The audience enters a smokey display room or warehouse space with frozen mannequins in tense suspension of the entrance of their leader. Under her authoritarian instruction the ensemble bend and eventually break out of their restrictive moulds to take control over their own bodies. Mea Culpa is an abstracted exploration of female bodily autonomy and the power of cooperation to overthrow systems of oppression.
Performers Isabella Coluccio, Nicola Ford, Anna McCulla, Natalie Pelarek, and Daniela Zambrano are posed in nude shapewear with rubberbands on their joints like dolls. Warehouse worker (Imogen Cranna), clad in a hazmat suit, wheels in a wrapped Cloe Fournier, the leader of the ensemble, who proceeds to bark orders and run the mannequins through their feminine paces. It’s like a boot camp designed to build the female body and break their individual spirits, representing the social codes and gender roles upheld in our culture. However, over the course of the production, the mannequins join forces and actively work to dismantle this system to free themselves and their superiors, too.
Choreography and direction from Fournier centres the body in all of its oddities of movement, function, and appearance. From the articulated movements of the mannequins to images of birthing, these bodies are grotesque and uncomfortably unable to be categorised as entirely organic or entirely robotic. In one instance a mannequin goes hunting, gruesomely and bloodily consuming a handful of strawberries to demonstrate a breakdown of control between the rigid system and the mannequins.
The work is at its best in the group sequences where the ensemble slides across the stage at odd angles like a swarm of insects. The use of natural slapping, clicking, and hissing hints towards something monstrous underneath which meshes well with the more synthetic sound composition by James Brown. Against the organic friction of the dancer’s movements, the bells and whistles inject a metallic and cold quality to the atmosphere. The ensemble moves well together, clean and easy to read, whether writhing in a plastic bag or engaging in manic repetitious movement like machines in a factory.
Mea Culpa takes its feminism seriously but one can’t help but think that the insistence of focus on cisgender female bodies with images of the body stripped bare and constructed in cliche is a bit passé at this stage. Removing from the body any social markers like clothing and makeup and denying the possibilities of self-representation or defying the social order creates too great a distance between the representation and the reality. The final image of Fournier naked and dripping wet like a saint figure or a body reborn seems to represent a misconception that the body can ever be truely neutral or “free”.
As an imagination of a revolution or an exploration of bodily autonomy, Mea Culpa has a high level of skill and production value if some ill-considered notions of the possibilities of embodiment.
Mea Culpa ran at Riverside Theatre from October 17th – 19th