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Flash 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 wonder in.

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 pictures.

"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 moment.

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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