‘POWER’ was a new performance work created by Sara Cowdell and was performed for two weeks in July at Basement Theatre in Auckland and Bats Theatre in Wellington. Frances Pavletich (Best friend of Sara Cowdell) writes a response.
I saw POWER twice in Auckland, on Friday the 18th of July, and as an usher on Saturday the 19th. Watching it for the first time made me reflect on growing up in a climate where what was created by cis men spoke to the universal slog of humanity, but what was based around women’s (and other minorities) experiences was niche, and largely inconsquential as a result. Within this archaic system, traditionally constructed and widely perceived “feminine” behaviours, values, and desires were understood to be of inherently lesser value (read: trivial), and therefore not to be fucked with if you had a semblance of a degree of self-respect. Girl pop is trashy. The cogs of internal self-policing fueled by an overwhelming desire to be taken seriously, and thus mould oneself to the “high-brow” standards enforced by the patriarchal elite. Synchronised dance routines at a theatre could only be considered quaint. In which case you would have been utterly oblivious to the transgressive nature of relishing in performing the height of that which is collectively ridiculed and ferociously denied ever being liked in the first place. Perhaps you found it ironic. Although that might be taking the easy way out. There is nothing ironic about watching 30 people trying desperately not to tap their feet.
POWER is centered around four women who story tell in between dancing to the music of Little Mix (a very commercially successful pop band). It defies a simple reading in favour of multiple interlocking juxtapositions. Firstly the private person versus the performing persona, and secondly, the sometimes gut wrenching art of disclosure versus the almost incredible switch to never allowing its audience room to feel burdened by their heavy emotion. What struck me most during my second viewing was how little our mainstream culture cares for the internal worlds of those we buy services from. In that simple transaction we completely blind ourselves to the complex and multifaceted identity behind the labour. This I partly understood from the personal stories that each woman shared on stage, and partly from personally getting to know some of these women and understanding what was going on in their lives outside of the show (full disclosure: I am friends with the curator). What struck me as so ingenious was how POWER forced you to acknowledge the humanity and realness of these synchronised-dancing-pop-performers, with smiles glued to their faces and last night’s make up still on, in a way that you couldn’t ignore. That behind lip syncing these seemingly simplistic, perhaps even shallow, lyrics lay these incredibly dignified and broken and powerful and impenetrable women. And they weren’t interested in being dismissed as trivial or low-brow or unable to fully grasp the significance of what they were saying or what they were doing.
POWER doesn’t want to be your quick fix feminism or your exceptionally educated outrage. It, like Little Mix, is painfully aware that when it says “Baby, you’re the man/ But I got the, I got the, I got the power” that it isn’t dismantling patriarchy or telling the truth of who actually holds the majority of the political, economic and cultural power in society, it is instead giving you a reason to be intoxicatingly hopeful. To remember, as the famous anarchist feminist activist Emma Goldman acknowleged, that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” Similarly as it peels back the notions of what is and what is not acceptable performative feminism, it pays heed to the simplistic and clichéd dismissing of certain occupations and who exactly does them. The inclusion of a stripper mid-way during the performance on first glance seems entirely tapped on as a compliment to go with the lyrics of a Little Mix song, yet undeniably resonates when considered alongside the assumptions we make about pop feminism and the women performing them. All the women I know who are in the sex industry are overwhemingly badass wāhine who own their shit and know exactly what they are up to, and yet I still find myself subjected to the occasional infantalising opinion and just generally ignorant + incredibly boring idea that they are “unwittingly oppressed.” Much like how people look at female pop stars and decide they don’t actually understand how they are perpetuating patriarchy with their silly outfits and regressive lyrics, women performing certain occupations still bare the burden of having to defend themselves against attacks from all corners of the social stratum.
POWER makes you feel good and doesn’t apologise for it. It isn’t so much a guilty pleasure as much as a pleasure you once had and were forced to give up because it didn’t fit with elitist or disturbingly santised ideas about how to wield influence in a society bent on bringing you down. It draws on the depths of storytelling that is hard to hear, but like the majority of women I know, asks you merely to listen and then imagine the idea of a better future, even only for a momentary 4-minute high. To dismiss the feel good would be to dismiss the transgression. It would be to dismiss the deeply self-aware ideologies, back stories, and bravery of the women who stand in front of you bearing themselves for what is a drop in the feminist ocean creating this current revolution. They dance because they want to. They dance because trauma, grief, sorrow, fear and pain is only a small portion of who they are. And they dance because it is never too early to celebrate the power of life’s small victories, especially those that lull us into a false sense of security before boldly baring their teeth.