Elliott Linwood

(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)

Aerobics as Performance Art: Jessica Lutes and Paul Benney in Rules and Plays

So much has changed in the last few years in the production and reception of different art forms. We’ve arrived at a point where it is no longer necessary to spend all our energy justifying or translating work with gay content to the rest of the world, thus allowing us create work with more critical stamina. This attitude was evident in two very different dance events. 

Joe Goode’s Markers at Theatre Artaud works metaphorically. It is rich with visuals, music, dance and narrative snippets used in relay patterns to tell stories through his installation and performance art. Rules and Plays by Paul Benney and Jessica Lutes, with guest collaboration by Maria St. John, functions in an opposite manner. It functions mimetically, where the main concern is not movement which represents something else. Instead, this work uses the pared-down space of child’s play and the physics of gesture which regiments and inscribes our later behaviors. Both groups deal directly with gay psychological affect and the body politics of effect.

Minimal, Maximal

Camp is rampant in Goode’s craft, and he shows how it works. “The Window” acts as an immersive puppet show which references shadowy rituals that you encounter being performed in the lobby.  When you enter the formal performance space, more theatrical inversions occur. Like a Greek chorus, submerged moans spill from beneath the bleachers, having us meet the performers, ultimately, where the sun don’t shine. “Car Crash” immediately catapults the audience into a J.G. Ballard landscape, jazzed-up but made banal. “Love, Love” becomes a melodramatic sinkhole. Here a self-inflicted storm is recounted against the winds of a common house fan, making a choppy vibrato from a common home appliance.

Then things become strange. The premiere of “Without a Place” is an encyclopedia of scrambled narrative forms. Imagine Sam Shepard and Robert Altman out for a walk, encountering Ziegfeld and Fellini, while interpreting Jonathan Livingston Seagull along the way. Goode saves the cake for last.

Good Breast, Bad Breast

In Rules and Plays, Maria St. John spoof-analyzes the group dynamics around her role as guest collaborator. Her theoretical posturing exploits a gay sense of borderline camp. In this case she milks psychologist Melanie Klein’s notion about the persecutory or nurturant, good breast, bad breast. This strategy uncovers some of the body traffic, and sexually charged signals imbedded within the improvisational games the dancers play. Rules are also broken down by Benney and Lutes’ gender role reversals, of who might literally lift or shake off whom. Since Jessica Lutes is larger and stronger, Paul Benny gets tossed around.

Indeed, the body is depicted as a battlefield for Goode and Benny and Lutes. Goode’s “29 Effeminate Gestures” is a Gertrude Stein-like rap cadence of isolated body movements, which are pitted against the theoretical chain saw of deconstruction. Queerness is hacked apart, then reconstructed with subtle cartoonish whispers revealing the internalized, very private violence at work within each and every ostentatious flounce.

Benney and Lutes’ “Shop” is an intense aerobic training session as art. It acknowledges the problems of buying into the newly athleticized body image, while attaining a watershed experience – endorphins for the dance snob. These are not dance steps. That would be too metaphorical. The exercise industry already appropriated dirty dancing from the movies more than ten years ago. Performance art and dance are re-appropriating exercise as a kind of virtual reality. As the dancers took their pulses, some of the rules that artists like Matthew Barney are playing by and breaking, became measurable.