Declaring war on "the big boys", Motherland goes on a journey through gender with a sense of humour and social responsibility. Caitlin Hayward-Tapp finds it thoroughly thought-provoking
If you’ve ever stopped to think about the construction of gender in our society and then wished there was a way to see those thoughts realised through dance, spoken word and live music, Motherland is the show for you. Embracing different forms of performance art, Motherland delves into the world of womanhood, motherhood, cross-dressing, sex and violence through the eyes of several generations and creates a space for discussion, new ideas and consciousness-raising. Alongside their piece, Vincent Dance Theatre run participatory events, encouraging attendees to engage with their techniques and topics in more detail.
Vincent Dance Theatre has been creating “collaboratively devised dance theatre work” since 1994, actively seeking to address challenging issues through performance. Charlotte Vincent, the Artistic Director of Vincent Dance Theatre and the director of Motherland, is an impressive figure. Having choreographed for many different companies, including Phoenix Dance Theatre as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Charlotte has been working with Vincent Dance Theatre since its inception. She co-wrote Motherland with Liz Aggiss and describes the piece as “explor[ing] the full spectrum of masculinity and femininity questioning how women take up space, find a voice, make some noise.”
Vincent Dance Theatre wrote to the Brighton Feminist Collective, of which I am a member, to let us know they would be coming to our city. As someone who actively engages with gender politics and with a particular interest in women’s relationships with their bodies, I was instantly intrigued by the piece. The Motherland website includes a trailer that gives some idea of the style and abstraction of the performance without giving too much away about the actual content and though the wording of the show description didn’t enthral me (anything inspired by Caitlin Moran and the Spice Girls doesn’t exactly float my feminist boat), I was hooked. I needed to see what Motherland was and so, with a certain amount of cynicism and a lot of anticipation, I went along.
Entering the theatre, the audience is faced with a completely white set. The lighting is clinical and the stage is box-like: an interesting way to frame a piece that challenges the many boxes women are supposed to fit into in society. The lights in the auditorium fall and one by one the performers step onto the stage, walk to the front and look out into the audience. Their gaze lingers long enough for the audience to become slightly uncomfortable – are they looking at me? Have they seen someone they know in the audience? Why are they smiling? – at which point they switch to the next performer. In this way, the audience becomes aware that we are being watched and the anticipated role of passive spectator is destroyed. It is clear that we are expected to engage with the material: the performers aren’t going to meet us half way.
Motherland is made up of around 90 short vignettes, performed by five women and five men who range in age from 12 to 78 years old. The vignettes are at times humorous, at times moving, at times confusing. The performers are sometimes suited-and-booted, sometimes don wigs and make-up and yet other times strip down to their underwear. It is clear that every costume change is consciously thought-provoking, especially in one vignette where performer Patrycja Kujawska stands in her underwear between two men (Alex Catona and Scott Smith) in black suits. Her vulnerability is starkly contrasted against their confidence as they call out into the audience: “Are there any women in the house? Are there any sluts in the house? Are there any yummy mummies in the house?” An audience member later remarked that this reference to lad culture really resonated with him – he hadn’t realised how many words his peers use to demean women.
The visuals of Motherland are extremely striking and occasionally distressing to witness. Throughout the piece the stage becomes more and more stained with the marks of life – soil on the ground signifies fertility, red wine against the wall marks menstruation and red wine on the floor remains from vignettes about pregnancy and violence. At one point, a blackboard is brought onto the stage and the word “MOTHER” written upon it. Andrea Catania, having spent several vignettes lying sprawled with blood between her legs, drags herself slowly and painfully across the stage to the board, leaving a trail of blood behind her. Completing the long journey to motherhood, she exclaims, “I’m here!” – only to find she remains invisible to the other performers who are immersed in their own worlds. Many of the vignettes are this graphic and don’t shy away from dark subject matter. Patrycja explained post-performance that one way they worked on pieces like this was to reign in their own emotions in order to give the audience a chance to reach their own interpretations.
Indeed, one of the great strengths of the piece is how open each vignette is to personal interpretation. The subjects are handled with subtlety, allowing the audience to reach their own conclusions. While I felt this sometimes left me grasping for meaning, generally I felt very engaged and involved with the performance. Certain pieces felt particularly moving or distressing without it being immediately clear to the viewer why that was, which I felt encouraged me to question and analyse my responses a lot more than I would have done if the meaning was immediately obvious. For example, one vignette shows Janusz Orlik stuffing bloodied cotton up Aurora Lubos’ dress while cymbals are played and she howls in pain, interspersed with them both bowing and smiling to the sound of enthusiastic applause. Discussing this after the performance, I found myself torn – did this represent sexual violence, or pregnancy? Why are the two so interchangeable, and why, as someone who hasn’t experienced either, was I almost moved to tears by it? Personally, I’ve never felt so challenged by a piece of performance art and as a result I found myself thinking about gender in ways I hadn’t previously considered.
For me, the most striking element of the piece was Leah Yeger’s role. At only twelve years old, Leah provides a child’s perspective on the world, questioning everything she sees and emulating the actions of the older women. Her input forces the audience to consider the impact of the adults’ actions as we watch her develop from asking whether people like her dress and her hair to donning red high heels and imitating sexual poses. In the Q&A, Leah asked whether the audience thought it was appropriate for her to be in such an adult show. The responses were unanimous – yes, it was appropriate – but the reasoning varied. Some felt her presence was vital to seeing our own responsibility to future generations; others felt that as girls as young as 12 are subjected to sexualised femininity it was vital that they also engage with discussions about it. Interestingly, a young member of the audience pointed out that Leah was the only one to question what she saw, while the adults only answered her questions without viewing the world critically themselves. The presence of a young performer who observed and questioned the adults on the stage is powerful and a stark reminder not only that we don’t question the world around us enough, but also that we don’t take enough responsibility for the actions that influence younger generations.
The Q&A after the show was structured using the Liz Lerman technique for critical feedback, where the cast asked the audience questions first before we were given a chance to ask our own. This was a fascinating exercise to participate in right after watching the show, as immediately you are faced with interpretations of the scenes you’ve just witnessed that are completely different to your own. It was also interesting to see how people responded to the structure of the Lerman technique. Several audience members were incapable of asking a question without including a personal judgement on the piece, which created quite an uncomfortable tension but was thought-provoking within itself. Are we really so used to being given space to criticise people that we cannot ask a single question without including a personal opinion? From the Brighton audience at least, it would seem so.
A question Patrycja raised provoked varied responses from the audience: “How do you see the ‘manland’ in Motherland?”‘ Some felt the men were there to ignore the women, others that they were the music-makers, creating the context for the women’s stories. Personally, I felt the identities of the male performers were just as complex as those of the female performers, especially as they grappled with their own femininity and, for some, the desire to be accepted as women. While sexuality and trans* identities weren’t developed a great deal as themes of the piece, I felt the way the men interacted with gender worked well to undermine and challenge preconceptions about gender roles and stereotypes in a really refreshing way.
I was very impressed with Vincent Dance Theatre, both the company and the performance. Not only did they engage with extremely sensitive topics with tenderness and subtlety, but they actively engaged with the audience on issues that are normally taboo or uncomfortable. While some of the scenes of Motherland should probably come with a trigger warning for allusions to sexual violence, I felt the performance was conducted with great sensitivity and self-awareness and is a very exciting new perspective on the construction of gender in society. I highly recommend it.
Motherland is touring the UK until 24 November. Photos, taken by Hugo Glendinning, are used with permission.