2018/19 SEASON

Women's Work:
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.

Aida Cuevas
Mexican superstar singer and actress Aida Cuevas kicks off the Women's Work series on October 6, in Oakland's magnificent Paramount Theatre, with her spirited tribute to the beloved Mexican songwriter Juan Gabriel, who was also Cuevas' mentor, producer, and great friend. In a genre often defined by machismo, in which women performers are still rare, Cuevas has blazed a maverick trail in traditional ranchera music over her 42-year career, and is the first female mariachi singer to win a Grammy Award. She is outspoken, too, on her desire to use the honor to support movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, which strive to empower women working in traditionally male-dominated industries. "This needs to happen worldwide," she says (as reported by NBC News). "We have to denounce harassment...Unfortunately we as Mexican women, we tend to stay silent. Latinos stay sort of silent with all of this."

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."

Sasha Waltz & Guests, Körper
Later in the month, Berkeley audiences have the rare chance to experience Körper (Bodies) by the revolutionary German choreographer Sasha Waltz, who has just assumed co-directorship of the Berlin State Ballet—"one of very few women in the world," Bailis points out, "appointed to such a role, just as she was nearly 20 years ago, when she became co-director at Berlin's respected Schaubühne Theater." It was at Schaubühne, in 2000, that Waltz premiered Körper during her first season as artistic director, and now she revives the work at another pivotal point in her career. Körper examines the human body, sometimes en masse with a company of 13 male and female dancers stripped bare, sometimes scrutinizing the individual form. At times she creates a series of living tableaux, investigating themes of mortality, physical appearance, reproduction, and bioethics. A powerful work by a visionary artist, Körper challenges our notions of physicality and corporeality in a bold celebration of the human body.

Big Dance Theater, 17c
Annie-B Parson, co-director (with Paul Lazar) of the New York City-based Big Dance Theater, conceived and directed 17c (slated for performances in the intimate setting of Zellerbach Playhouse), a reimagining of Samuel Pepys' famous diaries as seen through a feminist lens. Pepys, the 17th-century government administrator and member of Parliament, obsessively recorded every aspect of his daily life in his journals, including his sexual encounters with numerous women (one of them his wife's chambermaid). But since Pepys viewed these women as little more than peripheral objects of desire, here Parson shifts the focus to them, giving them voice, humanity, and physical presence.

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.

Nicola Benedetti
Like Aida Cuevas, Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti commands the stage as a powerful woman working on her own terms. A tireless campaigner for music education, "Nicola is reframing the role of a classical instrumentalist in a field still largely dominated by men, particularly through positions of artistic leadership," says Bailis. Whether in the earliest days of her career, which began at the age of eight, as concertmaster of the National Children's Orchestra of Great Britain, as an active patron of Sistema Scotland (which has established youth orchestras in some of the country's poorest communities), or as the youngest person yet to receive the Queen's Medal for Music, Benedetti has always forged her own distinctive path. Her Berkeley program includes iconic works long associated with male violinists: Prokofiev's Sonata No. 2, which the great David Oistrakh premiered in its violin version (it was he who persuaded Prokofiev to adapt his flute sonata for violin); Richard Strauss' Violin Sonata, made famous by Jascha Heifetz; Bach's Chaconne from his Partita No. 2, which Yehudi Menuhin and Mischa Elman popularized; and a new work by Wynton Marsalis, receiving its West Coast premiere. Benedetti's fresh interpretations of these classical works reclaim them for a new generation.

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."

Quote Unquote Collective, Mouthpiece
In Mouthpiece, the Quote Unquote Collective acknowledges that women can be their own worst enemies—in critiquing their own bodies, in silencing their own voices, in sabotaging their own progress. Nostbakken has spoken about how the idea for Mouthpiece sprang from Sadava's and her own honest self-exploration: "When we looked inside ourselves, we realized what massive hypocrites we are, that we thought we were liberal, free, progressive young women, but realized that we were throwing women under the bus all the time, and were totally under the thumb of the patriarchy." Mouthpiece examines the fundamental mother-daughter relationship and how, on a daily basis, gender informs language, movement, expression, and our most fundamental human interactions.

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