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Walker Art Center: Like a laser to the brain…

Bloggers are having a bit of back-and-forth about a recent performance piece at Walker Art Center called “Hey Girl!” by Romeo Castellucci and Societas Raffaello Sanzio.FROM THE WALKER ART CENTER


Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Editor’s note: Bloggers are having a bit of back-and-forth about a recent performance piece at Walker Art Center called “Hey Girl!” by Romeo Castellucci and Societas Raffaello Sanzio. 

No one coughed, no candy wrappers were opened, and nary a cell phone disturbed Romeo Castellucci and Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hey Girl! on the McGuire Stage at the Walker Art Center last night.

The nearly full house was engrossed in the many enigmatic images that passed before our eyes through the course of the performance; a female body slowly emerged from primordial goo; words flashed across a screen so swiftly they could just barely be perceived; a pack of men inflicted an aggressive beating on our anonymous heroine that could be seen only in strangely beautiful bursts of flashing florescent light; the white heroine whose story was on display sold the black heroine who joined her onstage into chains; the skin of the black heroine was painted silver as she stood brandishing a mirror and sword over a stage covered in broken glass.

4-D art is work created in any media that incorporates time. Hey Girl! is one of the loveliest works of post-modern performance art that I have ever seen and an exquisite example of a truly multi-dimensional work of art. In addition to playing through time Hey Girl! also plays with the notion that there are multiple ‘truths’ in history. Nothing felt fixed or absolute in this piece. Movements and images were presented and then repeated in new contexts where meanings were revised.

The piece quotes elements of classical and modern performance. For example, text from the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was projected above the parts of the performance and the white heroine looked like a re-invented Joan of Arc while draped in a flag and brandishing a sword. There were certainly strains of narrative, I watched a white woman be ‘born’ and make her way through this strange, surreal world. I watched black woman appear on the scene in this world, be stripped to her skin and chained. But this show was not like a tragedy of star-crossed lovers in which I could find catharsis or even a beginning, middle or end. Identities shifted, power was revealed and reassigned.

While watching the piece, I felt the ‘girl’ in the piece was not a universal representation of every human. As soon as I saw her be complicit in the oppression of a woman of another race, I realized she was a person with a class that was complex and sometimes changing. The two virtuosic female performers, Silvia Cost and Sonia Beltran Napoles, were more like modernist symbolic figures than characters. Castellucci took many familiar elements and ideas, like words, bodies, mirrors, swords, etc.out of familiar contexts and repositioned them in a new, brutally poetic combination.

Toward the end of the piece, a sharp, pencil thin point of light shone on the head one of the two women in the show like a laser beam. Hey Girl! hit my brain in a similar way. I was completely enthralled, I watched the piece with razor sharp focus while it played before me and thought of nothing else. And, since walking out of the theater, my brain has been wrestling and processing the content of the show and trying to figure out what it means to me. I’ve been thinking about men and women, history, slavery, loneliness, connection, violence and art. In short, the performance passed what a friend of mine calls ‘the butt test’ and ‘the brain test’ with flying colors; meaning I sat in rapt attention through the piece (my but was still) and after it finished my brain recalled the intriguing images clearly and I wanted to re/examine what I saw voraciously.


1. I read the above posting and so looked forward to my experience of it. I’m so glad other people had a rapt attention (and could find it enthralling, and brutally poetic) through the duration of this piece (from the primordial to the futuristic) but after the first 20 miutes my attention quickly moved towards laughter and I was thinking this was not meant to be comical. If I had only left immediately before the drumming began I would have said “wow this is a great performance, go see it” – unfortunately for me all the potential of that opening scene, sound and movement including the pushing of the drum across the stage was abruptly ground to the ridiculous with the actual drumming, and the dressing in that particular fashion of jeans and t-shirt. (except for the opening scene and it’s lighting I found all the costumes clothed or naked or painted inadequate to whatever was trying to be conveyed) I still had some hope for the piece in the hot sword scene but unfortunately (as in it can’t be otherwise as I don’t know Italian) the foreign accented whispering brought forth connotations of foreign film stars instead of just hearing American English. The lighting of the woman on the dark stage moving upon the floor engaged me in wondering what would develop but then evaporated with the ridiculous black pillow beating by the men. For me it did not represent or exhibit aggressive beating or “violence”. I found myself laughing where I assumed the piece was meant to be serious. The flashing red R and flashing white L with accompaning noise did not startle me like those sitting near me but just made for another display of sound decibels and light shows. There was plenty of fidgeting and coughing during the Friday performance obliterating any ability to hear the whispered voice of the performer. And that light stream to the head was the most laughable ridiculous theatrical effect (like early Star Trek phasers along with the sound) I have experienced but again I assume it was not intended to be so. What can I say about the flashing words? Random or provocative they exhibited the technology of projection more than any other meaning for me. My favorite word was turist. So I had great expectations for this show but found it humorous beyond whatever I expected. There was no breakthrough in theater here for me, just reliance once again upon the technical to try and carry some intentions or ideas to the audience. Not a shattering experience for me but yes plenty of shattered glass. But to see this spectacular failure of translation was worth all $35 to me.
Comment by michael k — 2/16/2008 @ 12:03 pm

2. Maybe it’s a girl thing. I didn’t find it funny one bit. Scary, powerful, maybe silly pillowfighting, maybe overly slow/solemn walking and gestures. I feel very fortunate to have seen this work of art. So picking apart the pieces that made it feels disloyal.
Comment by Sally Rousse — 2/16/2008 @ 10:43 pm

3. Whoa- Michael- your comments make me really wonder whether it was the show I enjoyed or my own associations (Narcisissm?) It was hard to hear but I thought the spoken language wasn’t all that necessary. And the collective posture of straining forward to hear intrigued me. I found the beating scene beautiful and, yes somehow comic at the same time with the neighing of the horse sound track (like beating a dead horse, killing me softly, a comment on tiresome clerical rants blaming the female body). I saw Freud in there too (A Child is Being Beaten) and the presence of the psychoanalyst in the slave trader who appears later– taking the girls two bits when she buys herself back. You didn’t mention the one thing I didn’t like too much– the pointing back at us. The mirror, and the glass and the directing of the light sources might be obvious but also pleased me visually. I went home to look up Liz Losh’s site on fifteenth century images of the Conception of the Virgin through the Ear and thought Castellucci’s take on that was brilliant. Anyway, I will see it again tonight with a n altered/alerted eye.
Comment by nor hall — 2/17/2008 @ 10:42 am

4. I experienced a wide variety of responses to this piece, but overall I was impressed by the visual spectacle. Highlights: the body emerging from primordial goo (at one point what I thought was a human leg suddenly glopped off the table and oozed onto the stage floor . . . neat). The razor beam to the brain sequence was particularly intense, disturbing and beautiful. Indeed, the full “lighting technique” by Giacomo Gorini and Luciano Trebbi was always visually engaging; I just loved how the light cut through the space throuhout the show. And I very much appreciated the jarring sound design (is that an example of “statics and dynamics” or should I simply nod my head toward Scott Gibbons?). And though I didn’t appreicate their presence under the lights wearing little more than pedesterian street clothes, the gaggle of male spectres who emerged out of the darkness to beat the young woman (and the floor) with black pillows was a powerfully staged sequence (and I loved how their exit left the man in the black cloak and top hat on stage; what a malevolent image). I can’t say I found anything funny about the production (however intentional or ironic) even if the subject matter felt a bit derivative (a performance interrogating the subjugation of female bodies strikes me as something I’ve seen and read many times before; but being a father of an eight-year-old girl, can I consume such narratives enough?). Ok, but here’s where I have a question . . . did anyone find the use of the black female body problematic? I suspect a European audience looks at the black body differently than Americans. A black woman in chains and shackles is a powerful signifier. I don’t mind so much being confronted with such an incendiary representation, but I couldn’t help but feel the black body was being further objectified as some kind of phenomenal doppleganger for our white, blonde heroine; an inverse representation of the white body or, maybe, a grotesque figure of the enslaved and oppressed female lurking (and dancing) behind the “normal” body. Our “Hey girl” character even plays a sinister role in conquering her dark “other”, stripping the woman of her clothes (remember, she was “born” into the space naked but soon clothed herself) and painting her body with silver paint. In the production notes, Castellucci writes: “HEY GIRL! explores the female body and sensitivity, evoking the slavery, violence, and servitude that still too often afflict women.” The way I read that statement suggests that lurking behind the mask of our beautiful, blonde hero is the dark, oppressed body who serves and is disciplined by male hegemony. The fact that the notion of “slavery” is being used here ahistorically is only one concern among many. Thoughts?
Comment by Jeff Turner — 2/17/2008 @ 11:49 am

5. I always feel fortunate to be able to attend the Walker’s presentations, regardless of how I respond to them, I am so appreciative that we can see and talk about them. (where are you Charles?) But I don’t think it’s disloyal to the whole to voice another perspective (we aren’t in the Bush administration). I want to doubt it’s only a girl thing as then I’d ask what is Romeo expressing here with these 2 female bodies thinking of Jeff Turner’s “lurking behind the mask of our beautiful, blond hero is the dark oppressed body that serves and is disciplined by male hegemony”. As I tried to say above I don’t believe the performance was meant to cause laughter where I found myself laughing not that it was without humor – my response was to the attempts of sound and light to carry something besides their decibels and flashes. Please anyone say where this was scary or powerful as I missed it – was it the loud sounds or the visual experience or associations etc.? I like Nor Hall’s reference to the presence of the psychoanalyst in the slave trader and I take these responses here as our response to the pointed fingers. The few spectators I have asked were all dazzled by the lights and sound and 4 women I talked to were skeptical at best about the presentation. As a gender issue I had hoped this performance would complement the Walker’s presentation of work from last week’s FASE to the films of the past weeks Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, Marilena From P7,4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, Love For Sale. Instead it left me wondering what Hey Girl was attempting here with the forgettable sound and light show after that amazing opening scene that I cannot forget.
Comment by Michael K — 2/17/2008 @ 2:27 pm

6. I think Hey Girl! would have been a good “Out There” entry. It demonstrated an awareness of practice and theory that investigated the possibilities of performance. It was open and fluid. Some fascinating things and some things that were less so, but how it was put together was unusual and invigorating. “A noble failure,” as a friend of mine used to say. So much more interesting than those that don’t achieve even the attempt.

I came to it having seen the video versions of a few episodes from Mr. Castellucci’s Tragedia Endogonia shown at the U of M, and his subsequent (translated) conversation with Prof. Kobialka. These were interesting, and less enlightening than I thought they would be, but they did prepare me for some elements as they had occurred in some form in the earlier works (slow crawling, the Scott Gibbons sound score, the beating, the glass, the minimalist scenography, the references to literary and historical archetypes, the use of images as rolling content rather than illustrative device).

I will admit to looking at my watch 15 minutes into it and getting a little exasperated at the continual whimpering and continuing images of victimized females. Sometimes it seemed like it was 1987 and I was witness to another sensitive man demonstrating his enlightenment. Yes, poor women. But by 2008 I hope we know that there is more to gender and gender relations than that. I too was troubled by the black woman stripped, shackled, sold and dancing. Sure, I am complicit in the history of slavery, continuing racism and acquiescent silences that the pointing fingers seemed to suggest — I admit as well to complicity in ongoing gender oppression (more fingers). But the piece lived on images — many of which were stunning and brilliant (hello goo, goodbye glass), some of which were silly (banging the drum, running left and right to the sound and lit letters) — but I kept waiting at least for the images of strength if not images of more complexity. Mr. Castellucci’s other work suggested such complex images are possible. I missed seeing more of those here.

I can’t be the only one who thought I was being lectured. I didn’t get this impression from what I had seen of his earlier work. It shut down the performance for me. Maybe it was where I was seated (third row from the front, far right side with an exit sign in my peripheral vision) but some of the potential dazzle seemed lost by my proximity. That beating was ridiculous from where I was sitting. I knew it was supposed to an affecting image, but to me it just looked like a bunch of guys whacking the floor with pillows. Which I get enough of at home.

The issue of associations is an interesting one for me, too. In an image-based theater like this or Robert Wilson’s doesn’t so much depend on an educated audience — the more you know the more you get out of it? And I wonder how far seeing a really cool image goes? If you can make an association with something like the beating or the sword-swinging, then you are carried along on another stream of meaning (not necessarily verbal), right alongside the one of sensual pleasure or pain that the image brings to you. The more associations you have, the more streams you can surf. But if all you see when lipstick smokes as it touches the sword is “whoa dude: hot sword,” it is your ignorance rather than a deficiency in the performance or the creative thinking behind it. Otherwise, isn’t it nothing but high class sensationalism? I think there’s more to Mr. Castellucci’s work than that.

So, when I attended the translated conversation at the U last week there were glitches in the process whereby it became apparent (more so than usual) that what we English speakers were hearing was a long row to hoe from what the Italian speaker was saying. Mr. Castellucci was asked about the filming of Tragedia Endogonia and his participation in it. One of the things he said was that the videographers and he respected each other: they shared a common language, which was important.

This becomes more than usually pertinent when I think about the language of Hey, Girl!. Where spoken/written language is so distrusted and suspect, even violent (invasive razor light beam coupled with all the projected words), another kind of language can take its place. A common language might then be the language of art history or of cultural imagery. I understand that this kind of “language” is of a completely different order than that of Language language, but regardless there is a need here too for commonality. “Whoa dude: she’s all silver” won’t do.

Is this a failure of language? Or a failure of art?

I think that my problems with this piece weren’t that the images were too nebulous, but that they weren’t nebulous enough. The less I could identify an intention or a meaning behind them the more evocative and complex they were. When I had no rational explanation for something, the image began to play around in my head like a living thing. I had no control over it, and that was exciting.

But when the women whimpered, fingers pointed and the slave danced I only wanted to point my finger backstage: you don’t know who I am. Tit for tat. I don’t want to argue, I can do that in the privacy of my own home.
Comment by Charles Campbell — 2/17/2008 @ 8:36 pm

7. nice.
Comment by Jeff Turner — 2/17/2008 @ 10:22 pm

8. I went to see Hey Girl again last night (Sunday). I should say I almost never see anything twice, and paying full price (twice!) is even more rare for me. But I was compelled to delve deeper into this work, especially since there have been so many approaches to processing it going on around me (at the theater, on this blog, in my house, on the phone, in my bed). It touched a big nerve in me, one that has been asleep for a very long time.

I maintain that it is a powerful piece, albeit, perhaps more powerful for females than males. More specifically, for mothers? For former girls?

It certainly did not feel like a lecture (unaffected by the pointing fingers. I was more affected by the girl pulling herself together, pulling her shirt down, putting her hair behind her ear, and smiling creepily. As a mother of a 9-year-old girl, that kind of “shellack” scares me).

A lot of the material — the images, music, the symbols (even though a character says “I hate symbols” the show is chock full of them, medieval and not), the technology, the style — are familiar, cliches. We can put labels on them like “so 1980’s” or “feminist” or “racial.” But when I do that it can separate me, remove me, even elevate me, make me feel superior to the work. I guess I prefer to surrender. It’s like paying a masseuse to be hard on you, cause pain even. Not that I like pain but I am there to get my muscles worked on.

Yes, I see the things you see Charles and Michael: what that you call “ridiculous” a person in the lobby called “violent, disturbing.” Take the laser to the head, for example: You thought of Star Trek, Michael, which is funny and certainly it’s there, whereas I immediately thought of the movie “Frances” in which Jessica Lange, as the outspoken actress Frances Harper, undergoes a lobotomy to make her more docile, less feisty and troublesome (how often have I mused about getting me one of them lobotomies? It would make life so much easier…..).

I still don’t get why the drum beating is ridiculous, but maybe it’s because I have my own associations for that. I think this is a detail I am referring to when I say it feels disloyal to pick it apart and judge the pieces rather than let the whole work together. HAving the pink goo drip throughout, for example. Did anyone wish it would stop? I wish I could see that every day.

Charles says: “The less I could identify an intention or a meaning behind them (the images) the more evocative and complex they were. When I had no rational explanation for something, the image began to play around in my head like a living thing. I had no control over it, and that was exciting.”

RIght on.

I think, then, there is little value in exposing oneself to hype, previews, research. It brings up the question again for me: Why do we go to the theater, any theater? Why ever be armed to be disappointed? Don’t we want to like it, don’t we want to be changed, to grow, to learn, etc.?

With movies, I think most of us enter with a pretty clear idea of what we’ll see and maybe even an expectation of how we will feel about it, how we will exit the building. In a very broad sense, it might go like this: we see horror movies to be thrilled and scared; we see comedies to make us laugh; we see romantic thrillers to move us; we see porn (well, I don’t) to titillate us. We pay a relatively small price and we get pretty much something we know we will get. With theater, and maybe especially the Walker, we have broader expectations.

With Hey Girl, I was reminded that as a viewer I can accept a lot. I am generous with my trust. I take in the cliche symbols, can surf many streams, can be dumb, intellectual, sensitive, annoyed, inspired, bored. The bad stuff has value, too, and I am coming around to this form of communication and processing. I do appreciate the discourse, the dialogue, the differences. I hope that comes across.

And that is not a girl thing or an artist thing or an intellectual thing. It’s a true, valid thing from an olive-skinned white woman who will never be the same.

Also, as a mature, successful, proven director, Romeo Castellucci is almost ineligible for Out There– that is a forum for less proven entities than he. I think following Out There with Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker and Castellucci has been brilliant, fortuitous scheduling.
Comment by Sally — 2/18/2008 @ 1:34 pm