Ivo Dimchev’s FEST, which just completed a two night run at FringeArts, marked the fourth, fifth, and sixth sex acts I’ve seen on stage this week.
There’s a reason we rarely see sex on stage. It’s a highly-charged subject that can trigger emotions ranging from disgust to fear, humor to titillation. Still, one could argue that most art is themed around sex—power and love, two of the most common themes (particularly in performance), are concepts deeply rooted in sex. Yet sexual content in art usually takes the form of either an airbrushed abstraction of sex via love or power, or the exploitation and titillation common in popular entertainment and crude, reactive sex humor. Sex becomes either romance or crudity, or, worse, exploitation.
So what occurs in a theater when sex happens?
Last weekend at New York’s American Realness festival, Florentina Holzinger and Vincent Riebeek presented their KEIN APPLAUS FÜR SCHEISSE (“No applause for shit”), a dance-theatrical collage of humor, filth, and pop tributes. The two German performers play feckless, pseudo-talented raver-artists in a series of interactions ranging from arguments and slapstick dance-failure to sadly sincere karaoke and explicit, yet strangely abstracted, sex acts.
In the first “sex,” Riebeek eats a seemingly endless thread out of Holzinger’s quite visible vagina; she dances as well as she can with her legs in the air while he pulls and pulls and chews and chews for about five minutes. Later, there’s some performative watersports, ending with Holzinger spitting Riebeek’s own urine into his mouth.
Perhaps the most bizarre, and evocative, act is the closest to actual sex. Riebeek kneels between Holzinger’s bent legs, attempting lazily to get into a comfortable enough position to hump her, while she lies, looking slightly bored, on her back. Suddenly, he begins to vomit fluorescent blue bile onto her chest.
Watching this, I don’t really pause to justify what I’m seeing. I’m intrigued by the reciprocal and convoluted nature of their sex; it doesn’t seem to exploit her body in favor of his, or hold his will over hers. Power and enjoyment shift. The audience responds to the incremental increase in shock with laughter and applause.
I know that somehow I’m relating to this brand of sex abstraction: sex via performance, sex via argument, sex via pseudo-sexual titillation. In an art world where sex is either romantic, crude, or exploitative, KEIN APLLAUS says that it can be more complex: loving, performative, absurd, grotesque, funny, and even desperate, all at once.
This all casts a unique light for me on FEST. I and everyone else who went to see FEST knew that there was going to be nudity. The most commonly used press image is a woman in a chair with her skirt hiked above her nude thighs, which obscure, well, the crux of the issue. A man (Ivo Dimchev) kneels, hunched, less than a yard away, level with her groin, but staring up into her eyes.
FEST is about a theatermaker (Dimchev playing himself) being recruited to perform at a Danish festival, and encountering a number of challenges—personal and public—in creating that performance, including an aggressively submissive technician, a murderous critic, and his own intellectual and emotional qualms.
Sex is not the only important thing going on in FEST, which is probably key to its success. Stillness and a uniform, almost mechanical delivery stretch across entire scenes with minimal variation. Long pauses charge the laconic, quotidian dialogue with hidden meaning; dance-like physical control elicits unexpected emotional tensions.
In the first scene, Dimchev, playing himself, negotiates his fee with a festival programmer (Dolores Hulan) based on how many fingers she will let him insert into her vagina. She begins to enjoy it for only a moment before Dimchev asks to insert a fourth finger and she refuses.
What does it mean when a man goes down on a woman on stage? Does it matter that no one is enjoying it? Dimchev, absurdly, claims that the fingers are a way of measuring commitment and trust before deciding a fee; what is it for the programmer? She agrees to it with indifference, and her motivations are difficult to discern.
The festival programmer is the one whose nudity goes on the press picture, and the sex is Dimchev’s idea. While her character is the one who gets to enjoy it, he drives the act forward; she’s the one to stop it. It certainly reverses the traditional “casting couch” situation, as the programmer coerces Dimchev to perform in a festival he really doesn’t want to be a part of. We are left with an uncertain and unresolved balance of power.
Which flips in the next scene, when a theater technician (Mirko Feliziani) tells Dimchev that he won’t do a technical run of the play until Dimchev “humiliates” him—he is a submissive, he says, and needs to be degraded. Dimchev avoids it until, eventually, this submissive tendency is inverted, and the programmer and the technician convince a shaking Dimchev to suck the tech’s “dirty cock.”
Later, a critic (Sandra Wieser) does a headstand while pouring a little vial supposedly containing Dimchev’s sperm into her bared vagina. This, with its acrobatics, absurdity, and visual extremity, is not so different from what might have been seen in KEIN APPLAUS. And you can certainly argue that this is not a sex act at all.
This leads us to the real question: is any of it sex? Is Dimchev discussing sex, or is he using its complex and treacherous emotional baggage as a metaphor?
There is undeniably something—perhaps sexual—which occurs between audience and performers when Dimchev first puts his mouth on the programmer’s vagina, building with each finger and culminating in her moment of enjoyment. Again, when the tech tells Dimchev to “suck his dirty cock,” titillation and expectation (or else horror, aversion) are ignited, and aren’t suppressed by the revelation of said cock or the vaguely animal face-humping, not until after the pants are pulled back up. All of this sets us up for the introduction of the final character, the critic. After everything else that’s happened, her very appearance begins the final sexual narrative, which builds up to her headstand, the revelation of her genitals, and the act of injecting herself with the vial of sperm.
From the perspective of the characters, none of these acts are for the sake of sex, titillation, or pleasure, but are challenges, symbols, transactions, ploys, or sacrifices.
FEST and KEIN APPLAUS are very different, but there are commonalities in their explicit treatment of sex. Through them we perceive a microcosm where you can’t know a character until you’ve seen their genitals, where nudity is not a stunt but an indispensable element, where sex is not abstracted through ideals and power relationships but exactly the opposite—graphic sexual activity, with its powerful emotional charge, casts a transformative light on the abstract, on love, power, fear, and ambition.
FEST ran January 8-11, 2015, at the Abrons Art Center [466 Grand Street,NYC] and January 13-14, 2015, at FringeArts [140 N. Columbus Boulevard]; fringearts.org.
KLEIN APPLAUS FÜR SCHEISSE ran January 9-11, 2015, at the Abrons Art Center [466 Grand Street,NYC]. The NYC performances were part of the American Realness festival; americanrealness.com.