“The art of rope bondage, interpreted by some of the most innovative performers in the international scene! […] Join this unique experience and discover unknown possibilities! With the performance background from dance and circus you will experience a liaison of arts!“
The last EURIX – an event dedicated to Bondage/Shibari/Kinbaku – presented its third edition of „‘Rope Artists International‘ Rope Bondage Performance Festival“, which aims to bring the performative aspects of rope bondage to the stage. „For this edition we matched rope performers with experts in the field of professional performance and invited them to research on the threshold between art and kink” explains the event’s description, and further: “As the focus of EURIX is on creativity and innovation and is joined by the most advanced of riggers and models, the performance program displays not only high level technical skills, but presents also the latest findings of the aest[het]ical and theatrical research around bondage.”
That sounds like MoMA, Berliner Festspiele, Friedrichstadtpalast, David Blaine or Cirque du Soleil. Maybe it sounds a bit like an advertisement for the new Thermomix, since something wants to sell itself to me here. The demands and expectations are equivalently high.
Bondage on stage is a challenge in itself. Starting from the fact that bondage is always performative even without stage and audience, because it carries out an action in a formalized way, the question arises: Why perform a performance? What added value can this give?* Is the staging, light show and €15 entrance fee enough to convince us that what we are about to see is built for high art stage shows? The magic of bondage lies arguably in its investigation of intimacy, in its sensually-invasive methods of doing something with a body, until this body proves itself to be leaky and overflowing: showing sweat, shivers, blush, tears… Not in a planned presentation, since those leaky qualities can be very subtle and essentially uncontrollable.
In contrast to that: Is bigger, better? Does making a rope scene into a stage piece open up some new dimension of experience or interpretation? And what might the audience be looking for when they are visiting bondageperformances? Arousal, innovation, inspiration, analysis of gender dynamics, technical input?
After Felix Ruckert – curator of this event – announces the artists and kindly asks everybody to refrain from small talk from now on, the space darkens and the stage becomes illuminated. Highlight of the opening performance is the groovy and energetic rhythm of the live drummer, who supports the rigger’s movements with his sounds. We observe how a woman is being maneuvered out of a box limb by limb with the help of suspension lines. Maybe a bit like conjuring a rabbit out of a magician’s hat, only without inspiring the audience’s awe, since the unveiling happens too slowly. Maybe a bit like rummaging around in the attic, pulling out puppets out of old shoeboxes – but for this the action happens too fast again and there is not enough of a nostalgic, dreamy mood about it. The rigger, wearing a round red nose and a cylinder (fulfilling the announcement of circus art and buffoonery…), celebrates every finalized movements of his with an accentuated drum hit and the audience’s cheers, provoked by his proudly opened arms. Why is he doing this? Is it self-irony and the attempt to dismantle the exaggerated rhetoric of the advertising text, because nothing really astonishing happens, but one can still generate applause as if at the push of a button?
The second presentation addresses the subject of nostalgia more decidedly. The two performers don’t enter the stage as rigger and model, but as two children, showing each other affection by annoying each other. It all begins with her cheekily snatching his book from him. As a punishment he sneaks up on her – supported by Western film music – with a kind of lasso, catches and ties her up, while she mimics sullenness – so it’s not about authentic emotions.
Satisfied with his punitive ritual, he fetches further tormenting tools, but she uses his exit to escape and take revenge on her tormentor, to catch him with a rope and hang him up. As the tables are turned, power and gender relations also change: She takes off her dress and his hat to put the hat on herself and put the dress on him. That moment is lovely, because it’s always refreshing to see heteronormative and patriarchal relations in rope bondage being addressed, satirized, broken, reflected (“Especially bearing in mind the gendered dumbfuckery we are about to be subjected to… But more of that later” – remark by my dear friend Becky 😊 ). And because the two fill this moment with charming humour, especially when she puts on his trousers and unfolds a bundle of rope and – contrary to our expectations – is not decoiling it to tie him up even more, but to stuff it into her crotch and present it laddishly.
It’s a pleasure to see that childishness is being addressed, since one senses, that many EURIX-participants have somehow already discovered their enthusiasm for bondage at a young age and that children’s games such as ‘cops and robbers’ or boy/girl scout-games contain much of what attracts grownups to rope festivals like these.
Such moment could have been poignant, but they were unfortunately lost due to bad timing and dramaturgy. It all could have been more crisp, especially because the concept and the idea of the childlike seems to be more important than certain bondage techniques worthy of performance.
At this moment of the evening I have the feeling that none of this would have been a problem if there hadn’t been the big, bloated announcement that what is presented to us is „an emerging art form that infiltrates the stages of the performing arts and fuses dance and theatre with the technical knowledge, virtuosity and the aesthetics of contemporary Shibari“. Doesn’t the heart of EURIX lie in its self-curation, the low-key, creative and bright DIY-processes, the spontaneous following of interests buzzing in space, the improvised playground character based on trial and error? The performances could work in a similar mode, because the whole thing appears a bit like a school performance by the theatre company that initiates the big summer holidays – and it’s precisely this delightful improvised spirit that should not be hidden behind posh announcements, which are wide of the mark of what could be understood as the strength and specialty of ‘Rope Art’ so far.
In other words, if what was presented here had taken place during a jam somewhere in the room, then discovering such an inventive game would have been amazing! And perhaps the stage performance would also work if it didn’t try to market itself as a high-end art, but rather pays tribute to the scene’s likeable idiosyncrasies. Here something is apparently still inventing and not perfected. Why not make it transparent and celebrate it? In this manner there was a rupture between the announcement and what was presented.
The final performance was a game changer, though. I know that many people were pretty deflated, even angry about its presented patriarchal gender dynamics, that we are so tired to see being reenacted in this lame manner time and again. And I would absolutely agree – but for me this whole thing had a special twist. The stereotypes were so radically fulfilled and actually hysterically surpassed that it basically parodied itself – even if probably not intended to do so. The typical image of the big bad man, who torments the dainty, surrendered woman, appeared more like an operetta, with its loud action film music and Halloween-mood spreading violet illuminations, which (despite the here most impressive bondage techniques) cannot be taken seriously. This one-dimensional consistency, this stubbornness and resistance to advice caused my incredulous amazement. I probably reacted with a similar fascination with which Susan Sontag describes the aesthetic category of „Camp„:
“Indeed the essence of Camp is its love […] of artifice and exaggeration […] I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. […] The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious. The Art Nouveau craftsman who makes a lamp with a snake coiled around it is not kidding, nor is he trying to be charming. He is saying, in all earnestness: Voilà! the Orient! […] In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails.”
It’s so terrible and repulsive that it’s good again. I have to admit that I would attribute the last performance to this fascinatingly serious Art Nouveau snake lamp aesthetic.
During a past EURIX, a similarly exaggerated and uninspiring ‘mean strong man – weak suffering woman’ dynamic was performed, which disappointed me above all because it had no distance to itself and therefore left no space for me as a spectator to be surprised, to get into thinking. The formal, aesthetic choices: costumes, body types, drama, light, music – it all matched too predictably perfect to each other, without exciting, inviting irritations. This year, however, this style was so over the top, so in-your-face that I actually had a lot of fun watching it – because it was also so simply honest and direct! I might be overinterpreting (I definitely am), but it reminded me of the characters in Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre: just so clearly and unambiguously representing problematic social circumstances, forcing the audience to see their world as it is.
There is this person who is really convinced that what he is doing is the real deal and totally wicked, and just enjoys himself doing it – what made this superficial performance weirdly authentic. It would have only been perfected if the rigger’s macho-style wristwatch would have been bigger and if he hadn’t used any ropes at all, just his firm hand’s grip and strong arms to throw his model over his shoulder, “beating her ass and then taking a big manly dump” (quoting the fabulous Becky again).
Rope Art‘ without ‚Rope‘ or simply without the claim to ‚Art‘ would have been the most convincing then.
FrlLilly & Seilartig & -sunstrider (Berlin/ Zurich)
Alex Mino & Rosalie Lello Li & Stefano Taiuti (Marseille/Berlin)
Boris Mosafir & Human Chuo & Denjamy Djovanny (St. Petersburg/ Paris)
*It is performative when bondage happens intentionally (i.e. it is not the arbitrary tangling in a ball of wool that is meant), using the right measure and dosage, staging a scene with sequences following dramaturgical decisions. Then rope bondage is theatrical per se, similar to flogging: “When the whip is raised, when leather and cane strike against covered or naked flesh, we stand before a stage – a stage on which a ritual unfolds. This happens not only with the thief or adulteress whipped as examples before the crowd, and not only in the erotic displays that amuse the jaded libertine, but equally so for the solitary hermit in the desert who beats his limbs raw before the eye’s of God. Wherever the flogger and his victim appear, they inhabit a space that becomes the site of a drama by way of this ritual inflicted on the body”. (Niklaus Largier: In praise of the whip. A Cultural History of Arousal, 2017.)
Picture by Hannes Wiedemann