Content warning: this article contains mentions of sexual assault.
I would like to begin this review by saying that I have never struggled so much to put my thoughts to paper. After Jasmin Vardimon’s Medusa ended, even after the lights went up and the four rounds of deafening applause ended, I could find no words to react to what I had just seen. I was stunned.
The show is advertised as a reinterpretation of the ancient myth of Medusa (a classic girl-meets-boy, boy-rapes-girl, girl-gets-punished-and-turned-into-a-terrifying-monster story). Yet it’s not a narrative and no single dancer takes the titular role: as stated by Armando Rotondi in the programme, everyone is Medusa and ‘everyone is an antagonist’. The piece takes aspects from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and incorporates them into a striking conceptual representation of transformation, movement and stasis, and the concept of the gaze (both male and female; objectifying and vengeful).
With this in mind, the piece is one flowing sequence of tableaus portraying transformation and abuse, revenge and love, all in constant movement. Every aspect of the dance is in flux, even down to the stage itself. The opening sequence is visually striking, with Jasmine Orr in an ocean made of plastic sheeting which mirrors her own movements. Eventually, the platform she is standing on moves as well, lifting and turning her so that she becomes something of a sea witch who brings forth life from the rushing waters around her.
This magic permeates the work in its entirety. Moments are imbued with such entrancing grace that I was unable to tear my eyes away. I particularly enjoyed the moments when all the dancers were in sync: it effectively brought across the way in which bodies are given over to movement before thought or individuality.
I also enjoyed the way that the production incorporated sound. The plastic ocean creates a rustling effect that mirrors the real thing; the dancers create sounds to mimic waves, a whip cracking, or tree branches in the wind (though the sneezing sequence veers on the maddening). Joshua Smith’s speeches are also interesting in their contrast with the medium of dance. He speaks on the perpetual plight of women unable to rise in society, and the idea of the gaze, that which makes us aware that ‘we exist as objects for other subjects’. The irony of this statement as he wades through female dancers is not lost on us.
Indeed, Vardimon’s work heavily incorporates feminism. In it, women are priestesses, ringleaders, and always, somehow, victims, objects, possessions. They are the stage on which play out the conflicts and desires of men. This is seen most explicitly when Silke Muys intervenes in a fight between Smith and Kieran Shannon, and they along with the rest of the cast turn on her, which turns into the climactic rape scene. I found this incredibly difficult to watch but could not stop looking. The dancers are vocal, making guttural sounds in contrast with Muys’ cries, which shatters that wall between audience and performers built to reassure us that everything is going to be fine. This sequence culminates in the hands that attack Muys becoming Medusa’s iconic snake hair, a movement which emphasises how women are driven to weaponise their trauma.
The plight of women is also conflated with the plight of the environment. Factory chimneys churn out dry ice; environmental motifs operate in the background to the main dances on stage. I particularly enjoyed Lucija Božiević sunbathing whilst wearing a gas mask and four women dancing blissfully among scattered litter like delirious festival-goers. The piece asks us to examine how we poison women, each other, and the environment, and how we continue to accept these acts despite growing evidence showing how they will destroy us.
Certain aspects of the piece do not fit, however. At times, Vardimon’s message comes across over-done (like when Smith dresses Orr in an apron and kitchen gloves – we get it). It is also frankly quite confusing. Though this is likely part of the point, some of the dances and motifs make no sense and add little to the conversation on stage. It’s also unclear what the ending is supposed to provoke: a recognition of Medusa’s healing, or an anti-climactic confrontation between Muys and Patricia Hastewell Puig?
And yet, and yet, the confusion does not in any way detract from the overall effect of the work. It is mesmerising. It jarringly portrays the sheer horror of Medusa’s tale and the savage hunger of men and humanity. It’s also incredibly impressive on a technical level: the use of lighting to cast giant shadows in Puig’s final dance is striking; dancers in black lift up other dancers as the lights go down so that they look like they’re flying. The dancers’ physical strength and acrobatic agility is genuinely jaw-dropping, in particular Smith’s and Shannon’s stag-dance and the shadow sequence between Smith and Puig.
There is so much more that I could discuss about this performance, but I fear it would turn into a dissertation. Suffice to say that should you get the opportunity to go and see this, for the love of God, go. It’s something not of this world.
PHOTOS: Tristram Kenton