“Neptune”, LoisAlexander ©Gerhard Ludwig

An Elegant and Generous Denial.

“Neptune”, a 45-minute solo by Lois Alexander in collaboration with Nina Kay, premiered on 8 January 2020 at Sophiensæle in the framework of Tanztage Berlin

I read the online-blurb about the performance in preparation, yet still walk into the Hochzeitssaal at the Sophiensæle unsure of what to expect. I only know that ‘Lois Alexander uses water and its transformational qualities as points of departure to reflect on her position as woman belonging to a minority.’ Despite the ambiguous expectation this sentence set up, the very particular world that “Neptune” created catches me by surprise. This work keeps unfolding for me, and, as I find myself reflecting on my memories of the performance, new thoughts float to the surface. 

Lois Alexander is already on stage as the audience enters, seated on the floor in a position that reminds me of a mermaid. Nine large blocks of ice, frozen into metal chains are suspended from the ceiling. They hang around her, silent and very still, quietly melting. In front of her, lying on the floor, is a flat, oval object that might be a pool or a mirror. The audience is chatty as they enter, and I’m intrigued by the pre-performance situation. The performer is already on stage, moving her arms subtly and precisely — is she casting a spell? — yet the audience has not fully arrived and their attention is not yet focussed. She is already performing, but the performance has not quite begun. This in-between moment seems somehow poignant to me, causing me to reflect on the politics of performance, visibility, the body and that strange moment when collective attention marks the beginning of something.

Once the audience finally settles, quiet and watching, Alexander shifts from in/visibility into full presence. She lifts the flat oval object and we see it is indeed a mirror, which she holds close to her body, the reflecting surface facing us. She moves it slowly, casting refracted stage-light across the audience, steady like a lighthouse. Every now and then, as it passes over my eyes, I am temporarily blinded. Is it a warning? A calling? A moment to consider ourselves? An inversion of the gaze? 

Alexander then performs a short duet with the mirror. It becomes a tool to erase and then re-build her body in different configurations. Depending on how she holds the mirror, she can distort her own appearance; a third leg appears or her head is erased. These tricks evoke something of the way in which bodies — and in this case, a femme-presenting brown body — are designed and (de-/re-)constructed, often by an outside gaze. Here, Alexander is authoring her own visual de/construction with a solemn skill and dexterity. She moves in a way that would be machine-like if it weren’t so fluid. I’m in the first row and feel almost shy to be so close to such an athletic and highly capable body. But although the piece is incredibly physically demanding, it never comes across as rushed or as a spectacle for its own sake. Instead it conveys a certain contained intention, with a meticulous intensity behind every movement.  

In the scenes that follow, Alexander’s body builds geometric shapes, which then mutate or collapse. At one point, she takes a chain in her hands, and holds it up like a trophy or a feather boa. I see a triumphant gymnast, a model on the catwalk, the black power salute. The specific nature of the choreography makes the work figural — almost photographic in nature — and I feel as though Alexander has carefully chosen each and every one of these images, slipping smoothly through and between them, constructing herself anew with every transformation. 

The melting ice marks our time together, provoking a sense of foreboding, an invisible urgency, and every time my eye falls on one of these ice blocks, I can’t help but think of the present Climate Emergency. The chains create a visual backdrop that summons up the past, the history of slavery, on which our current global structures are built. 

The electronic soundscape, composed by Shannon Sea, is spacious; sounds move through the space, sometimes loud and crashing, sometimes trickling, sometime silent — it ebbs and flows. I think of Neptune, Roman god of the sea, counterpart to the Greek Poseidon. But I also think of the planet Neptune, the Ice Giant, the most distant planet in our solar system, and the only one (since the reclassifying of Pluto to a minor planet in 2006) invisible to the unaided eye. In astrology, Neptune is often associated with spirituality, transcendence, and the ability to dissolve boundaries. I re-count the nine hanging ice-rocks, and think of the planets. 

About halfway through the work, Alexander pushes each block of ice, upsetting its equilibrium. As the chains swing back and forth, the whole stage seems to teeter. The puddles grow, and Alexander slides through them across the stage. Something is definitely slipping, but still, Alexander is fully in control. As the performance draws to a close, she uneventfully removes her clothes, takes a large chunk of ice and holds it close to her body, rubbing it across her skin. She closes the piece with a poem from Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip, and I find myself thinking about the healing properties of ice (and poetry), and then the ways in which pain is a necessary feature of healing. 

“Neptune” is a piece in which it is difficult to separate the performer from the performance. Through the choreography, and even more so with her commanding performance quality, I feel as though Alexander has crafted a subtle and unique language to speak of her history and position as a woman of colour in our current society. It is a language that is stripped bare, almost emptyIt is strictly contained, yet also somehow loaded with rich metaphor and imagery. Something in this work feels both held and yet withheldand despite the fact that Alexander gives her all to the performance, there remains a certain denial. It is an elegant, generous, and perfectly executed denial — and that, I think, is where the strength of this work lies.