Sparkly little dresses, pert bodies, vigorous young women singing and dancing. A chorus line brimming over with gorgeousness opens Sweetshop Revolution’s Beautiful at Hackney Showroom, an intimate studio which is appropriate for such bold, raunchy work. However, that’s where the trivial entertainment ends and meaty content begins. Soon after their dazzling intro, the five women step forward to the microphone and one by one share a personal confession about sex: their desires, fantasies and how they love. Their eyes search through the audience, meeting our gaze. They hold back nothing.
Sally Marie’s show is about female sexuality, love and pleasure. Her main question is how women experience sex now in our female empowered, gender-fluid days of multiple choices. Are we enriched by having it all or just confused? Can a woman on stage dancing seductively ever escape the patriarchal gaze?
I’m not sure Beautiful answers those questions but it does allow for a space in which women can indulge in female centred eroticism and desire. In fact the hour-long show could be read as one continuous female orgasm from start to finish. Wave after wave of orgasmic ecstasy floods into dense, technically rigorous choreography. An athletic vocabulary of balances, leaps, weight–sharing, is eroticised through the choreography of sex: rubbing, touching, necking, stroking, pelvic gyrating, sighing and much more, moving the dancers in flowing circular cycles. Heads are thrown back in ecstatic release, bodies melt in to the floor in post-orgasmic exhaustion. Different shades of arousal are conveyed, breasts naked or covered are caressed, sensations are shared and skin tingles.
Collectively the women cavort in endless orgies of female-centred sensuality and sexual pleasure, exhibiting fluid, pliable, bodies, surrendering to active bliss. Or they enact arousal luxuriating in another’s arms or indulging privately in their own auto-erotic journey of discovery. Andy Pink’s sound-track, a mixture of electronic sounds, words and rock music, further mirrors the ebb and flow of orgasm. It’s a heady experience.
Sweetshop Revolution’s dancers exude fabulousness. There’s nothing too technical or theatrical that they can’t perform, and they complement one another’s strengths and different styles. A duet between the striking Natacha Kierbel and enigmatic Pauline Raineri, plays gently with S&M dynamics of dominance and submission. The dancers tie black chokers round their necks, at first tenderly before throwing themselves into a physical game in which Kierbal uses her strength and Raineri her persistence. With unbelievable fluidity, Rainer demandingly hurls herself at Kierbal who pushes her away roughly. There’s a chemistry between them that is riveting.
In between such intensely intimate moments, unison sections performed by the group allow a pause for breath. In one such scene, they appear wearing hooped tulle skirts reminiscent of 18th century ladies with their private flirtations and secret liaisons. In another, dressed ironically in virginal white dresses they sing a rude song, reminding us that well-behaved women have dirty minds too.
Sandra Klimek teases in a crotch dance wearing a skimpy bra and pants with pubic hair drawn on. Brazenly staring at her audience she performs floor work, travelling on a journey of revealing and concealing, extended legs arching over her torso only to close quickly in this comical peep show. Although it’s not quite humorous or defiant enough and sitting behind some men in the audience I feel uncomfortable as I begin to view the work through their (more problematic) gaze.
Action flows through Beautiful in dynamic patterns where one set of images segues into the next, from choreographed group sections to intimate solos and duets; spoken text, frozen poses, flat out movement. Voyeurism, subjectivity, empowerment are some of the ideas explored but not resolved such as when the dancers pose pouting like models in a Calvin Klein advertisement. Woman as photographer’s muse? Although this reductive image is then juxtaposed with Tania Dimbelolo’s impressive warrior dance in which she resembles a female fighter from the Hunger Games as she stealthily traverses the stage in sequences of strong, controlled lunges and high-energy kicks.
So you might ask, is Beautiful a porn show? Does it exploit the performers? Sally Marie bravely fights for women to be able to indulge in and play with what turns them on rather than what turns men on. Beautiful celebrates a range of sexualities and delights which are women focussed rather than about male gratification. Yet it still falls into difficult territory. The aesthetic of the show which is restricted to youth, slenderness and beauty at times seems superficial and renders the performer vulnerable to a troubling, fetishistic gaze. While the performers are spectacular, maybe they need to be armed with greater maturity and experience of life to really challenge this difficult issue of spectatorship.