Vague house beat. A young White female model-type in a voluminous dark wig. She wears a black Nike sports bra, jeans, and black leather gloves. Center-stage on all fours, atop a kind of inflatable mattress, she thrusts her hips in slow twerking movements. Her pink lipstick matches the sides of the inflatable. The stage is a pale grey. To a gently spoken soundtrack, she simultaneously lip-syncs: “18 year old ass, 18 school girls, 18 amateur, 18 and confused, 100 percent neoliberal.”
April 11 – April 12
This moment is emblematic of much of Alexandra Bachzetsis’s Escape Act, where a handful of performers present often overtly sexualized choreography in a clean, minimal stage design. The pale neutral floor and polished warehouse setting of Pioneer Works is combined with a palette of complementary highlights including neon pink, orange, and yellow. It’s a familiar contemporary aesthetic with versions found in places ranging from the music videos of Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, to the loftier sets of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Così fan tutte at the Paris Opera. Bachzetsis’s music choices, often house or pop with vocals removed, evoke a distilled echo of popular contemporary culture. The difference between Escape Act and its pop-culture stylistic siblings is its audience. Here at Pioneer Works the performance is attended by an assembly of people with expectations of intellectual and experimental material. Well-versed in similar work, we actively imbue the performance with theoretical concepts. It’s in this arena that the hip-thrusting White woman in the wig and Nike bra is intended to become something more, a vehicle for conceptual thinking.
On her website, Bachzetsis introduces and validates each work with a theoretical text by a prominent curator or critic. Escape Act is accompanied with a piece by Paul B. Preciado that discusses the performance by way of Deleuze and Guattari. A major voice in gender and trans studies, Preciado finds the performativity of gender in its ability to be synthesized, reproduced, and captured under a capitalist regime. In Testo Junkie, he vivaciously explains how pharmaceutical and pornographic systems of power manipulate and choreograph individual subjectivity on the molecular level: Prozac defines depression as much as testosterone, cum shots, or Viagra define masculinity. Gender, race, and other identities are installed within us for capitalist ends. Text by Preciado himself is deployed in Bachzetsis’s Escape Act. Passages such as “addicted to Viagra, addicted to cock, addicted to Prozac, addicted to pussy” reference the theoretical maneuver by Preciado that sees gender as interchangeable with drugs and pornographic acts.
For Preciado, Escape Act asks the question: How is a body assembled (or disassembled)? Deploying costume and props as gender-markers, Bachzetsis utilizes wigs, heels, cowboy boots, white briefs, lipstick, as well as breast and butt padding, to form an arsenal of codifying protheses. These are combined with gestures and movements such as feminized walks with exaggerated hips, or crotch grabbing masculine poses. Throughout the piece, these elements are donned by both male and female performers, presumably with subversive intent. However, while this brand of gender-play was once subversive, and unique to queer communities, it is now quite at home in the broader Western cultural sphere.
The performance starts with a female performer in bright heels, her identity obscured by dark fabric stretched over her face, who strikes a series of poses on the floor center stage. Bent backwards over in an exaggerated arc, her heels point into the air at dramatic angles. This performance style of a regular succession of poses has precedents in ballroom culture, with many of these initial reclining elements resembling voguing “dips.” The reference is fitting, as these queer, non-White communities for decades have become expert at exploring the signifying potential of costume, props, and movement, long before the evolution of contemporary critical practices.
What Bachzetsis’s piece shows prominently is the total entanglement of gender and racial codifiers. Almost all of the prosthetic objects used also evoke race, particularly Black identities. Some of the more arresting elements in the performance were two monologues, expertly performed with a masterful clown-like quality by Gus Solomons. One retells the experience of a New York stripper who augments her body surgically with butt injections to heighten both her femininity and blackness to further capitalize on male approval and hegemonic desire. Indeed, the wigs, body padding, and twerking elements used throughout the work recall the hypersexualization of Black female bodies. Towards the end of the performance, a White female performer enters with an exaggerated male attitude and walk. Sagging basketball shorts and a wig-cap resembling a durag evoke an equally sexualized Black male stereotype. While the gender codifying objects are more evenly distributed among the male and female cast, the racial elements are not, suggesting less control and nuance in this area of the work. Noting the choreographer’s Whiteness, the question becomes whether these extreme stereotypes are really subverted or rather enhanced in the process. While these gendered and racialized bodies are clearly sexualized by Bachzetsis, what kind of critical distance is maintained here?
The true intention of the piece is suggested by Preciado to be the exploration of “lines of flight.” This term is taken from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari who see a “line of flight” to be a crack in which the systems of capture (structural power, such as language, capitalism, or patriarchy) can be escaped. It is a form of fugitivity, away from the entrenchment of normalization and systemic oppression. It evades language or schemes of classification. For queer theorist José Muñoz, a “line of flight” might be found in the campy performances of Fred Herko in the otherwise heteronormative domain of Judson Dance Theater. Deleuze and Guattari’s concept was never developed specifically for dance, yet performances and artworks can often resist categorization, creating a gap for something else to occur, a stage for slippage. These acts of rebellion appear to be, we can presume, the “escape acts” to which the title refers. Preciado’s introduction to the piece highlights one such “sequence of rebellion,” when “feminized bodies escape the normative choreography, wreaking havoc on the stage for a short period of time, only to return to generic movement.”
This moment in the performance comes halfway through, when the choreographer and three other dancers, all in wigs and heels, with butt and chest padding, crescendo to a frenzy as they stomp and scream, some of them stamping apart cardboard boxes. The non-verbal quality and unleashed wild movements appear to bypass language and other governing systems. However, we must ask whether, for Preciado and Bachzetsis, this moment constitutes a true line of flight or a mere semblance of one. This moment forces us to ask, is it possible to choreograph a “line of flight”? Certainly, were the performers to suddenly and unexpectedly depart from the piece’s choreography, begin to kick, scream or otherwise, on a random impulse, it would be more easily understood as such. However, this moment was pre-meditated and planned by the choreographer for a specific venue and audience. At best, it is a simulation or illustration of a “line of flight.” However, from our understanding of the term, a simulated “line of flight” is somewhat oxymoronic; for a true escape act should evade reproducibility, capture, and therefore monetization. Bachzetsis’s choreographed scream evades none of these things. First and foremost, a synchronized frenzy accompanied by heightened music and screaming is not a raw act at all, but an avant-gardist gesture with decades of historical stylistic precedents. Preciado confusingly writes that in its inclusion of poetry, pornography, dance, high and low art, “Escape Act challenges the still prevailing division of the arts by medium” as though Bachzetsis’s work was one of the first to combine these elements—as if Escape Act was in some way formally radical.
In the context of the art world, escape acts actually risk further capitalist capture. For artists like Bachzetsis, escape acts form a currency, where the art market desires products containing these “lines of flight.” The piece’s title itself lays claim on their production. The work’s theoretical validating frame, written by Preciado, assigns value and merit to the work specifically due to their inclusion. The audience attending these performances may well be familiar with Preciado, “lines of flight,” and the style in which these ideas are now choreographed in experimental art practices. Political and social escape acts, or their caricatures, become desirable assets to be exploited in the current market. As such, the work has entered into a cultural space where the simulation of “lines of flight” is able to gather capital. “Lines of flight,” or rather, their capitalist shadows, have been assimilated into the regime of the culture industry.
Unfortunately, many moments from Bachzetsis’s piece simply don’t generate new possibilities or ruptures of meaning but recycle common stylistic tropes. The collective scream to which Preciado refers comes off as lackluster. It is a tired structural device that half-heartedly provides an impression of climax and variation of tempo. A later orgy section appeared predictable. A group of dancers slowly writhes on the floor, pulling at one another’s jeans. Grabbing gestures are mirrored or echoed between two or more performers as different members mount and dismount each other in a continuous, undulating fashion. The effect is familiar and uninspired; more erotic or unique portrayals of orgies might be found in traditional opera productions. Bachzetsis’s positioning as a contemporary choreographer who explores concepts of sex does not guarantee a radically erotic value of the work. Most of the piece, with its minimalist aesthetic, has a detached quality. The pornographic gestures appear depersonalized and abstracted, allowing the audience to remain undesiring and distanced, viewing these gestures conceptually, in a disinterested manner. The model-esque performers and clinical design also beautify the pornographic elements, rendering them more palatable and generic. If the bodies are sexualized, the casting, styling and choreography make their eroticization overwhelmingly normative. In Testo Junkie, Preciado details sexual acts and desires during his self-administration of testosterone, providing new erotic pathways that delve into the unchartered waters of uncodified desire. Bachzetsis’s choreography provides few new imaginings of erotic possibility. Instead, feminizing and racial fetishes are repackaged under a vague guise of critique.
It must be presumed that the piece is attempting to replicate these normative aesthetics, erotics, and choreographies in an attempt to critique them. Yet this is where the piece is at its most imprecise and evasive. One section sees four of the dancers in matching padded jeans, heels, and wigs perform a version of recognizably mainstream contemporary choreography. Hips are thrust side to side, while the lips form a loose pout, and a campy flick of the hands brushes wig hair from the face. With one dancer counting out loud, the group resembles a collection of overtly feminized and racialized bodies rehearsing a dance routine. One movement, when the group slides down onto the floor, is reminiscent of choreography such as Beyoncé’s Countdown, which in turn was heavily replicated from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. In this moment, Bachzetsis interestingly highlights the enmeshed nature of contemporary ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The contemporary art platform creates a stage where mainstream aesthetics and eroticism can be bizarrely repackaged as conceptually emancipatory. Yet, Bachzetsis only highlights this process through avid participation.
Finally, we can return to the White woman alone, twerking in the Nike bra atop the inflatable. How should we regard this moment? Is it an escape act, a “line of flight”? Bachzetsis’s staging of a racialized, feminized, “low” culture stereotype may be an act of subversion with the help of some theoretical framing. But the veil is thin. The eroticized figure appears to indulge as much as critique. Bachzetsis wants it both ways. She wants to choreograph gestures of blackness, of queer eroticism, with mainstream, normalized stylistic devices. And, simultaneously, she wants to brand her work as emancipatory, as escape acts. Perhaps, just as there is a market demand for escape acts there is also a market demand for work that asserts its cool status and its legibility within the cultural sphere. In this way, Escape Act can be read not as a line of flight at all, but cornered creativity. It is a work manipulated by the governing regimens of capital and style, striving to be read as superficially emancipatory, as well as appearing stylistically readable, cool, and relevant. The real question might then become: how do non-White, queer bodies pay the price for Bachzetsis’s work to appear cool and political?