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“Can You See Beyond this Room?: Magical Acts, Feminist Futures” By Laura Levin

February 13, 2018

The Theatre Centre, January 21, 2017. Performance artist Jess Dobkin breaks into a run as the vintage disco beats of KC and the Sunshine Band fill the theatre. Dobkin is running around and around, circling the seated audience who look on in rapt amazement. She is running determinedly, running relentlessly, running to the point of sheer exhaustion. Her body is a moving blur as she zooms in and out of the nostalgic haze of a fog machine, in and out of rioting neon lights. “Are We There Yet?” she calls out again and again to the viewers, and our eyes dart as we try to follow the flickering artist’s body, as we catch up to the rapid succession of images placing us inside something like a spinning Zoetrope.

The question, “Are We There Yet?” is the refrain of an impatient child on the never-ending car trip. It is also the question brazenly posed by those fighting for more equitable futures, futures glimpsed but ever-receding, burnished stroboscopically on the imagination even as they disappear from view.

A person running around the perimeter of an illuminated circle of people sitting chairs in a dark room.
Jess Dobkin in The Magic Hour at The Theatre Centre, 2017. By Dahlia Katz.

This image has stayed with me for months after seeing Dobkin’s The Magic Hour, an immersive performance work about women, time, and trauma, which was presented last winter as the culmination of a multi-year residency at The Theatre Centre (directed by Stephen Lawson). Structured as a series of magic acts, The Magic Hour asks how and on what terms women’s traumatic pasts can be performed and transformed. The impertinent “Are We There Yet?”—coupled with the action of running headlong into the future, but also into the past (here the 1970s)—powerfully chimed with the historical moment of its staging. In January 2017, we were on the brink of witnessing a truly revolutionary feminist awakening to widespread patterns of sexual violence, and a reckoning with the broader social inequalities that underwrite them.

 As if conjured by one of Dobkin’s dazzling magic acts, the Women’s March on Washington coincided with the final matinee performance. Audiences walked out of the disco dance party that closes the show and into the streets of Toronto, joining thousands in the city, and millions globally, in marching against the inauguration of the recently elected pussy-grabber-in-chief. This collective act of moving together in public space was a poignant enactment of the alternative feminist futures imagined in the show, a refusal to remain silent in the face of a new wave of culturally sanctioned violence against women and immigrants, racialized, Indigenous, and disabled persons, and members of diverse queer communities.

The recent anniversary of the Women’s March—along with the mass gathering in Toronto, entitled “Women March On: Defining Our Future”—offers an ideal opportunity to reflect on the contribution of The Magic Hour as an exceptionally prescient work of performance art, a work that eerily anticipates the #MeToo Movement in delving into the politics of bringing sexual abuse to light and insisting on its systemic nature. Dobkin tackles the problem of publicly sharing traumatic memories in a series of experiments where she attempts—and repeatedly fails—to restage her experience of sexual violence through an endless array of performance forms: as an interpretive dance, Broadway musical, gymnastics floor routine, academic lecture, stand-up comedy, puppetry, magic show, and more.

How, she asks, is traumatic experience theatrically storied, and, more urgently, when is it mis-recognized as “story”? How and when do these performances line up with neoliberal and heteronormative ways of narrating women’s experience? What happens when we make the collaboration of bodies, spaces, and things in performance the ground of political meaning? What happens when we privilege social situation over the personal transmission of memory? Are We There Yet?? Like Dobkin, I have no easy answers to these questions, but I offer this essay as an attempt to think with Dobkin about what marching toward feminist “progress” might mean, and to ponder what is so important about gathering in performance to feel times touch, to witness the past dance with the future.

To read the full version of Laura Levin’s article on Jess Dobkin’s The Magic Hour, “Can You See Beyond this Room?: Magical Acts, Feminist Futures” in PDF form please click HERE.