Addressing Imbalance After Centuries of Erasure
by Sarah Cahill
Consider the phrase "women's work." We might imagine it refers to traditional roles for women, like caring for babies and children, domestic chores, and subservient tasks. In the arts, "women's work" has encompassed crafts such as sewing and embroidery and quilting, which not until the 20th century were recognized as legitimate art forms. But now, within the context of Cal Performances' Berkeley RADICAL programming initiative, powerful female artists take to the stage and demonstrate that "women's work" is all about world-class performance and the creation of transcendent theater, dance, music, and multimedia—powerful programs that examine some of the most compelling and critical issues of our time.
As Cal Performances' interim artistic director Rob Bailis explains: "We chose Women's Work as a title for this series because—as a phrase—it is historically loaded and yet entirely descriptive of what will be seen on stage. We liked that it is somewhat provocative—even, by contemporary standards, almost comically offensive. And it excited us to see traditional gender roles reframed by incredible accomplishments of artistic, cultural, and professional expression in a series of works and performances by women."
The five programs that comprise this Berkeley RADICAL series feature Mexico's Aida Cuevas, the reigning "Queen of Mariachi," in her rousing tribute to the legendary Juan Gabriel (October 6, Paramount Theatre, Oakland); Sasha Waltz & Guests in a revival of Waltz's signature work Körper (Bodies) (October 20–21, Zellerbach Hall); Big Dance Theater in Annie-B Parson's radical rereading of the life and writings of Samuel Pepys in 17c (December 13–16, Zellerbach Playhouse); the fearless young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, joined by pianist Alexei Grynyuk, in works by Bach, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, and Wynton Marsalis (January 27, Zellerbach Hall); and the Toronto-based Quote Unquote Collective with its provocative two-woman performance Mouthpiece (March 22–24, Zellerbach Playhouse). While these programs straddle generations, continents, and cultural viewpoints, each shines a spotlight on women, both as principle creators and dynamic performers.
While several Women's Work programs directly tackle issues of feminism and gender, Bailis points out that the Berkeley RADICAL approach intentionally embraces multiple visions and perspectives. "From the start," he explains, "we determined to take a multidisciplinary view of women working as creators, performers, and interpreters.We felt that a broader platform for inclusion would help us explore more successfully the under-representation of women in the arts and the pervasive inequities that underpin this condition, as well as the extraordinary accomplishments of women and the way their work is leading the evolution of the art forms they practice.
"Our rubric was not to create tidy or specific alignments between the selections within the series," Bailis continues, "but quite the opposite—to have each selection radiate out toward a different area of practice in the arts where working and career conditions for women are quite different. As with other Berkeley RADICAL strands of curation, we limited the offerings to just five productions. And we've quite intentionally not addressed certain elements we believe would be more meaningfully approached in subsequent programs seen through a narrower, more focused, lens."
To enhance audience members' experiences, a range of related events and programs— including pre-performance talks and public forums with the artists—will provide multiple opportunities for further engagement with the themes presented in the series.
The only artist authorized by the Juan Gabriel estate to record and tour his music (last year she released the second installment in her ambitious Totalmente Juan Gabriel project), Cuevas will be joined by Mexico City-based Mariachi Juvenil Tecalitlán, with special guests on requinto, accordion, percussion, and keyboards. The Kansas City Star compared her to another Queen, recently departed: "Cuevas is to Mexico what Aretha Franklin is to the United States: a powerful voice that encapsulates the essence of her nation's spirit."
Which raises a tricky question: How, for instance, does one portray a character like Pepys' wife, Elizabeth? "The only way that we actually know about Elizabeth Pepys is through her husband, who is not a very reliable narrator," says Parson. "So, part of my work on the piece was to write for her. That language—because I'm not a writer, I'm more a gatherer—came from 1960s, really far out, circular thinking of female writers at that time. And we also express who she is through dancing."
17c also subverts Pepys' male primacy by interjecting a radical feminist play, The Convent of Pleasure, by Pepys' contemporary Margaret Cavendish—not published in her lifetime because she was a woman—within the context of Pepys' own work. Through music, dance, video, and text, Big Dance Theater rebalances a moment in 17th-century history and provides the women in Pepys' life a place of power and respect.
In March, back in Zellerbach Playouse, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava from the Toronto-based Quote Unquote Collective present their provocative two-woman show Mouthpiece, which traces one day in the life of a woman as she contends with her complex and troubled relationship with her mother. As Bailis describes it, "This is a young company founded by two women, just beginning to break out internationally, and their wonderful Mouthpiece blends broader notions of women's issues and feminism with an incredibly intimate, personal story of the loss of one's mother—all of it wrapped up in a physical and theatrical tour de force that I believe will redefine this genre through its unique assembly of performative techniques."
Bailis explains, "Mouthpiece is also a perfect counterpoint to the work of Big Dance Theater's Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, who—more than two decades into a practice of innovation—have largely, even single-handedly, created the field of multimedia performance art that inspires the artists of Quote Unquote Collective. The beauty of these two works— 17c and Mouthpiece—is that, together, they provide an opportunity to consider the evolution of an art form while simultaneously considering the development of feminist literary and performance practice across decades—or, if you include 17c's source, a progress of centuries.
"For most of us, our bodies are already the most politicized zones in the world," he continues. "One's own borders and boundaries of personal, physical, and psychic freedom— one's identity, self-expression, gender, and cultural inheritance—are the most embattled spaces in life. We accept that as a truth. As such, we didn't set out to build Women's Work to address a particular political point of view, or even to respond specifically to movements like #MeToo or #TimesUp.
"Rather, we began by accepting all of these things as true," Bailis summarizes. "These movements represent not a moment that will pass but a reckoning that is long overdue, and we accept them as utterly necessary. They inform this exact moment in time when we insist on gender representation and equality by directing our focus to women. Ask yourself this: how should we address an imbalance that has included centuries of erasure?"
Sarah Cahill is a pianist, writer, and radio host. She grew up in Berkeley. The American Composers Forum recently named her a New Music Champion of 2018. Her radio show Revolutions Per Minute can be heard every Sunday evening on KALW San Francisco.
Learn more about Berkeley RADICAL 2018/19 Season