Dawn Albinger is an award winning actor and the co-director of performance company Ladyfinger. She has taught drama, theatre, and contemporary performance at Griffith and Edith Cowan Universities, and gender studies at the Australian Catholic University. Her doctoral studies, undertaken at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, investigated the diva icon and its usefulness to feminist theatre praxis, and her thesis was awarded the 2013 Magdalena Prize in Feminist Research.
Volume 32, May 2015
Passing back and forth across multiple thresholds (conceptual, perceptual, emotional, somatic), a woman is falling through a thousand openings. Spaces enfold-unfold within her waiting. Muted, she is holding the weight of all sadnesses. Dissolving and resolving she falls too often, hesitates too long, clings too hard. She can neither return to her past nor escape its memories, inscribed as they are on/in her body/psyche. She forgets to breathe, is unable to breathe. Without breath, thought cannot become action. She is deflated. A returning inhalation creates the possibility of being articulated; it claims space inside her, makes audible the intimate kernel of diva voce, and she gives audience to herself. Once received she cannot un-know what she knows and is simultaneously liberated and made responsible: liberated from unconscious participation in self-limitation; responsible for unfolding towards her fullest expression. No Door On Her Mouth – a lyrical amputation is a work of dis/integration.
No Door on her Mouth – a lyrical amputation is a concert (or recital) of breath, sound, movement and text for a solo woman performer, a diva. It is the performative culmination of the practice-led, arts-based doctoral research project in the academic field of contemporary performance that I undertook to investigate and reinvigorate the diva icon’s usefulness to feminist theatre praxis.
I am a contemporary performance scholar. In this paper I reflect on the ways that conversation emerged during my research process as a key methodological strategy for contemporary feminist performance-making. I use the word conversation here to refer both to actual conversations and to a form of reciprocal exchange that occurred in my interactions with texts, with a fluid and de-centered self, with critical theorists and with peers. My work has been underpinned by French feminist Luce Irigaray’s reimagining of the pleasurable encounter between reader and text. Like Irigaray, throughout this study I have asked my community of minds and of practice, Who are you? And they have responded generously, And who are you? Can we meet? Talk? Love? Create something together? (Irigaray, 1991, p.149).
Taking my cue from Irigaray, my thinking is reciprocal in that it questions, reacts and interacts with the other; is interested, after Australian philosopher Margaret Cameron (2008), in opening possibilities and delaying closure. As a methodological strategy, conversation requires expert practice to be able to notice its occurrence, allow its resonance, and examine its ‘fruits’. Noticing its occurrence enables me as researcher to challenge the cautionary tale that to be a diva is to be a woman unhappily alone. Allowing its resonance enables me to theorise that to receive one’s diva voce – one’s material and metaphoric voice – is to discover oneself in the orchard of discourse, nourished by conversation. The reciprocity implicit in examining the fruits of the critical exchange between researcher and her community (of minds and of practice) has created a generous expansion of what it means to be a diva.
I have chosen here to reflect on this methodological feature because this rich and juicy conversation, as a methodological tactic, could remain inaudible to the expert spectator who is not privy to the polyvocality of daily encounters that resound within and between the deliberate methods of a creative development and a practice-led performance enquiry. Hence in this paper I pay particular attention to the ways in which I noticed their occurrence. Amplifying a selection of conversations – (firstly, the conversation that followed a chance encounter between myself and a text; secondly, the conversation that occurred between my creative and critical selves through writing and other exercises; thirdly, the conversation that occurred with the pool of theorists in which I swim; and fourthly, the conversation between myself and my peers) – constitutes an act of fidelity and an act of resistance. I am fidelius to the polyphonic and collaborative nature of knowledge-making in the performing arts; and I resist a diva trope often employed in popular culture to invoke fear of the solitary woman. Instead I make audible the interconnected diva, one that draws strength from being in critical and reflexive conversation with herself, her community and her world.
I began with a basic assumption that the diva would be useful to a feminist theatre-maker in terms of her capacity for mastery, and for claiming space with an unbridled tongue. In conducting a review of the literature surrounding the figure of the diva, I engaged with poststructural, queer and feminist critiques of the diva in opera. I then expanded the review to include reviews of the diva icon in popular culture in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Early twentieth century operatic divas claimed the public space of theatres and concert halls, while later pop divas have claimed space on cinema, television, and computer screens, in print media, and in the genre of diva fiction (for example there is an entre genre of diva detective literature). In the early twentieth century an unbridled tongue was linked with positive attributes of knowing and speaking one’s mind. In early twenty-first century media, however, the unbridled tongue is linked with a demanding, neurotic, egoistic, and sometimes plain nasty personality. The diva in opera is inextricably linked to the myth of romance, of women loving the wrong person or simply loving too much. In popular culture she is also repeatedly portrayed as unhappily single – the apparent price a woman pays for knowing and speaking her mind. This diminishment of the diva as an icon of power, and the prevalence of images of the diva as a woman unhappily solo, led me to question whether one of her chief iconic functions had devolved to sound the cautionary note that to be a diva is to be disconnected, lonely, a woman alone.
At the same time as conducting the literature review I went into the studio with the aim of making a solo performance. I anticipated making something big, beautiful, bold, epic, uninhibited, masterful – maybe even musical – all adjectives I associated with the diva icon. However, working in the studio with particular perceptual practices led to something completely unexpected. These perceptual practices derive from Margaret Cameron’s engagement with American choreographer Deborah Hay (Hay, 2000; Cameron, 2008, and in personal communication with the author 2011). They are like Buddhist koans – un-doable, unanswerable – yet yielding something in the attempt to practice them. In this instance I worked with the perceptual practice what if where I am is what I need. I was confronted by silence, lassitude, and tears. Diva research was quietly disrupted by a handless maiden.
This framing of the studio research being disrupted by a handless maiden was due to an early and arbitrary encounter with Robert Johnson’s Jungian analysis in The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden: Understanding the wounded feeling function in masculine and feminine psychology (1993). This book was not intended as part of my literature review, but read by chance, as a diversion. I was nevertheless struck by the Handless Maiden’s story and its themes of wounding, loss, and regeneration; the myth resonated with an autobiographical experience intertwining trauma and romantic love that was seeking expression. My encounter with this eleventh century myth, known variously as The Handless Maiden, Silverhands, and The Orchard, led me to investigate feminist perspectives on female ‘voice’ and silence, corporeal writing from gendered bodies, and the space of the hyphen. These perspectives were folded into the study because they were insisting on expression in the practice that led the research. The practice led the diva and the handless maiden to enter into a conversation. This conversation did not precede all the other conversations, but grounded them in intersecting themes of myth, romance, resistance and reception.
In order to bring these themes to the fore, and to establish the conversational exchange between the diva and handless maiden, I here recount a short version of the Handless Maiden tale. It is a version condensed from numerous other retellings, primarily those of Clarissa Pinkola Estés (1992), Robert Johnson (1993), and Rebecca Pottenger (2011).
In the medieval ‘descent’ myth known as The Handless Maiden, a miller makes a deal with the devil, trading what stands behind his mill for untold wealth. The miller believes he is trading a fruit tree, but at the precise moment the deal is made his daughter stands behind the mill, sweeping. The devil orders the miller to chop off the girl’s hands, which the devil then takes as his ‘prize’. The wounded woman binds her stumps and leaves her familial home. Endlessly weeping she wanders through a wild wood until she comes to an ordered pear orchard, surrounded by a moat. With the help of spirits she enters the orchard and the trees bend down their boughs and offer her their fruit. In the orchard, which belongs to a King, she is discovered. The King falls in love with her, marries her and has silver hands made for her. These are elegant, but useless. The King goes to war, and the Maiden, now Queen, gives birth to a son. Through a series of miscommunications the young Queen is forced to once more return to the wild, this time taking her infant son, whom she has named Sorrow. The pair are taken in by simple wood-folk, and after seven years of menial labour her hands grow back, first as little girl hands, then as young woman hands, then as grown woman hands. Finally Queen and son are reunited with the King, who has endured his own seven-year journey, searching for them.
This story of wounding, loss and regeneration interrupted my research into the diva as an icon of mastery, and as sounding the cautionary note that to be a woman unto herself is to be a woman alone. Traditionally the diva is both adored and deplored by her audiences, and the characters she portrays, particularly in opera, love too much and always die. Here in the myth a young woman is also unhappily alone, but she is not longing for the embrace of a lover, she is longing for inner nourishment and re-growth. A Jungian interpretation understands the handless maiden’s literal wound as a metaphor for psychic, spiritual, emotional and/or physical wounding and reads her retreat into solitude as “the feminine equivalent of masculine heroic action” (Johnson, 1993, p.79). Feminist and post-Jungian analyses read the removal of the maiden’s hands as symbolic of the need to surrender the ego’s hands, and the world as known, to regain the wild senses of the feminine (Pinkola Estés, 1992; Pottenger, 2011). Individual choices that result in the symbolic removal of hands are therefore not to be judged; instead, the resulting experiences are seen as opportunities for personal transformation and growth. So how might the handless maiden help the diva surrender the world as known, and how might the diva support the handless maiden to unfold into a fuller expression of self?
In the collision of diva research with medieval myth, the ground is laid for the handless maiden to offer the diva the possibility of resisting the trait of loving too much, and for the diva to illuminate ways in which the maiden might achieve self-reception. Resistance and reception became key frames for theorizing the practice that leads my research. Encountering this myth of the woman who loses her hands (her ability to do, her agency) made it possible for me to re-frame tensions as creative possibilities – tensions arising between assumptions of diva usefulness in having a voice, and the practice insisting on quietude. In a sense I could say the diva entered the studio only to find the space already inhabited by a handless maiden. “Let’s cut off our hands. We’re holding on to something that is killing us,” whispers the handless maid. The diva, well versed in love and loss, is in an expert position to respond. She smiles, and with inner authority and self-mastery she hands an axe to her companion. “Breathe,” she says.
Clearly, this is not a literal conversation between characters in a performance. Rather it is an imaginary exchange arising from theorizing the collision of research and myth; one that is deepened by the echoes and resonances contained in other conversations. I come to associate the handless maiden with an experience of trauma insisting on expression, and the diva with the capacity to find the form or the container for that expression. The ground is laid for the diva and the handless maiden to approach the intersecting themes at the heart of the creative work. The handless maiden’s suggestion that cutting off one’s own hands (letting go) might be a useful act of agency reflects a capacity and desire to resist the western myth of romantic love. The diva command to breathe is essential to the reception of one’s material and metaphoric voice, one’s diva voce.
I turn now to the second instance of reciprocal exchange, one that continues to excavate letting go and diva voce: that between my creative and critical selves through writing and other exercises.
Here, in the orchard, deeper conversation is being held as the woman listens towards her selves and others, hearing and understanding her self through the challenge of articulation. She is thinking aloud, thinking through her bodies, thinking through time and space. She will ask “Are you lonely?” and “Have you cried, my dear?” She cannot un-know what she knows and what she knows has cost her some pride and three assumptions. (Albinger, 2010, unpublished journal, p.45)
In 2008 I wrote several Handless Maiden stories of my own, a strategy towards regeneration, towards unearthing something poetic in the sands of interior desert. Thinking through myth and fairytale is a long-standing feminist strategy in philosophy, psychology, literature and performance (Clarissa Pinkola Estés, 1992; Nadya Aisenberg, 1994; Anne Carson, 1995; Marina Warner, 1994; Karina Golden, 2000; Margaret Cameron, 1998, 2008, 2009, Julie Robson, 2005): a move towards “finding a liberated voice for more fully realized heroines” (Robson, 2005, p 111). In each short personal retelling I conflated the traditional story with personal imagery and experience. Most of the personal tales I wrote focus on the shift from wild wood to orchard, and the orchard is often filled with women: There, between the Indian Ocean and the desert, she found an orchard. The orchard was filled with women’s laughter. Intrigued she found them sitting in the dappled light, eating pears, drinking wine and speaking philosophy. (Albinger, 2008, Unpublished journal).
Re-reading this personal version of the myth today, I note that I chose to populate the orchard, as Margaret Cameron would say, with “many-me’s” (Cameron, 2003), that the first sound I describe is laughter, and that laughter and philosophical discourse are paired with nourishment. Hélène Cixous would say that I had “heard before comprehension” (Cixous, 1991, p.62). Writing today I say that what I heard was the call of my own diva voce – the coincidence of material and metaphoric voice – where the female philosophical subject receives herself, divested (as much as possible) of cultural inscription. Once received, there exists a possibility of loving ourselves with respect and in reciprocity (Irigaray, 1991, p. 129); there exists, as Irigaray proposes, a horizon towards which we can unfold, the possibility of a feminine divine (Irigaray, 1986).
In re-telling the myth to myself, the Orchard emerges as a place where loving oneself with respect and in reciprocity may occur. One’s diva voce may be submerged if yearnings towards particular ways of being are at odds with our acculturation or with what our culture tells us is appropriate to our genre. In my multiple re-tellings of the myth I never move beyond the orchard. Each time I arrive at this point in the story – both in writing and in improvisation – I halt, I stumble, I weep; I make a cup of tea. The halting and stumbling, first perceived as a ‘lack’ in myself as performer (of discipline, of will, of creativity), is reframed as a clue. Something is insisting on expression, something I have not ‘thought of’ in the course of my research. In noticing this I am “I-witnessing” my own reality constructions (Tami Spry, 2001, p.727), in conversation with myself as I attempt to reframe an experience of trauma, of letting go into an experience of falling apart. It is precisely the somatic experience of mute lassitude in the studio that creates the conditions for the handless maiden to be folded into the creative process.
If the handless maiden has a tendency towards content and the diva a tendency towards form, the diva finally claims the space of the Orchard as the place of self-reception, the place where one breathes and receives her-self. Medieval myth is folded into autobiography, and then folded in the myth of Echo, whose door-less mouth, as Anne Carson describes it, is a pathway between the interior and exterior; a pathway to another kind of knowing and power. These, in turn, un-fold into studio improvisations that result in imagistic ‘ah-hah!’ moments: a fist in the mouth; a flapping, flightless woman; a red-taped threshold. As Spry says, “The text and the body that generates it cannot be separated” (2001, p.726). Divas and maidens represent archetypal energies or qualities within a feminist performer’s palette and they become frames for the conversation I am having with myself: the handless maiden’s embodied experiences (her wounds, her falling) are transformed by the diva’s capacity to breathe, receive, and respond in the worded philosophical space.
I turn now to the third suite of reciprocal exchanges, occurring in the worded philosophical space between me and the pool of critical theorists in which I swim.
The text of the performance No Door On Her Mouth – a lyrical amputation, is peppered with references, paraphrases, and direct quotes taken from texts of women theorists and conversations with women practitioners that have inspired and challenged me. Understanding self as fluid, de-centered, embodied, multi-vocal, in process and relational, I have taken the words of others and repeated them in order to amplify my capacity to hear myself, and also as a way of telling what is left in me of their work. The result is a multi-layered narrative because there are many ways to attribute meaning to experience. Our lives do not adhere to neat linear structures. And our ears are not deaf to implicit and explicit ideas, stereotypes and assumptions.
In the performance, for example, I make explicit the act of choosing again and again and again and again and again and again, by repeating this phrase ad nauseum. In doing so I recall Simone de Beauvoir: “I’m sick of it. Sick of it sick of it sick of it sick of it…” repeated for more than a paragraph (Simone de Beauvoir, 1969, p.83), and at the same time I am responding to Maria Tumarkin’s call to celebrate the kind of courage required in everyday life (2007, p.73). In the spaces between word, image and sound I am in conversation with Hélène Cixous and Clarice Lispector, as I “keep the space of waiting open” (Cixous, 1991, p.62). The very act of making the performance engages with Cixous’s observation that “It is more difficult to tell than to invent. Inventing is easy” (cited in Cameron, 2003, p.71). Anne Carson is present as I listen for echoes, and in the title itself: No Door On Her Mouth – a lyrical amputation (Carson, 1992, pp128 -132). There is the conversation with Irigaray as I keep present the question “who are you” (Irigaray, 2002, p.139) with respect to the subject and the other, my audience and myself. Every time I follow the performance instruction to return to the breath and to the self-caress, I echo her question of what it might mean to love ourselves with respect and in reciprocity in the here and now.
In spite of this intellectual promiscuity, I particularly engage with Irigaray and Cixous, and a 1977 essay by Adrienne Rich provides a key insight. Irigaray’s loving ourselves with respect in reciprocity provides a theoretical hand-hold for practically moving beyond the myth of romantic love – a cultural discourse that limits its consumers. For Irigaray, resisting limiting cultural discourses involves imagining a divine horizon towards which to unfold: “No task, no obligation burdens us except that one: become divine, become perfect, don’t let any parts of us be amputated that could become expansive for us” (1986, p.9). Through Irigaray’s lens I read the handless maiden’s story as speaking to the common human experience of making such self-limiting choices, of letting parts of us be amputated that could become expansive for us. And I understand the diva as an icon of claiming space and privileging desire through a focus on breath, stillness and silence, offering a path for the reception of self in time and space, in order for a woman to accomplish her unbounded feminine subjectivity.
For Cixous, this question of how a woman moves past limiting discourse is answered by a process of immersion in writing. Writing becomes an act of courage, of staring death in the face, of looking at oneself and not “dying of fear” (Cixous, 1991, p.6). This courageous act of writing, argues Cixous, is primarily an act of love: love as growth, as an expansion, an impulse to leap in to the abyss and profit from its immensity (1991, p.40). She uses the word love as an embrace, an opening, and as a dare to follow terror and gain freedom (1991, p.40). It is the thing she writes for, and from. “I write out of love. Writing, loving: inseparable. Writing is a gesture of love. The Gesture.” (1991, p. 42). Love is also what she writes towards. To write, as a woman, is not to fill the abyss,
...but to love yourself right to the bottom of your abysses. To know, not to avoid. Not to surmount; to explore, dive down, visit. There, where you write, everything grows, your body unfurls, your skin recounts its hitherto silent legends. (Cixous, 1991 p. 42)
If writing is a gesture of love, Cixous makes this gesture in response to an experience:
Writing: first I am touched, caressed, wounded; then I try to discover the secret of this touch to extend it, celebrate it and transform it into another caress. (1991, p. 45).
For my own part I interpose the words ‘making theatre’ for the word ‘writing’:
Making Theatre: First I am touched, caressed, wounded; then I try to discover the secret of this touch (caress, wound) to extend it, celebrate it and transform it into another caress. In this process of making theatre, of creating the solo performance No Door On Her Mouth – a lyrical amputation, I have touched a wound. In a thirty-year old essay by Adrienne Rich I experience a clue to the secret of this touch, a shock of self-recognition, and discover a capacity to transform the wound into a caress.
In her 1977 essay on “Honour”, Rich proposes “[w]omen have been forced to lie, for survival” (Rich, 1980, p.189). The falling apart at the autobiographical core of the performance work has one of its triggers in the discovery of such a lie: an instance of lying for survival; a lie told to maintain a personal romantic myth. It is a lie that renders self-reception almost impossible. Yet not entirely: in my journal I find I am paraphrasing Rich. I receive myself through her words. Her words are very important to me. I want to understand, to remember. I take them with me into performance:
Have you have been forced to lie, my dear? For survival?
Forgetting is the danger.
Do you tell yourself you don’t really know what you want?
Settling for what you get, yet, not really settling? Something inside striving to live a larger life?
Have you spent
many years fearing solitude, my dear?
Do you feel this as an exhaustion in your body?
(Albinger, No Door On Her Mouth – a lyrical amputation, Extract of ‘Song #8 – Crossing the Continent’)
The gentleness of the performance text belies the fact that I receive Rich’s words like a slap that restores one to oneself. I had quite literally told myself that I didn’t really know what I wanted, allowing parts of [me to] be amputated that could become expansive for [me]. In an example of how the conversation with theorists informs the creative process, a ‘slap’ also emerges in improvisation. I place myself in one location and began to move towards another. Enacting an inability to choose desire, I follow an impulse to turn back towards the point I have just left. I explore pace and dynamic and turning suddenly I accidentally slap my own face. This slap has been integrated into the performance. With it I am both victim of someone else’s violence and enacting violence on myself. The recognition of self-violence and the capacity to perceive the self-lie facilitate an important and liberating shift in perception. I become free to ask interesting questions: Why do I lie? Who do the lies serve? How do they serve me? My engagement with these questions spark “a quiet, molecular, viral, and therefore unstoppable revolution” (Braidotti, 1994, p 56). It is a revolution that challenges any desire to maintain the myth of romance at the expense, as Irigaray might say, of unfolding towards my fullest expression of self.
Returning to Cixous, and to making performance as a gesture of love that responds to a touch, a caress, a wound: In the performance there is a wound that is not named, allowing audience members to project personal and cultural stories of trauma onto the body of the performer. Trauma is signified visually through arresting images, and aurally through juxtaposition of opera, with recorded improvised duets (voice and wind instruments). Trauma is also kinesthetically communicated by the performers’ breath, which is variously disrupted, ragged, held and freed. How, then, is this wound transformed into another caress? In the performance the transformation happens when the performer crosses a particular threshold and arrives in The Orchard. In my personal retellings of the myth The Orchard is always peopled with other women and filled with laughter and nourishment. In retrospect it is easy to understand these women as my interlocutors during the course of the study. There is another way to read this image, however, which goes to the heart of the creative work and its philosophical foundations: The Orchard is the place of self-reception and integration.
This leads me to the fourth and final suite of deeply nourishing conversational encounters, this time with my critical peers, and in particular, my conversation with contemporary Australian theatre-maker Margaret Cameron.
Novel apprehensions of the diva’s usefulness to feminist theatre praxis emerged from two rounds of semi-structured interviews I conducted with senior Australian women theatre artists: disruptive opera diva Annette Tesoriero, poet-philosopher-performer Margaret Cameron, and contemporary choreographer-director-performer Nikki Heywood. These interviewees were also peers to whom I showed performance material at various times during the study, providing the first opportunity to externalize the many-me’s of my internal orchard. Margaret Cameron went on to become directorial and dramaturgical consultant on No Door On Her Mouth – a lyrical amputation. Conversation between artists about their practice cannot be confined to single projects, however, and the experiences and questions we shared during other collaborations (preceding and concurrent) informed and inflected the ‘diva’ interviews, the discussions we had after work-in-progress showings of No Door On Her Mouth – a lyrical amputation, and numerous other unrecorded conversations occurring over time. These are much more difficult to capture, record or quantify, and yet to ignore them is to miss an entire foundational layer of the collaborative nature of knowledge-construction in contemporary performance generally, and contemporary feminist performance-making specifically. Here, in the final part of this paper, I attempt to make explicit some of these more delicate conversational threads, particularly the Cameron thread, as an act of fidelity to our ongoing collaborative conversation about practice.
Tesoriero, Heywood and Cameron were selected as interviewees because each had referenced the diva in her own solo performance-making practice. Analyzing the interviewee’s ideas, which both echoed and departed from dominant diva readings, enabled me to apply and develop resistant and more productive readings of the diva icon. I began to resist the diva as a personality, after Cameron, and to understand her as a “position, condition, situation” (Susan Leonardi and Rebecca Pope, 1996, p.9). Cameron has utilized the diva icon as a strategy to “unearth and release the poetic” (2008 interview); Heywood as strategy to explore scale and range in explorations of the feminine/monstrous (2008 interview); while Tesoriero has literally turned the diva upside-down in her attempt to retrieve the diva’s body from the fetishists, or, as she puts it, to “reinscrib[e]the cunt on the body” (2007 interview). These interviews were key to my feminist re-conceptualisation of the diva as concept for countering a lack of residency in one’s own subjectivity, as strategy for unearthing the poetic, as movement between the semiotic and the symbolic, and as position of mastery. This re-conceptualisation fostered a new approach to creating performance, or ‘diva dramaturgy’, informed by the development of concrete breath tasks, by the privileging of desire, and through attentiveness to acts of reception. I am indebted to the conversation with Heywood for the initial idea that to take on diva attributes may manifest as a lack of residing within (subjectivity, agency, power). The experience of interviewing Tesoriero, and of witnessing her studio investigations in language and sound, encouraged my own investigations of the pleasurable ways in which the breath takes up residence within the performing body. However it is the last task, attentiveness to acts of reception, which reflects most profoundly my ongoing conversation with Cameron, and is at the heart of the performance that emerged from the study. In the following I mark three key moments in our conversation that led to the articulation of this task.
In 2008 I presented some initial ‘performance sketches’ for critical response to the interviewees in their capacity as peers. Cameron’s familiarity with my previous work enabled her to identify a new poetic direction in my writing. Yet all three women identified that I was somehow not resident within the work. There was something uncomfortable in the act of witnessing the material. It was Cameron who identified that I was, as she saw it, between two worlds. She suggested that the performer in me did not trust the emerging poet, and was ‘sending up’ the poetic material, instead of receiving it. As she said at the time: “It’s quite [a] thing to allow oneself to speak one’s poetry, and not to enact it. Because in the listening of one’s own poetry, all of the enactment occurs, you know, in so many ways” (Albinger, 2013, p.85). After the presentation of the material, and before this conversation took place, Cameron had picked up a piece of paper from the floor that had fallen out of my bag. On it were written the words I crave poetry, part of a process I had conducted in my studio investigations. This phrase provided Cameron the lens with which to understand the uncomfortable presentation she and the others had just witnessed. As she went on to say, “Part of what you were communicating to me then was your lack of confidence in what you’re starting to really love. Something you’re really starting to love.” The scrap of paper had randomly appeared, and yet Cameron had noticed its occurrence and allowed its resonance, amplifying my own capacity to receive something that was insisting on expression: a love of poetry and a desire for a more radical poetics of form.
Almost twelve months later, whilst engaged in another performance project with Cameron, I had had a breakthrough experience on the studio floor that was both illuminating and paradoxical. It was an experience of hearing myself differently, or really hearing myself, as though for the first time. In discussing my experience with Cameron later the same day, she theorized the intimacy of the human voice, suggesting it has been educated out of freedom. I understand educated out of freedom to mean the many ways in which we are educated to speak ‘properly’ where this propriety does not necessarily match, or meet, our need to speak. Cameron understands the voice as completely colonized by what one is expected to do and be in the world; by what one has to do to be in the world. The act of speaking one’s writing aloud is understood as a move to receive one’s own voice. As she said that day: “The speaking aloud engages the choreography of the breath” (Cameron, 2009, p.7). It is an act of reception. This was the first time I heard Cameron use the phrase the choreography of the breath and enunciate the difference between offering and receiving language. The phrase choreography of breath arises from yet another conversation about practice between Cameron and Australian breath practitioner Helen Sharp. Later, when working with me as a directorial and dramaturgical consultant, Cameron and I developed a process based on this concept of receiving one’s own voice. I wrote poems and emailed them to Cameron, who then read them back to me over Skype. She stripped them bare, reading only the parts she felt she could say, by which I mean she deleted any language that fixed the text to a specific time, location, story. Her gentle re-readings allowed me to receive myself. It is as though my skin was delicately removed and bare flesh and bone revealed. I experienced myself as tender.
Returning to my own study after the choreography of breath conversation, I was able to theorise The Orchard as the place where self-reception and integration can occur. Furthermore I was able, in conversation with colleague Julie Robson, to begin articulating specific breath tasks for the performer – or choreographies of breath – and these became fundamental to the structure of the performance created.
Cameron’s program note – as directorial and dramaturgical consultant – for the 2010 Blue Room season of No Door On Her Mouth – a lyrical amputation is an act of fidelity. It is both a description of our conversation about practice in relation to my work, and an articulation of what that conversation does. In it, the Handless Maiden’s pears of self-nourishment become the fruits of discourse of the articulate practitioner:
… these fruits of words made of flesh are full of flesh for they are my being articulated. In listening that listens I bend toward an understanding of this—being articulated. To be in the word and in the world without being pronounced by it and to discover language in this context is also to recover it.
… But let us not forget that there are other sensibles, for if we do not understand our hearing, we may nose it and smell the smell of it. And let us not imagine that we need to understand that we are understanding. It is the procession of thinking that—in the procession of thinking—the fruits become what becomes and what becomes, becomes ripe in every sense that is not sensible but full of sense and becoming apparent it falls as insight. (Cameron, 2010)
Although her language is dense, Cameron is precisely articulating an experience of embodied knowledge: The ‘fruits’ that ‘fall as insight’ are not always rational (sensible) and yet they are “full of sense”. When first I read this note I heard echoes of multiple conversations occurring in studios, on my back deck, at her kitchen table. I remembered the first time she said being articulated – as I understand it, a play on being as both verb and noun: one that expands the practice of thought becoming shape, becoming words made of flesh full of flesh because they are [our very] being articulated. This text is now also part of Cameron’s own doctoral performance text Opera for a Small Mammal: another explicit example of the shared and collaborative nature of knowledge-making in feminist performance-making.
Rigorously attending toward acts of reception – occurring when one reads one’s own words aloud, and also when the fruits of collegial discourse fall as insight – Cameron locates being articulated at the centre of her practice. I understand her description of being in the word and in the world without being pronounced by it as both movement and resistance: movement between a place of fidelity to ones’ point of view, and resistance to dominant cultural inscriptions that contradict lived bodily experience. This calls to mind Elizabeth Grosz’s framework in which the “interior dimensions of subjectivity” move with and against “surface corporeal exposures...to social inscription and training” (1994, p.188). I am thinking of Grosz’s question: what acts in me when I act? (2011). If, as Cameron suggests, we are completely colonized by what we are expected to do and be in the world, what acts in me is relational to those social inscriptions I have most consciously and unconsciously internalized and been inscribed by, by what (and by whom) I have been colonized. The act of speaking then, as a move to receive one’s own voice, is crucial to [our] being articulated. In turn, it is an act of resistance to dominant social inscriptions that overwhelm and silence interior dimensions of subjectivity. Attending to moments of reception, then, is quietly and deeply political.
It is clear that I cannot talk about receiving one’s diva voce without acknowledging the profound contribution of my conversations with Cameron. And because I cannot un-hear our hearing, the first line of her program note becomes the last line of text in the performance: Do you crave poetry my dear? When all is said and done will you remain forever wanting what is readily yours? (Albinger, p.25.) Acts of individual reception lead us to attempt being articulated in conversation with others, and the act of striving to articulate our being in collegial conversation leads to communal acts of reception. Together we challenge each other and ourselves to love ourselves to the bottom of our abysses, to not let anything be amputated that could be expansive for us, to write, create, and exchange together as a gesture of Love – a gesture of growth, of expansion. What has been expanded through the conversations that underpinned this study is what it means to be a diva: refusing the popular myth that the cost of being truly great is to find oneself alone; embracing instead the interconnected diva, in critical and reflexive conversation with herself, her community and her world. What is readily hers is The Orchard: a place of nourishment for receiving diva voce, poetry, laughter and community.
The critical conversations (with texts, with myself, with theorists and with colleagues) that informed every stage of the study reveal the complex nature of collaborative exchange in performance and knowledge making. ‘Conversation’ emerges as one key methodological strategy for a contemporary feminist performance-maker, and it is one that requires expert practice to be able to notice its occurrence, allow its resonance, and examine its ‘fruits’. It is a methodological strategy that could remain invisible, or inaudible, to the expert spectator, and so, in both the study and this paper, I have committed to making it as explicit as possible. It is my act of fidelity to those with whom I have engaged, marking what is left in me of our encounters. It is a triple act of courage: first in its refusal to say of an idea: this is mine alone; second, by saying: yet this is my unique perspective on it; and thirdly, by asking of another: who are you and how can you think that way? As I have indicated at the beginning of the paper, conversation of the kind I have undertaken here constitutes an act of love, or of reciprocity, underpinned, as it is, by Irigaray’s series of questions of the text with which she seeks communion: Who are you? And who are you? Can we meet? Talk? Love? Create something together? What has been created is a generous expansion of what it means to be a diva: one that, when embraced by individuals, has the potential to create a dynamic release of energy into the public domain.
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