Earlier this week, a friend emailed me and asked if I had any interest in seeing England's National Theatre broadcast of DV8 Physical Theatre's John, shown here in Houston at the Sundance Cinema. I immediately said yes, knowing nothing about it other than the words "physical theater." The showing was today.
I'm not aware of anyone in Houston producing physical theater currently (and would welcome correction on this matter), but when I was in Chicago, there were a couple of companies practicing it. Resting uncomfortably somewhere between dance theater and, well, theater-theater, I find it a form difficult to define (and I'm sure there are those who would be happy to do it for me). It's a nearly redundant term, as all theater is physical, requiring live bodies doing various things from standing still to crossing a stage, but this takes the physicality beyond what the dance world would call "pedestrian movement." Indeed, physical theater involves pedestrian movement (walking, running, sitting, and natural hand gestures), but it also evokes another layer of meaning or emotion by incorporating movement and physicality that would be unusual to see on a city street.
Best you just google some video about it.
What struck me about watching this production was how they took a man's life and expressed his stories with visuals that he would never have imagined. The comfort of these performers with themselves was remarkable, most of the men being fully nude at different points in the production as well as taking on movement vocabulary both plain and extraordinary.
And I will pause to say that as a gay man, I found most of them, and a couple in particular, to be quite beautiful in the nude.
But this nudity business, it's such an issue for us, isn't it? Apparently more so for us in the United States. I hear it's less of an issue in Europe, but having never lived there, I can't say for sure from personal experience. All I know is that here, naked skin is both treated with shame and used to sell most every kind of product. The Genesis stories make it plain that part of being knowledgeable is to be ashamed of nakedness, and yet we're "cursed" with desire for one another. (One of my seminary professors noted that these are conditions of the fall, not conditions of creation nor, presumably, restoration and redemption.)
But back to taking a man's life---the text spoken by the main character is reportedly verbatim from an interview with a real man---and creating this physical theater piece to display it. It struck me very much as an incarnational act, but a peculiar kind. This flesh and blood person gave inspiration to this hyper-flesh-and-blood performance. His words became performance.
My relationship with myself is awkward. I'm aging for one---and since I've always been attracted to middle aged men, I'm only now beginning to see myself as potentially attractive while also being aware that what a lot of people see is just a middle aged man. I've had a couple of surgeries in the last two years that have left my abdomen scarred---indeed, my navel is gone, my birth scar replaced by a scalpel's scar. I take many pills everyday to keep both diabetes and heart disease in check. I can't do things, physically, that I could do 10 years ago. I spend a little more time thinking about what I eat than I would like.
Yet, last night, I was having dinner with a friend and two of her friends, who I met for the first time at this dinner. My friend was saying how amazed she was at my willingness to get in front of an audience and perform. She, on the other hand is very comfortable with engaging with strangers. I said, I would be happy to get on our table and strip down naked for the world to see, but please don't ask me to go talk to strangers at another table.
I feel like these thoughts are connected, but I admit, I was hoping a point would emerge by now . . .
Bodies. Incarnation. We don't know how to relate to the world around us without a body. Plenty of people like to say they are not their body, but I'm pretty sure so much of my identity is shaped and defined by the fact that I have bodily attributes like my pale skin, my blond hair, my genitals.
It is the seat of my identity and my pain and my beauty and my limitations.
And in this season, we celebrate it, but I think we celebrate is in ways that don't penetrate very deeply. We like to, both, think about and avoid talking about sexual characteristics---so much of it bound up in shame, humor, or power. We definitely don't like to think about what happens after we swallow our food, but I can say with some personal certainty that being able to pass gas or have a bowel movement after a surgery (or perhaps just for those people who experience chronic constipation) is a moment of great celebration and gratitude.
More than our celebrating our personal fleshiness, we Christians teach that God, the creator of all creation, became one of us. The Dei, took on the Imago and dwelt among us other created images.
It's mysterious and wonderful and kind of gross.
Beautiful. It's also beautiful.
This is a bit of a journey from seeing a performance by a physical theater company, but there it is. The wonder of a body articulating in creative ways, both fully clothed and fully nude, spoke to me of incarnation and Jesus and pain and pleasure and life and death.
Make of it what you will.