(REVIEW) SALIR: Expelling Trauma Through Play and Movement

OCTOBER 24, 2017

Corinne Spitalier and Clara Prieur present their multimedia dance-theatre creation, SALIR, at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique de Montréal on October 5, 2017, following its first performance in June 2017 at the Centre d’Essai de l’Université de Montréal. Both Spitalier and Prieur come from multidisciplinary and intercultural backgrounds and have pulled their skills to choreograph, direct, design, and perform this piece. The word salir takes into account the cultural identities of both creators, translating as “to exit” in Spitalier’s maternal language Spanish, and “to dirty” in Prieur’s native French. They explain in their artist statement that the title encompasses “la nécessité de faire sortir de soi ce qui nous abîme et nous sali,” or the necessity to expel from oneself that which hurts and dirties us. This is the overarching choreographic goal, within the theme of abuse, and specifically the sisterhood which emerges from sharing similar abusive experiences. While the show is grounded by a concrete example of sexual abuse and lack of consent in a drunken party scenario, the artists choose to focus less on victimhood and more on the ongoing, intimate process of moving forward from such an experience, within the nuanced dynamics of female companionship.

The show’s scenographic design creates a duality of internal and external space. The external physical world is represented by an assemblage of objects: a flatscreen television sitting on a rolling table, with crude chairs facing the audience on either side, doubled by their crisply defined shadows. Occupying the entire back wall of the black box theatre is a white projection sheet, which provides a more immersive surface for catching light and video throughout the show. Yet the projection wall and television screen echo each other and call into question the medium of film and its the role in mediating reality, relationships, and intimacy.

The lighting design is key in delineating metaphorical spaces, such as boxes for the dancers to inhabit. These square boxes of white light on the floor effectively evoke isolated introspective mental spaces. The harsh top-lighting solemnly grounds the dancers in their shadows and creates dramatic chiaroscuro across their bodies. This contrasts with the warm wash of light on the dancers when they occupy the chairs around the television, an objective physical space populated by other bodies and objects.

The costume choices are simple but symbolically effective. Prieur’s costume change from pants to skirt, in response to abuse, symbolizes a loss of agency and perhaps a forced reminder of feminine status. All costumes are black, creating a tone of mourning, sobriety, and uniformity throughout the piece. Both performers’ hair remains long and loose in the show, its length conforming to conservative standards of feminine beauty, yet also exhibiting a wildness and extension of their movements that gives them an even larger physical presence.

The show begins abruptly with a panoramic film projection on the back wall, depicting the all-too-familiar narrative of a male character taking advantage of a drunken woman’s inability to consent in a club. The short film is visually well-defined and un-glamorized, making the scene even more disturbing and recognizable to the viewer. Its realism also provides a contrast to the dreamlike dance sequence which follows. The up-close cinematography situates the viewer as both helpless onlooker and complicit company in the man’s disturbingly controlling body language.

Illuminated by the video projection, Prieur stands erect onstage, shaking as she faces the larger-than-life image of herself being violated. As the video suddenly slows and blurs upon a close-up of the man touching the woman, Prieur’s movements urgently accelerate. Tainted by vibrant red lighting, her dance is like a flurry of emotional reaction to each microsecond of the scenario. This manipulation of time perception, paralleled with a soundtrack of amplified details such as footsteps and breath, communicates the trauma of the moment onscreen, both at the time and looking back upon the memory.

The rest of the performance is, emotionally speaking, a slow release or unwinding of the tension built up by this opening sequence. Vacillating between interior, mental spaces and external, objective reality, both dancers’ personas bring audiences along on a process of healing and “expelling” their abusive experiences and memories. As the title signifies, Prieur and Spitalier “expel what hurts and dirties us” through their movements and physical exertion. They do this through sharp breath, raw voice, and expressionist movement, always seeming to cathartically release an inner energy and story. Their bodily exhaustion at times drives home the fact that their “sweat is the ink” of the story, as they claim in their artist statement (“comme si la sueur était une encre sympathique” ). Without revisiting the initial scenario itself, the dancers’ expressive movement seems to diffuse the physical memories of the traumatized female body.

The theme of the piece is the intimate bond of sisterhood, specifically “sisterhood in shared abuses,” forged through a process of healing that is simultaneously shared and separate. The choreography explores many nuances of such a relationship, from codependence to solidarity and entering each others’ sacred mental spaces.

Most significantly, the characters’ sisterly relationship explores various manifestations of play as a tool in the healing process. In one scene, the dancers engage in theatrical role-play, lip-syncing to a televised speech on the systemic attitude of possession toward women. Through this mimetic role-play, the dancer embodies a woman in power whose voice is heard and applauded. In this unexpectedly touching scene, role-play is understood as the therapeutic and transcendent freedom to embody other realities. The scene also comments on the need to reclaim one’s feeling of power after abuse.

Another facet of play in the piece is light-hearted competition. The role-play scene soon gives way to a clownish fight for the spotlight, which melts into competitive glances that evoke fierce survival instincts. Momentarily turning the characters against each other, playful competitiveness reveals a primal need for self-protection and power post-trauma.

The dancers’ bouncy pantomiming of the quotidian act of laughing together is similarly exaggerated and playful, rather than carrying the same weight and expressionism of the rest of the piece. This provides a relief from the solemnity, but the context forces the audience to see this playful performativity as a superficial or temporary escape from their internal struggles.

Lastly, the choreography includes elements of child’s play, such as a patty-cake-like action while one dancer stands in front of the other looking somberly at the audience. This movement can be interpreted as an attempted return to innocence, though not quite achieved.

Overall, the artists investigation of play, from role-play to children’s games, comment on a survivor’s reversion to the vulnerability of childhood, on the concept of innocence, and on the therapeutic potential of play in processing reality or facing our monsters the way children do.

The piece ends with an ominous return to red lighting, with both women sitting relaxed on the floor. In this intimate position, at the audience’s feet, Spitalier sings in her native Spanish into the gaze of Prieur. Meanwhile, an ambient sound of running water, evoking ever-passing time, persists behind Spitalier’s song. The show ends on the intimate gaze between them, allowing the audience to walk away appreciating the sacredness of what the artists have shared and entrusted to them.

In conclusion, SALIR is an intimate revelation and exploration of post-abuse healing, coping, and relationship-building. It boldly presents the many facets play as a means of reclaiming agency, innocence, and perspective. It celebrates the sisterly bond between women of who share abusive experiences, and the network of support and understanding that can exist between them. As a performance, the choreography successfully unravels the tension built by the initial video scenario by expelling it through the dancers’ movement and physical exertion, evoking a visceral sympathy from the audience that surpasses identification with the scenario. In this well-executed performance creation outcome, Spitalier and Prieur succeed in creating a space that fosters and celebrates true intimacy.

Celine Cardineau

Video: Corinne Spitalier, YouTube

An undergraduate
feminist art & art history