fire, tango and more submissive female leads: bilbobasso comes to Freo
There is a scene in the headline act of the Fremantle Street Arts Festival, a show by French company Bilbobasso, where the leading lady dances for the leading man, trying to convince him to come back to her. She dances with what look like the bones of two enormous metal fans, a series of lit cylinders at the tips, which send out fine showers of embers as she moves. He – a gangster in a purple suit – sits at a front corner of the stage. He is illuminated by a small fire at his feet, and he keeps his back to her throughout. Behind him, she is a bird absorbed in a mating dance, aware only of her body and her mate; the lights are down and we can see nothing but her silhouette moving among elaborate patterns of embers, and his bored expression. When she is done, he strides past her towards his new woman, his shoulder hitting hers and swinging her open like a door.
The description for Bilbobasso in the program suggests that the attraction between this ‘mysterious young woman’ and her ‘ruthless gangster’ is doomed for failure, and then wonders whether the dance might save her. It cannot. Boy meets Girl; Boy discards Girl for another; Girl tries to win back Boy; Boy rejects Girl a number of times while spending lots of time with other Girl; Girl is driven to Boy’s older, softer associate; Girl and older associate endure a fraught courting process; Girl tries to win Boy back a couple more times; Boy, Girl, other Girl and older associate all dance together in a finale; and then older associate either kills or destroys Girl, though that last bit isn’t really clear.
It’s probably not completely clear, and the above synopsis potentially not altogether accurate, because the story is told entirely with Argentinian tango dancing and rampant pyrotechnics. The narrative is really only there to provide the frailest of bones for the fleshiest of visuals – in every scene there is elaborate dancing, and in every scene many things are set on fire. They have this brown dust that, when lit and thrown, explodes in a great puff of flame, and they use this liberally. As well as throwing it, they spread it through the sand on the stage, light it, and then kick it around, until the very ground on which they are dancing is alight. They tango dance with lit poi draped over their arm and have conversations while their hats roar with flames just above their faces. During the courting scene between the leading lady and the older associate, the two of them pick up coffee pourers filled with some sort of flammable liquid, light the spouts, and then swing each other around in circles pouring the liquid out around them in fine ribbons of blue flame. It’s pretty spectacular. Narrative is clearly not the point.
Still, it was the narrative that bothered me. Usually when gender within narrative bothers me, it’s because the men are perpetually holding the leading, activator role, while the women are prizes or mothers of children or token side-kicks, if they are present at all. This especially seems to happen in spectacle-based performance works or street theatre shows, which use simple, generic storylines as racks from which to hang their tricks. Who hasn’t seen the one where the male street performer picks a pretty girl from the audience to woo with his skills and charms?
What bothered me about Bilbobasso’s show was that although Girl was the main character – the story was clearly hers – Boy still had all the power, and Girl still held the submissive role. It bothered me that the women in the story were items to be consumed and then discarded. It bothered me that Boy was clearly an arsehole, yet Girl still pursued him like a beaten dog, hungry for his attention.
Plus, the men weren’t sexy. Both women, of course, were young and stunning and they danced accordingly. Their legs, hairless and smooth as carved wood, licked in and out of dresses split to the crotch. Their movements were sensual, controlled and they glided over the stage boneless and muscled as tongues; the men, meanwhile, though technically probably good dancers, were not sensual. The purple-suited gangster was greasy-headed and square, sharp in his movements, while his associate was in his 40s or 50s, white haired and balding. He had a fatherly loveliness to him, but he was not sexy, not like the women. The chemistry was absent. The women were beacons of sexually-charged beauty begging at the feet of unattractive men. It only served to intensify the power imbalances already in place and objectify the women further.
If you can make dust explode in the air, you can write a good story to go with it: practitioners of street theatre really need to start progressing with their narratives as quickly as they’re progressing with their presentation of spectacle. A show wherein the narrative is secondary can still pull itself out of easy generics without sacrificing simplicity. Expose the gangster as weak. Have the other woman reject the gangster. Get the older associate to become besotted with the leading lady and then have her discard him. Make them human; create power play, conflict the audience’s opinion of the characters. If the women are sexy, the men should be too – it’s only fair. Fuck with some gender roles. Powerful men and submissive women – we’ve seen that already. We’ve been seeing it for centuries. You can light shit on fire all you like, but if you’re going to have a story, at least make it interesting.
By Zoe Barron