An unusually moving neo-burlesque reflection on film and pop culture’s influence on women.
One of the key theories any film studies student learns early on is the concept of the male gaze and visual pleasure, coined by seminal film critic Laura Mulvey. In short, it’s a concept that discusses how Hollywood films are essentially born from an unconscious patriarchal desire to derive pleasure from voyeurism and narcissism. Almost as if in response to Mulvey’s theories, If there’s not dancing is a show that initially seeks to explore the history of blockbuster film and pop songs and the way they’ve shaped a society’s image of women, seeking a revolution to take visual pleasure back into a woman’s hands.
Directed by Virginia Frankovich, from the very beginning of If there’s not dancing, Julia Croft’s performance already demands to be looked at. Flashing a wry, knowing smile at the audience, the audience is treated to a video of a series of texts from Julia, as she deconstructs her body through photos, sending an eye, a foot, her chin and so on, before she plays a recording, informing the audience how each individual part ‘is nice, isn’t it?’ Julia appears constantly in control of the gaze, deciding on her own terms if the audience should be feeling pleasure at any point in the performance, her body a canvas for her to etch her own degree of desire upon.
From here on, Julia then embarks on a manic neo-burlesque striptease act, embodying female characters and stereotypes from some of the most iconic films and music videos of all time. Each layer she peels off is a revelation in her seemingly infinite number of costume changes, tackling characters as varied as ‘paint me like one of your French girls’ Rose from Titanic to scream queens from slasher films. Cinema and theatre blend to create a phantasmagoric performance, as Julia’s parodies and wild movements are interspersed with scenes from films such as Basic Instinct. At no point does Julia ever use her mouth to say her own words; her script comprises pop lyrics and screenplay directions and exchanges that do the talking for her and speak for themselves.
If there’s not dancing isn’t simply re-creation though, and is intelligent in that it effectively harnesses the expectations of objectification and romanticism in these scenes. Julia subverts these expectations and teases out the inherent potential for humour in them, reclaiming power and agency by explicitly re-appropriating these scenes and making them her own. In her hands, scenes are brought to their performative extremes, and Julia at times manages to paint herself as a filmic mother goddess capable of reversing and escaping the ‘male gaze’, revolutionary in that she fully embraces pop culture in all its hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies, and owns each and every scene with strength, confidence and overwhelming energy. Early on, she displays effortless clowning as she messily prepares a gin and tonic to ‘Je Ne Veux pas Trevailler’, while ‘Sexyback’ becomes decidedly unsexy as she gyrates wildly with a hamburger stuffed in her mouth and pours Coca Cola all over her body with gusto. Dare we say – she’s having so much fun with it, and that energy is so infectious, it draws us in completely into her world and keeps us hanging off her every action.
And it is precisely this apparently spirited devotion to her performance that makes the true meaning behind it all the more poignant. Perhaps the most iconic scene of all is when the audio of Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’ plays while the misogynistic lyrics to Yin Yang Twins’ ‘The Whisper Song’ are displayed onscreen. Herein lies the crux of the show: an emotionally devastating moment as audience members realize the sheer discrepancy between our innocent dreams pop culture sells us as children and the often violent, antithetical realities we face in adulthood, far more relevant than ever in light of the recent #MeToo movement. One then realizes that perhaps Julia isn’t actually portraying these characters willingly; rather, as the primary forms of media a growing woman is exposed to, they become the only image a woman can refer to as she reaches adulthood.
Julia Croft is not Julia Roberts in Notting Hill; she has to literally rub her eyes with onions to induce tears. If there’s not dancing is not necessarily a celebration; it may in fact well be the semblance of one as a woman is forced to take on all these expected, mass media portrayals of her gender, finding true freedom only when she has literally stripped herself of all these expectations. Julia’s inability to speak for herself is representative of the greater problem at hand: that these films and pop songs so focused on the male gaze are dictating the way she should act and behave.
Balancing whirlwind wit and cultural relevance, If there’s not dancing is theatre that excites with its dynamism, joyous to watch and the kind of show that makes you feel alive. If this is the revolution against societal expectations that Julia wants, then we want in on it, dancing in true joy with her as she finds freedom at last, set to the tune of Sia’s Chandelier.
Photo Credit: Josh Griggs
Performance attended 18/1/18
If there’s not dancing at the revolution, I’m not coming plays at the Esplanade Annexe Studio till 20th January. Tickets are now sold out.