Christy Wensley reflects on the representation of Medusa in literary and performative art after seeing Jasmin Vardimon’s latest piece, Medusa, at Sadler’s Wells.
Who is Medusa, and how can we account for her persistent fascination?
The Medusa Reader, ed. Marjorie Garber and Nancy J. Vickers, 2003.
Jasmin Vardimon’s Medusa as modern dance, performance art, camp romp, feminist manifesto and environmental critique, aspires to the hybridity of its woman/monster namesake. However, the piece does not fully cohere into a single nor a singular work of art. Vardimon celebrates 20 years of creation and choreography as the Artistic Director of the Jasmin Vardimon Company (and 12 as Associate Artist of Sadler’s Wells) with this production. While the ambition as a social critique and elaborate performance piece are evident – as is the trust between her company members – Medusa cannot overcome a lack of precision that diminishes its provocation.
In her programme notes, Vardimon continues that ‘some in the contemporary world dismiss myth as the product of the primitive imagination’, but the myth and figure of Medusa is ever present and taken seriously in a feminist context. From the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Dorothea Smartt, to the work of Freud, Lacan and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Vardimon cites, Medusa as story and sign are continually engaged with.
From its distant beginnings, the story of Medusa has fascinated listeners and readers – and terrified them. For what is most compelling in the long history of the myth and its retellings is Medusa’s doubleness: at once monster and beauty, disease and cure, threat and protection, poison and remedy, the woman with snaky locks who could turn the unworthy onlooker into stone has come to stand for all that is obdurate and irresistible.
Major Garber and Nancy J. Vickers, Introduction to the Medusa Reader, 2003.
Graham’s influence (as well as Bausch’s) is apparent, especially in the sections with the multiplied figures of Medusa facing off and in the scenes requiring more daring moves. We can ‘hear’ the Graham technique’s forced, audible breaths, but like the mention of Sartre in the programme notes, this influence seems more as if Vardimon is making her own shallow knowledge felt rather than drawing inspiration or meaning from her sources. Graham’s exhales contract the body in preparation for power, coiling the core power of her dancers for their next plosive movements. As the audible exhales were not a consistent feature through the night, they became distractedly noticeable as cues for some of the more admittedly impressive and slightly dangerous sequences, timing the movement of heavy objects (props and dancers) as they swirled or were hurled above and toward company members.
I mention these other artists not to claim that this work is problematically derivative or wholly unnecessary, but to highlight that there is vast possibility in the figure of Medusa and that multiple representations celebrate an inclusionary and complex feminist politics that Vardimon’s piece does not achieve, even as Vardimon’s Medusa has several faces – and bodies – in her company. The problem is in her own claimed sources – Sartre, especially. For me, it wasn’t subversive because it was so bound and subject to the very structures it claimed to resist, only mentioning and responding to the masculine, including her own stated source in Sartre, though this name-drop, like the Graham-breath, is only superficially and fleetingly misused and possibly misread.
The best example of the “we” can be furnished by the spectator at a theatrical performance whose consciousness is exhausted in apprehending the imaginary spectacle, in foreseeing the events through anticipatory schemes, in positing imaginary beings as the hero, the traitor, the captive etc., a constituted non-thetically as consciousness (of) being, a co-spectator of the spectacle.
Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 1943.
In her work, which is knowingly spectacular and a spectacle, what are the various subject positions within and without – from our point of view – then being established and considered and questioned? We are forced to take point of view of the masculine actors placed ‘in’ – not in front, but from the same visual perspective, our line of sight – these strutting land- and lady-rapists as they piss and ejaculate on the bound, blinded female form in front of us. If this is meant to be a commentary on consumptions of culture as mimetic of environmental and literal ravishment, it didn’t succeed because it was presented as joke, as gimmick, as boys – with their youthful backwards caps and frat boy laughs – being boys without letting us see any of the faces, the reflective surfaces that create the ‘We-object’ that Sartre’s Medusa complex contends. The position and the tone were inconsistent, which doesn’t work in favor of dance, even less than it would in other media.
We’ve been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty; we’ve been made victim of the old fool’s game: each one will love the other sex. I’ll give you your body and you’ll give me mine. But who are the men who give women the body that women blindly yield to them? Why so few texts? Because so few women have as yet won back their body. Women must write through their bodies…
Hélène Cixous, from ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975).
The sets and props, including metal smokestacks, gas masks, plastic bags and literal piles of refuse in the final act overwhelm the stage and the dancers. They – and their movements – are burdened, and even as an embodiment of the major issues at stake in what Vardimon describes in her programme notes as a ‘poetic reflection on the powerful feminine symbol of Medusa, the myth and its wider social and environmental connotations,’ these material and metaphorical weights detract from the choreography, which then has little subtlety or fluidity. This heaviness detracts from the very point that the work both overstates and underdelivers about the contingent crises of misogyny and environmental destruction.
If the feminine is meant to be representative of or connected to Nature and her elements, then a moment of epiphanic or celebratory coalescence of this possible synthesis, even as it is embattled is necessary; Vardimon’s Medusa does not quite reach this moment. Her dancers seem fettered not only by the overt – and very obvious – patriarchal imps, especially Joshua Smith, whose charisma pulls focus whenever he appears on stage – but by the mechanics of Vardimon’s overly complicated movements. Even the dazzling moments, which require an impressive synchronocity between multiple moving parts – dancers and props – lost their power in revealing their mechanics as these choreographic set pieces went on just too long; this was also the case with the jokes in the work, which quickly passed from humour to gimmick to violence, again in a lack of needed nuance.
Dragging their Jesus hair.
Did I escape, I wonder?
My mind winds to you
Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable,
Keeping itself, it seems, in a state of miraculous repair.
In any case, you are always there,
Tremulous breath at the end of my line,
Curve of water upleaping
To my water rod, dazzling and grateful,
Touching and sucking.
I didn’t call you.
I didn’t call you at all.
You steamed to me over the sea,
Fat and red, a placenta… (From Sylvia Plath’s ‘Medusa’ (1962)
I was left wondering if this piece missed its mark in its formal accomplishment, critical point, mythical origins and / or intellectual references – or is it doing what it wants and what it intended, and I just didn’t meet it? My desire and expectations for a ‘deconstructionist’ take on the Medusa myth weren’t satisfied by Vardimon’s piece, but this could be representative of the limits of my own imagination and relation to a broad and unexpectedly humorous approach to myth-making and remaking than a fault of the work itself. There is and must be space for the many voices and faces of the monstrous-feminine and what this powerful figure can represent for and reflect back to us.
Jasmin Vardimon Company’s Medusa premiered at Sadler’s Wells on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th of October, 2018. Click the links for more information on this production, the Jasmin Vardimon Company and Sadler’s Wells current and upcoming productions.