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Touch Us Here, Peggy

At Washington Hall, on November 20, 2014, Peggy Piacenza crawled backwards, pink high heels and leopard print underwear first, into the opening night of Touch Me Here. In her first evening-length solo work, Piacenza grappled with spirituality, sex, and the task of illuminating the experience where the two are intertwined: touch. Cellist Scott Bell joined her in the performance, as both musician and silent actor in choice sets. Piacenza herself played multiple parts in the piece—by turns an innocent child, a mature woman in search of enlightenment, and a stripper.

Peggy Piacenza and cellist Scott Bell in Touch Me Here
Photo by Tim Summers

As the stage lights dimmed to signal the start of the performance, Gregorian chants filled the room. Flickering candles in red glass candleholders surrounded the performance space—a border that would be used and ignored throughout the evening. This ritualistic start to the performance contrasted sharply with Piacenza’s tawdry entrance in flashy undergarments, a trench coat, showy heels, a cigarette, and a brunette wig with straight-cut bangs. This character embodied the story of a stripper or prostitute, bringing the audience into grungy back alleys with her well-crafted stance. Along with overt displays of sexual salesmanship, her scenes were laced with an introspective sensuality and a disturbing trend of turmoil and self-doubt.

As soon as she exited, a woman’s voice rang out: “Touch me. Go ahead.” The subsequent conversation between the woman and her lover was simultaneously filled with emotional trust and disconnect. When this conversation was echoed again at the end of the show, the woman displayed an unstable state of self-doubt that turned the intimacy sour. “Don’t touch me there!” she shouted, pulling away. This distorted reflection drew attention to the way in which spirituality and self-identity are inexorably woven into the experience of sexuality and the experience of touch.

A film segment, one of the most notable sections of the evening, followed Piacenza rolling over a mile for a cup of coffee. This made for a hilarious segment (she rolls across the street at a busy crosswalk, over the roots of massive trees, and finally into the coffee shop), but it begged the question—is this art or comedy? The answer was made clear as she explained that its purpose was to step into the shoes of Lotan Baba, an Indian man who has rolled over 1,500 miles to promote peace. In detailing the experience of rolling, from the nausea to the intentions she carried with her (to refresh the mysteries of life and shed superficial fears), she proved the connection between the absurdity of mortal life and the higher calling of the human spirit.

Peggy Piacenza in Touch Me Here
Photo by Tim Summers

The humor of the piece complemented the poignancy of its fiercely tender heart. Throughout, Piacenza demonstrated skillful use of comedic timing, along with a vast understanding of how to use her physicality as a tool for storytelling, to carry a plot, to make a statement, to punctuate an idea, and even to offer a different viewpoint from what her voice or the music put forth. While much of the show was not strictly movement, the sections that were enhanced the narratives. An ecstatic celebration dance followed the video, and a recurring theme of her “signature movement” served as a reference point that clearly manifested the “touch” of each story and experience on her life.

If anything lessened the impact of the piece, it was the feeling that for much of the 75-minute show, Touch Me Here was essentially self-indulgent. Perhaps with any piece rooted in such personal explorations, it is nearly impossible to avoid this fate. However, Piacenza managed to draw it to a satisfying conclusion, bringing her disparate subjects into alignment. The final segment started like a post-performance lecture. She sat down in a formal black dress with a glass of water, and spoke earnestly about living as a prostitute to support herself as an artist. “If I do this for my art, what kind of pimp does that make my art?” “How do you keep your soul while crossing every boundary with your body?” These questions, interwoven with stories and memories evolved into a physicalized interpretation of the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Jesus a regular at a small town strip joint and Mary his favorite—his chosen one. This story and the short memoirs that accompanied them may not have been based in fact, but the performance was convincing.

Early in the piece, Piacenza approached a man in the front row. “Can I touch you?” she asked, “No really, can I touch you, here? Now?” In this moment, holding hands with a stranger, she established the audience’s purpose in the piece: to touch and be touched. In opening herself up to the audience in an authentic manner, she invited us to touch her through our honest reactions to her work, and requested that we let ourselves be touched by her performance, by her honesty, and by the revelation in each moment.

More information about Peggy Piacenza is available on her Hatchfund profile.