We have been sitting in the dark for a while now. We are at the Pitch Dark Cabaret, curated by Scott Artly at Patricks Caberet in Minneapoils MN. It is December 11th 2015. All the artists performing tonight are presenting pieces in total darkness. We are a ways into the show and I don’t know how I feel about this yet.
Up next is Gender Tender presenting Heart/throb. Their website describes Gender Tender as “an interdisciplinary performance project started by Syniva Whitney and Will Courtney that prioritizes transgender and genderqueer perspectives in process and presentation.” I know this, and I know that they have recently moved here from Seattle, but I know nothing else about them, so I am also in the dark about their work and their process.
My experience this evening so far has been a balance of trying to observe the work, while also simultaneously observing how I observe the work. Watching how I watch, listening to how I listen. There is almost no light in the room. My ears are attuned to every little sound. As Artly finishes his introduction I sense a stillness fall over the audience. We are all trying to sit very still, so as not to disturb the delicate auditory ecosystem of the evening by rustling in our chairs. I want to adjust my coat but I stop myself. I opt for mild discomfort over shattering this silence.
I open my eyes, close them again. It’s almost the same thing but not quite. Eyes open seems to help. Even after my eyes adjust I still can’t discern any of the shapes on stage, but somehow I have a greater feel for the room, for where everybody is, who is moving. Part of me finds this fascinating while a second part is annoyed that I’m digging for something to care about and yet a third part of me chastises myself for being so annoyed and tells me to focus on the art. This is the discussion in my brain when Heart/Throb begins.
We hear gentle sucking sounds cross the floor, punctuated by deep heavy breaths from a second performer. It is intimate and soft. (Gender Tender, Aha!) It sounds like they are fucking but trying to keep quiet about it. It’s secret fucking.
The sounds of paper crinkling. Was that a window blind? Yes the sound of a window blind being pulled up quickly.
And suddenly light, a curtain gets pulled back to reveal a glass brick window, dim orange light from the street outside pouring into room. There is discussion about how to hang the blind. It starts out banal, “Determine if your blind goes inside or outside the window frame. Drill two holes.” and breaks down as the text continues. “We’ll knock those 8 bricks out with a sledge, and then fill it with dirt, and uh, chairs.” The tirade keeps going until we hear “I should call my dad.” The moment is heartbreaking, until it turns cold when followed up with “He has a drill.”
Next is a series of images each one illuminated in a short flash of bright white LED light. The tableaus are striking. We see Whitney and Courtney blowing hot air into each others mouths. The light pouring through the blind casting shadows on bare legs, high heels.
Each moment is heightened by the fact that, this evening, a flash of light is breaking a rule. We are being a bit mischievous. Definitely not malicious, and also not too naughty, but a little. For me, the lights roughly approximated the feeling of sneaking out of the house, playing spin the bottle, or calling yourself in sick to school. These quick images conjured a memory of adolescent exploration, or rather of sneaking forbidden pleasures.
It was this sensation of sneaking forbidden pleasures that fueled the moment which became the heart of the piece for me. The light flashes onto Will Courtney’s face and slowly approaches his lips, focusing in. Cher blasts through the speakers as Courtney lip syncs, “DO YOU BELIEVE IN LIFE AFTER LOVE?!”
This moment hit hard because this is the type of moment I’ve lived before myself. Specifically a moment I’ve lived in the shower. Not your everyday shower, it’s the type of shower you take when you are feeling rock bottom. The shower you take just to stand under hot water, attempt to wash off your loneliness, not to clean yourself. In that shower nothing feels more right than belting pop music. In that moment no one will ever understand you like Cher understands you. (Or Beyonce/whoever else. You follow your own star.) No song can quite say what you’re feeling except for that song. And in this shower no one is watching, you are totally alone. You don’t have to hold back one bit. Belt it! It feels too good!
“DO YOU BELIEVE IN LIFE AFTER LOVE?!”
Whether it was Gender Tender’s intention or not this refrain shaped the whole of the piece for me. Do we believe in life after love or are we all in the dark after heartbreak? Is life after love only possible in brief illicit moments, tiny flashes of light? Are we all blindly hanging new blinds to cover the darkness, loneliness, outside our windows?
These questions are of course, dramatic. They are gooey, untidy and embarrassing, but they also strike a chord of honesty when I recall how I’ve felt at moments of loss or heartbreak. Moments where pop music cuts right into the soul and becomes sacred wisdom, guiding light.
Gender Tender manages, through a flash of light, to simultaneously illuminate our moments of Heart/throb and also blanket the audience in a deeper darkness than one we settled into at the top of the Pitch Dark Cabaret.
Thank you! Bravo.
— Justin Spooner
The Pitch Dark Cabaret
December 11th 2015