ON ANN LIV YOUNG'S "THE BAGWELL IN ME" AT IMPULSTANZ 09
By Katherina Zakravsky
In the beginning there is an announcement by a guy with a blonde wig in a bath tub to switch off the mobile phones. Then follows a long period of cheesy elevator music while the “assistant/slave” (and real life partner) puts up a huge American flag with the stars cut out. Hidden behind her apple laptop with only a piece of a white wig visible, Ann Liv Young insults the audience in a voice like from a 50ies horror movie. Discusses with a man in the audience if he understands what is going on.
She emerges from behind the computer, in a black leotard, skin painted dirty black, pubic hair sticking out, and performs a rather intrusive variety dance in the audience, at least three times due to technically induced problems. Meanwhile a thin transvestite-dressed man, Kevin Wratten, with a Washington mask dances wildly in the tub, splashing water and some strange red material all over the floor, getting entangled in the white strands of the Las Vegas wardrobe style curtains. This looks a lot like a “choreographic decision”, messy as it gets over time.
Apples and pears?
The men get naked for costume changes, Ann Liv Young changes into a worn looking fishnet body stocking leaving her still white breasts hanging out. Washington and his wife appear in monologues and dialogues being read from papers, indicated by a change of wigs and a change between the ghastly deep horror-movie voice and a Donald Duck voice, Ann Liv Young instructs the audience about the right behaviour in case she might sit on their laps. She says that she has a weak bladder, but in case a bit of urine might land on their laps, they should not complain, there is worse. Maybe a powerful male white historical figure getting his black female slave pregnant. But isn't this, in all its righteous moral outrage, comparing apples and pears, historical fable and artistic annoyance?
The best and most virtuous scene is next, starring the female impersonator playing the fiddle and Ann Liv Young tap dancing to the all-time favourite “Billy Jean”, ennobled by the artist's recent demise, yet clearly motivated by the plotline (“The child is not my son” – a line that bears very different meanings regarding slave holders' illegitimate offspring and Jackson's strange problems to father children the “natural way”). Young delivers this paradigmatic “piece of virtuosity” of African-American history with the glum expression of a seasoned showgirl, while her impressive breasts bounce so happily and perfectly in rhythm that I for one prefer that short bit of half amateurish, half virtuous little tap performance to the male marathon of new tap dance perfection that Savion Glover presented before at ImPulsTanz festival. Because it outlines the gloomy heritage of that piece of dance history while Glover, or at least the way he is perceived here, just whitewashes it with fake new innocence.
So pink admidst the black paint
Still showing the expression of a professional stripper she spreads her legs, presents her genitals in various positions – so pink amidst that black paint – and ends up lying on her back, fucking herself with two fingers precisely on Jacko's unforgettable beat. That was indeed an unexpected way to prove her profound sense of rhythm. But her later whining about leaving audience not respecting her sacrifice of genital display put a sad puritan ring to this otherwise enjoyable act. It was as if we had to be reminded all the time that what looked like an outrageous variety of sexual acts and displays was in fact hard and annoying work, putting a weight on every obscene gesture as if an old and spent sex worker were shouting her final accusing insults at her ignorant audience. But hey, there is more weight to it, sex actually refers to rape, and that rape is a half fictitious piece of political history. Is the sexual material supposed to pound the serious political matter into the hearts and underbellies of the ignorant spectator? If so, I deeply despise even the mere intention. Is Ann Liv Young the victim of the all American plague to “sell everything with Sex”, even if it be a good, Leftist agenda of revealing the suppressed Racism of the forefathers of American democracy?
The George Washington tale is a gruesome, half private, half epic made up mishmash of sex, violence and sentimentality that Ann Liv Young can only try to sell as the backbone of her work. I wonder how this worked in the States, whether the special juxtaposition of a huge, half torn American flag and domestic torture, negotiation and castration in a pink wardrobe had the power to open up a fresh wound. In Europe it rather holds true what my good old friend Karl had to say: “I don't mind the breasts, the genitals and dildos, but that American flag was too obscene for me.” A lot of the odd insults directed towards the auditorium translated exactly that, one big “It does not translate” on a visceral level.
She shakes up any gender role
Ann Liv Young's performances do not really provoke or transgress any serious border. But that is not a problem, I am rather sure that this is also not her intention. And the props, the cross dressing, the campy interiors, the lip synching, the karaoke singing, the very very Brechtian killing of dialogue with distorted voices, reading from the paper bent over a desk? All state-of-the-art performance tools. Often it shows that under the mask of a seemingly transgressive, messy, outrageous act lies a rigorous formalist. And to me there lies a far more serious and tricky problem than any mourning for transgression lost. Ann Liv Young shakes up any gender role, any theatrical role for that matter, to inhabit the space of “post-dramatic theatre”, only to insist on re-establishing those very roles with her props and her forced linear story line with the seriousness of children's puppet theatre. To carefully rebuild classical story-telling and role-playing out of the very smithereens you just blew them to is a weird and ambivalent gesture. Undoubtedly very contemporary as well.
As early as 1964, Susan Sontag defined the aesthetic of camp with the serious, unironical attitude towards the kitschy material one chooses to work with. Ann Liv Young with her Pandemonion of all American trash, from Las Vegas obscenity to civil war marches and flags, is clearly an heir of Sontag's camp. Her pieces are without irony. And that is fine. But there is no reason why they should also be without comedy, without fun. Maybe I picked a difficult show – actually I was informed that I did, but still the emphasis on the hard and tedious work all that pelvis grinding and karaoke singing and even the insults of the audience really are, did not strike the right chord for me. I am not one of the Masochist lot that seems to people the critical forums, one of those funny (rather male) creatures who want to be truly disturbed, shaken, tortured and insulted by the artist on stage to finally be pushed out of the cage of their miserable cynical Bohemien existence – and who sometimes do not fail to mention that Ann Liv Young's looks of a Southern princess, both sensuous and angelic, make the punishment even sweeter.
Maybe I am oldfashioned, but I do not wish to be disciplined by an act of performance. And I do not expect an experience of violent redemption from it. I tend to read Young's outbursts not so much as a Sado-Masochistic game but as signs of an almost real desperation about the very success of her “style”. All too early her work proved to be so very much in tune with the needs of contemporary performance that she developed a “handwriting”. “Handwriting”, unfortunately still a means of success in any art and trade, is a huge trap for productive work. And it can seriously kill the fun. Ann Liv Young is not the only one who suffers from a mild symptom of hype. But this does not have to be the end of the story.
On Ann Liv Young
On tap dance as part of a “race sensitive” US history
Susan Sontag: “Notes on Camp” (full text)