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Review 1, 11-10, Dancing with the 'Other'
The Colorful Gottschilds Taste Their Differences
By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus
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PHILADELPHIA -- "Tongue
Smell Color," by Hellmut Gottschild and Brenda Dixon Gottschild,
seen October 16 at the Painted Bride, skillfully limns the history
of this couple's own attraction and interracial marriage and raises
attendant issues of race, gender and the personal experience of
the 'other.' The two veteran performers collaborated on the work,
which culminates in an audience-wide discussion. Hard questions
go down easily in the piece's tightly constructed narrative woven
with movement and vocal play. Anything but agitprop, "Tongue Smell
Color" leaves deliberate pauses after pointed moments, space to
Hellmut Gottschild was
a teaching assistant to Mary Wigman and in several solos to his
spouse's live percussion displays the powerfully expressive Wigman
influence. Brenda Dixon Gottschild performed as an early member
of the Open Theater, danced with Mary Anthony, and changes voices
with an easy fluency. Authoritative, she works as a critic and scholar
whose books examine Africanist influences in the wider culture and
facets of black performance.
In a square marked out
with white tape within the black box of the Bride, the Gottschilds
maneuver shiny black folding chairs to create changing settings.
A repeating Vaudevillian motif in which the two of them in bowler
hats stride brusquely intoning "buttocks, hair, nose, skin" slides
into a lecture hall scene as they place chairs opposite a lectern.
Hellmut begins to lecture on Cuvier, the 19th-century French scientist
responsible for the side-show-like display throughout Europe of
Sara Baartman, the South African woman endowed with ample derriere
and genitals, dubbed the Venus Hottentot. The Gottschilds weave
Baartman's story into "Tongue Smell Color" as an astonishing emblem
of the exploitation and violation of black women by white men. Or
more simply, of the stunning lack of humanity toward the 'other.'
Soon it's Brenda doing
the lecturing with Hellmut whispering from the sidelines. He recalls
his recent experience of her taste, the feel of her skin. She comes
across as commanding: a scholar and also a lover, powerful, yet
tender and sexy. To woo her, he must prove himself neither "lion"
nor usurper, neither dominator nor exploiter. And so he does. Hellmut
here seems endlessly inquisitive and feeling, a sort of Everyman
navigating the minefield of racial, cultural and gender stereotypes.
Memories of his childhood in Nazi Germany layer onto other stories
of domination, revealing a shared ground of suffering.
As the piece unfolds,
the pair ponders the enticing nature of difference and, eventually,
of "how ordinary this (difference) has become." A recurring and
charming motif is the "bed scene," in which the two sit on adjoining
chairs and draw a sheet up to their necks, perfectly rendering a
couple resting and chatting in bed. The lens of objectification
gets turned both ways. Brenda is the exotic black woman Hellmut
kisses. Hellmut is subjected to Brenda's critical scrutiny as an
artist, and for his flat Aryan ass.
The most violent images
are of the utter subjugation of Baartman, showing Brenda, supine,
with legs in gynecologist's 'stirrups.' A surreal theatrical twist
has Doctor Cuvier/Hellmut dining before her crotch. Later Baartman's
dream turns the tables on Cuvier so that he's the one on his back,
at her mercy. Seeing the couple play these images out is akin to
watching someone play with fire. It takes guts, and it's sobering
to see the degradation of objectification boiled down to such unequivocal
"Tongue Smell Color"
shifts tempo to keep the flow unpredictable and dynamic. Ordinary
language slides into singsong repetitions of single words, or into
gibberish. The piece moves from concrete to abstract, from pedestrian
to dancey. Brenda retreats into a private space by dancing her African-inspired
solo across the proscenium; the two sway together in a social dance
An effective and oft-used
phrasing device in the work is to slow before a finish, freeze in
a suspended pause, then begin fresh as though flicking a switch.
Curiously, where the
piece really takes off for this viewer is when these considerate
and thinking people just move, or it become less obvious exactly
what they are trying to communicate. Their presence itself is as
much a lesson as their words. They exude settled maturity, spicy
eroticism, fascination with each other and respect for humankind.
In Hellmut's powerful solos he fragments movement, crumpling in
fractions, with each gesture fully wrought. His deeply expressive
visage is as far from being a modern dance mask as one could imagine.
It's a "listening" kind of face and he seems to be experiencing
his own movement as a wonder of the world.
As much teachers as
performers, the Gottschilds invite the audience into a dialogue
growing out of the performance. Their spirit is inclusive, inquisitive
and urgent. The central question of how we might relate to the 'other'
with respect and appreciation for difference arises in multiple
ways. Some of the viewers may leave the theater with more questions
than they had on entering. Given the complexity and importance of
the subject, that's all to the good.
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