I attended the dance performance Five Open Mouths and Woman at an Exhibition January 20 at Judson Memorial Church, in the Village. Lisa Bufano’s collaboration with dancer and choreographer Heidi Latsky has yielded a pair of solos, one for each dancer, that complement and comment on each other. They are both intimate pieces, with soft, quiet moments, interspersed with bursts of sharp, quick movements. They invite us to focus on these two women’s bodies, both clothed in pared-down, tight-fitting black dance clothes.
Latsky’s solo, “Woman at an Exhibition” is a nuanced articulation of an extraordinary dancer’s body. When Bufano begins “Five Open Mouths”, her body stands atop two prostheses, as her legs end below her knees. These curved, springy “running legs” as Bufano calls them, are set in motion in the first section of the piece, when she bounds back and forth across the stage, covering distance. In the next section, she removes these conveyances, slides from her chair to the floor and begins to acquaint us with the dimensions and movements of her full body.
Putting these two solos back to back, with only a slow fade to black and a shift of music separating them, helps us see how one body illustrates the other body. We can’t simply say that the nondisabled body is the template, revealing what is missing in the disabled body, instead we can see the characteristics of each body as contributing factors in each dancer’s exploration of space and rhythm.
All performance is about granting permission to stare. The two women give us ample time to acclimate to their bodies and study the particulars of their movement. In Bufano’s piece, there are slow passages and moments when she is quite still, sitting on a chair or lying on the floor. Bufano lives as a disabled woman, with the attendant staring that comes with that territory. She is a bilateral leg and finger amputee. As she says on her web site: “Despite my own terror and discomfort in being watched (or, maybe, because of it), I am finding that being in front of viewers as a performer with deformity can produce a magnetic tension that could be developed into strength.”
The boldness of her performance confronts the treacherous nature of shame - the constant danger that shame will eclipse motivation and desire. At the point where she removes her running legs, and slips off the chair onto the floor, Bufano swivels her body around, lies on her back and, pushing with her arms and legs, slides through the legs of the chair and emerges back onto the dance floor, into the light.
Yet, when all is said and done in this disability-focused analysis I am writing here, what is most significant is that “Five Open Mouths” is a brilliant piece of theatre and beautiful dance. The audience - a full house - went wild at the end and the tingle in the air was in part the “magnetic tension” that Bufano described, and was also the realization that something new was in front of them and they were privileged to witness it.