Thursday, March 6, 2014

Worshipping at the Altar of Tara Cheyenne

Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg is a fearless performer: in making character the centre of her unique brand of dance-theatre; in using humour to probe some of our deepest cultural taboos and human fears; and in putting herself over and over again in positions of extreme vulnerability and/or ridiculousness in order to establish a connection with her audience.

All these elements are on display in her latest work, Porno Death Cult, on through this Saturday at the Firehall in a production directed by Neworld's Marcus Youssef. Based on a 2010 pilgrimage Friedenberg took along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, the work explores the eroticism of devotion, the pornography of belief: whether that comes in the form of slick, Vegas-style Christian evangelism; new age Yoga maxims; or simply wanting to be filled up, like Friendenberg's central character Maureen, with something that incarnates, or indeed makes plainly carnal, the experience of faith.

Channeling the seductive androgyny of Jared Leto on Oscar night, as well as so many images of a crucified Christ, Friendenberg arrives on stage in a white suit, her long hair hanging over her eyes, her body twitching and gyrating convulsively as she flits about the stage, trying not to step on the red-carpeted aisle leading from the audience to the wonderful altar-cum-iconographic-shrine designed by Mickey Meads. Eventually Friendenberg puts her hands together, as if to pray, and parts her mane of hair, peeking out shyly at us, her expectant congregation. But she cannot immediately speak and so instead she repeats a sequence of meek, almost apologetic gestures: grabbing her crotch, for example, as if in shame, or slowly turning her palms toward us in search of the stigmata she would have us understand was really there. Indeed, one of the things I found so compelling about this performance was how Friendenberg, as a dancer, made an idea like the mortification of flesh--a fetish at once religious and deeply erotic--into a richly satisfying kinesthetic experience.

Then, too, whether it was through a compelling and physically exhausting sequence of kneels, or in her expert demonstration of various iconic yoga poses, Friendenberg also used movement (alongside a steady stream of words) to suggest how much of belief is merely habit. As Pascal famously said, "Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe." Which is, on one level, the lesson that Maureen learns over the course of the show. Having waited in vain for a special visitation from the Son of God--a deeply longed for embodied encounter, à la Madonna in "Like a Prayer," with that obscure object of desire on the cross--at the end of the show Maureen takes a seat among us in the audience, turning to a fellow supplicant in the daily pilgrimage that is life and asking: "How was your week?"

It is Friendenberg's uncanny ability to combine the ecstatic and the banal into such moments of collective transformation that makes me a believer.


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