in a period where the ideas and activities of the past four decades are being constantly recycled. Is that radical? Is that a reinvention at the root? I think not.
Much is made of the word provocative too, but provocative action without content is an empty gesture. The change triggered by the provocation comes later, when the person has left the theatre. Real change occurs when an element that the audience member has experienced embeds itself in the psyche. What is provoked stays with the audience member; they take it home, where that embedded power works itself out.
My answer to the idea that radical messages need radical form is this: radical messages need radical content. Content always trumps form. Form, being the surface, the real action, is on the inside. What was radical in 1968 – obscene language, pubic nudity, body fluids, all fluids for that matter – was based on the mores of the period. One has to dig deeper than that at a time when things like nudity and obscene language are the everyday stuff of performance, television and film. Today children’s theatre has paint and ketchup and feathers exploding everywhere on stage.
I have long been referred to as a radical artist, as a confrontational artist, mostly to marginalize me from the public I think. Yet I maintain that we as human beings confront ourselves dozens of times a day and no one confronts us more deeply or more starkly than ourselves. To be radical today one must speak in the real language of everyday life and to the real experience of everyday life. Something so rare in today’s world of marketing, advertising and so called reality television. I very rarely use obscene language because it is mostly used in lieu of being articulate.
In 1990 when I started to improvise my sex and censorship show Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!, I created the environment of a strip bar. Not a burlesque venue, because in 1990, burlesque was a played-out art form that resided in small clubs in Las Vegas and in few other places. In 1990, as in 2012, it is the strip bar that the environment where the radical can be activated. Why? Because in 2012 just as in 1990, few people have ever been to a strip bar. The women who work in strip clubs are not considered ‘feminists’, nor are they considered artists; as a matter of fact they are considered by and large to be most definitely ‘not feminists” and definitely not artists, yet it is my experience that the women who work in these strip bars are among the strongest feminists I know.
I have often said that I use erotic dancers in my work because I believe that erotic dance is the most powerful feminist art form; it is the only thing devised by women that controls men, unlike the myriad of things devised by men to control women. Erotic dance is complex, mesmerizing and elicits deep, primitive feelings in us. Burlesque today, with very few exceptions, is what it has always been: acceptable, sexualized, female dance. While Burlesque may be sensual, it is neither erotic nor sexual. And it is the erotic and sexual that brings up feelings of the unknown, feelings of danger that are both feared and longed for. Our sexual energy is the true life force, it carries both life and the fear of not life i.e. death. Many people consider Burlesque to be radical because they have never been exposed to erotic dance.
For a short time in the mid 1990’s to the early 2000’s as the Neo Burlesque movement blossomed in New York, it was both political and radical in many ways. It took an existing form and transformed it through its content. At the center of this movement was Tigger! (James Ferguson) who had begun his career with me as an erotic dancer in 1992 in Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! Tigger himself was a great influence on the creation of Neo Burlesque, touring with me in 23 cities around the world between 1992 and 1995. We left a burgeoning Burlesque scene in every city where we worked because I always hired local strippers and these strippers became the Burlesque stars of today.
At that time the only person doing Neo Burlesque was me with my strip in B!D!F!W! where I fused the stripper and the comedian who usually opened for the stripper. This was at a time when any sexualized dance was considered most un-PC and therefore me and my troupe of dancers were quite radical. In the mid 1990’s Tigger met Dirty Martini and Julie Atlas Mus and the three of them became the heart of the Neo Burlesque movement in New York. They all worked with me in two other of my shows, 1999’s Bad Reputation, my critique of the failure of feminism; and in 2002 New York Values, my autopsy on death of Bohemia and comodification of rebellion . These performers formed a community with other valiant, young, idealistic artists and created this new form based on traditional Burlesque.
This was the new short form performance art called Neo Burlesque, which while it used elements of traditional Burlesque was unsettling, erotic, and political, but sadly this was short lived as the Burlesque craze spread like wildfire, becoming more and more bland and watered down and incidentally younger and younger and younger. Some of the biggest stars of current Burlesque like Dita Von Teese do very little; Von Tees practically presents a tableaux. In order for art to occur I believe there must be an act of transformation involved and in the work of these New York Neo Burlesque artists there was always an act of transformation that always political and transgressive, as there is in my original Neo Burlesque performance in B!D!F!W!.
In B!D!F!W! the central element of seduction is removed from the erotic dance. The dancers are instructed to only express their own sexuality and eroticism but also to specifically avoid the conscious manipulation of the public. To remove this seduction which is the raison d’etre of the strip club is a radical act. In B!D!F!W! the dancers represent the public. This public enters into a theatre transformed into a strip bar , and into a show which is already in progress with music and the dancers dancing. They are taken by surprise by the environment because there is no opening ceremony. In fact the show never starts, it is always in progress, which is a critical element in all my work. Is the audience confronted? Yes, but are they confronted by the dancers or are they confronted by themselves?
By removing the element of conscious and even unconscious seduction from the dancer’s palette, and having the dancers focus mindfully on expressing their own eroticism, the audience is left on their own to deal with their feelings. I believe we always confront ourselves when we are thrown into a new experience. The audience must contend and be confronted by their own judgments and feelings, most of which they have never had to face in such an immediate way in an unmapped landscape. There are no restrictions governing the dancers, but there are three rules: no nudity, complete respect for the individual space of the audience members and no seduction, only self expression. This is a powerful thing to take away from erotic dancers, because the demand in the clubs is for them to continually seduce the audience while there is little real respect for their artistry.
After the first thirty minutes of dancing as the audience enters the space, the dancers enter directly into the audience, free to speak about anything they wish, to be open and friendly. It is this combination of eroticism and friendliness that creates an electric and unusual environment. Later, the dancers enter the audience at the onset of the dance break, an invitation to participate. I tell them that if they do not feel like dancing that is fine; but if they do, and the reason for not engaging is being worried that people are going to look at them and judge, well that is what people do. People look at other people and judge them. The audience always laughs in recognition of this, not only of others but of themselves, of ourselves.
B!D!F!W! is a show about individuality and the outsider, about the courage to be ourselves in the face of the world’s myopic judgment. What we experience in B!D!F!W! is that when we feel included and not judged, we suddenly have room for the individuality and autonomy of other people. Imagine the experience of the audience member who felt challenged by the sexually charged atmosphere when they entered the theatre, but later found themselves dancing on that same stage in the middle of the show? Freedom! Freedom from our own self imposed limitations.
The other element that is considered radical in B!D!F!W! is that I strip nude at the end of the show. I strip in B!D!F!W! to the great actor Ron Vawter’s video -performance. When I first took off my clothes in B!D!F!W! I was 42 years old and a nude 42 year woman on stage was considered very radical indeed. In 2012 at 62 I still strip nude in B!D!F!W! but I also speak for 15 minutes on censorship, on community, on politics, on feminism, on language. A nude 25 year- old woman with no trace of life on her body has no content; a nude 62 year old woman presents us with a narrative. What is radical here is not that I am nude. What is radical is that I am speaking about matters that effect all of us, critical matters. In 1993 Michael Billington said “The silver- tongued Penny Arcade offers what can only be called a naked polemic.” The last line in the show is, “By now you have probably forgotten I have my clothes off.” Black out. Laughter. The audience has forgotten that I am naked. I prove my argument. Is the form radical? Perhaps.
Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore! is on at The Albany from 15th – 23rd December 2012.