Jun. 28–30, 2019
The Fruit, Durham
A+A Dance Company’s Don’t Get Any Ideas, Little Lady is one of the most difficult shows I’ve ever encountered, both to watch and to write about. The reason for the former will become clear. The latter is more complex, but the main difficulty is twofold: I am a cis man assessing a show about “femme-phobia” and gendered personal trauma, toward which my every instinct is to listen in silence, and I can’t tell you about the most powerful, divisive part of the show at all.
As the audience entered The Fruit, a participatory art installation was underway in the lobby. One station invited visitors to color two outlines of bodies with crayons, one to show where they’d touched others without consent and the other to show where they had been unwillingly touched. Unsurprisingly, the former was dominated by knees and arms, while the latter was dominated by more private areas.
You could draw a number of conclusions from this anecdotal discrepancy: that people who choose to attend an independent dance show about misogyny tend to be up on consent culture (probably true), or that people are more willing to admit to touching someone’s knee than their genitals (also probably true). In any case, the illustration of the pervasiveness of non-consensual touching and the gap between ideals and behaviors effectively set the tone.
If you can count DIDA‘s core dance-theater aesthetic as a tradition at this point, then the first two-thirds of the show were fairly traditional. There was a mix of acting and dance, of comedy and pathos, of social commentary and self-revelation. Modern dance solos and duets, many of them quite beautiful—especially those featuring company leaders Allie Pfeffer and Alyssa Noble, who have spent several years honing their rapport—wove in and out of vignettes featuring recurring characters.
If no one in the audience would escape unscathed, it paled in comparison to the scathing that took place on stage. The show frequently deployed caricatures to probe the deeply interlaced factors at play in identity and oppression, cutting both outward and inward. George Barrett portrayed a high-energy fitness instructor whose routines involved instructions for fighting off sexual predators and covering yourself with a flannel shirt to ward off unwanted gazes. But his character’s gay coding served as cover for him to non-consensually touch the women in his class, whose acceptance of this was implicitly racialized. The scenario captured something acute about the intricate, half-examined, sometimes incoherent hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality with which we try to parse relative power.
In another standout section, Pfeffer and Noble changed costumes at high speed to portray various archetypes of white women, tossing off hilarious asides in real time as their pre-recorded voices read dossiers of oblivious prejudices and microaggressions. There’s one who wore blackface to a party “in honor of Prince,” one who likes to say “yaaas.” (There’s a great callback in a later workout-class section, when Noble is scolded by Barrett for saying it in response to his exhortations.) And just when the sense of straw women started to intrude—around the time the dreadlock wig came out—Pfeffer and Noble interrogated their own pasts as kids dancing hip-hop choreography by white people or listening to every kind of music except rap and country.
The last third of the show starkly stood apart and seemed designed to be indigestible by audiences and star ratings. Forsaking any pretense of entertainment or gratification—promises that usually lurk at the bottom of even the most difficult ticketed work—the performers danced long, raw solos to recordings of themselves relating gendered personal traumas, which ranged from heartbreaking to horrifying. This is the kind of pain dancers usually use in its abstract form, but rendered concrete and unvarnished. Instead of just appearing to break some essential compact of concert dance while secretly staying within it, as most experimental works do, it actually broke that compact. In addition to the pains of complicity and empathy, there was the excruciating sense of eavesdropping on things we had no right to hear, reinforced by the long moments afterward when the performers sat in a circle with their backs to us, crying and consoling one another, until the lights finally came up. I have no recollection of what the dancing looked like.
In our interview several weeks ago, in the written materials accompanying the show, and in the pre-show verbal instruction not to ask the performers about their stories afterward, Pfeffer and Noble have been explicit in their intention to draw a circle of protection around the people reliving and revealing their traumas. This section was unambiguously for them, not for us, which left the lingering question of why we needed to be there for it. It’s one I still can’t answer. I have talked to many people about this show, and this section in particular, and I have heard the whole range of responses: It was powerful; it was problematic. It was necessary; it was exploitative. It was brave; it was punitive. It was probably all of these things. No one felt untouched by it, which seems a mark in its favor. But neither I nor anyone I’ve talked to felt healed or edified by it, either, or really knew how to process it at all.
Putting a star rating and critique on such material feels obtuse, if not unethical, yet it was proffered in a modern-dance context for a $15 general admission ticket. Insofar as Don’t Get Any Ideas, Little Lady is coherent in a critical context, there is a four-star show not far below the surface of this three-star premiere. It would run perhaps seventy minutes instead of ninety, as several sections keep going well after their impression is made. (Some use protracted repetition to their advantage, though. In a scene where the cast obliviously thrust their hips at us, I became interested, bored, interested again, and then felt something true about the implacable nature of male sexual aggression.)
This four-star version I’m imagining would keep its best stage pictures, as when the entire cast (which also included JV Alencar, Beth Fajardo, and Chris Strauss) donned Hulk muscle shirts and danced in video-game-linebacker formation to DJ PlayPlay’s pounding music. But it would jettison a couple of sections that didn’t land: a game of charades with the audience and a hard-to-interpret solo with a baby doll.
This imagined version might even do well to redistribute the personal storytelling throughout. It’s so heavy that it can’t help but topple the show’s balance when it’s all piled at the end. More evenly dispersed, it could become load-bearing, instead, while casting its poignancy and complexity on the broader comic vignettes. True, this would dilute the overwhelming effect the creators seem to have in mind, and we grasp the empathetic point that the performers don’t get to choose when and how they live with this, so why should we? But the overwhelmed viewer is a passive one, and meting out the sensitive material more gently and evenly might let us do more with it than rushing out afterward to drink it numb.
But as I’ve said, why should this private material from stranger be mine to do anything with? It’s not mine, except for in the complicated, systemic ways that it is. In any case, it was given to me and to everyone else who attended The Fruit over those three nights, and now we’re left to figure out what to do with it, both ethically and emotionally. All I can say for sure is that it left me feeling even shittier than usual about being a man, and it made women I know feel shittier about being women. Whether it will make me a better man in the long run so that women might feel less shitty remains to be seen. But it’s not an experience I’ll soon forget, and regardless of how the piece worked, it’ll be in me, doing its work.