ilvs strauss appears to be having a silent conversation with someone off-stage, professional and friendly. But something is distracting her—she takes a quick check over her shoulder and returns to conversing, but it keeps nagging. Keeps pulling her away. There’s something here that needs addressing and eventually she gives it her full attention. So begins strauss’ MANIFESTO at Velocity Dance Center this past weekend (May 22-24)—a musing on being a woman who doesn’t want to have children, framed by the extraordinary metaphor of sea cucumbers. Yes, sea cucumbers.
The California red sea cucumbers are one of the only animals whose output is cleaner than their input. And strauss should know—she’s a volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium. She spends a lot of time staring at the squishy creatures and thinking about her own desire to create, but not to procreate. The audience knows all of this because the majority of the evening is a recorded inner dialogue of strauss pondering the matter, accompanied by her understated gestural theatricality.
It’s the relationship between what is spoken and what is danced that brings the audience into strauss’ inner world. Sometimes it aligns: strauss brings an easy swagger to her movement while she talks confidently, other times it deviates. She mentions that people often bring up the “but you’ll be alone when you’re old” reason for having kids. Her voice is nonchalant but the corresponding face fills with panicky terror. Sometimes she seems to be actively considering her own words, other times she provides counterpoint with more abstract movement ideas.
There are breaks in this format, however—when the talking stops and we get to see ideas explored solely through dance. In one tongue and cheek section strauss explores “feeling like a woman” as iconic pop music plays. In another she dons a very pregnant-looking backpack and alternates a cocky attitude with a woozy, achy condition, and hilarity ensues. And then of course, there’s the sea cucumber costume. strauss leaves and reenters dressed in a red, spikey sleeping bag. She explains that while the spikes may look phallic, they’re actually vaginal negative space—symbolic of the feminine power to create! And create she will—well, dance that is.
Later, after strauss has birthed herself from the cucumber costume and defended her kid-less life choice from every possible angle, something magical happens: another sleeping bag-clad sea cucumber enters the space. And then another. And then another and another! Twelve dancing sea cucumbers! From here on out, the voice-overs stop and a more abstract dance begins—one just as rich with metaphor, but perhaps more about accepting oneself than explaining oneself. When the sleeping bags come off, each of the twelve is revealed to be in black tops and shorts with a single key dangling from the belt loop. They are dressed as the technical crew (an outsider to the community would have no way of knowing, but strauss’ main gig is Technical Director of Velocity). As strauss dances among the friendly, welcoming crew, she is at first unsure of what to do, but as the evening progresses she begins to trust her instincts and dance in harmony with the group that appears to be comprised of…well, her.
What’s remarkable about MANIFESTO is how accessible it is while still presenting plenty to chew on. Its tender authenticity is well balanced with humor and personality. We don’t often have the opportunity to see the inner workings of a performer quite so intimately and, at the same time, address larger cultural implications of woman-ness. It felt curious without being judgmental, delightful without being frivolous, and female without being stereotypical. Here’s to hoping strauss’ urge to create is fertile with new ideas for her to bring into the world.
More information about ilvs strauss is available on her website.