“JUCK” ©Märta Thisner

Expelling Oppression with a Loving Thrust.

“JUCK” — something between a celebratory techno-ritual, trauma release therapy, and a total exorcism of patriarchy — is more than a powerful, and finely tuned performance. The work, which featured at Tanztage Berlin 2020, is a survival strategy to ensure community and joy in the face of oppressive systems.

I invited a friend to come and watch “JUCK” with me, but after reading the blurb, she replied: “I don’t know. It looks a bit silly.” The etymology of the word ‘silly’ is interesting. It originally meant ‘happy’, ‘fortuitous’, ‘blessed’, orblissful’. Only in the 1300s did the meaning change towards ‘foolish’, ‘pitiable’, or ‘feeble-minded’. If we take ‘silly’ in its original meaning, then “JUCK” is very silly indeed, a blessed and blissful gift that lasts just under an hour.

I have to admit that I had my own pre-performance apprehensions from the online description, although they were not about potential silliness. Instead, I was mildly concerned about the claim that the piece is a ‘manifestation of female sexuality that frees itself from the male gaze without apology’. Freeing oneself from the male gaze is no small task. It is tricky terrain. Patriarchy is complex and shifty. I feel like I have witnessed so many performers attempting to perform expressions of female sexuality (whatever that may mean) which are intended to emancipate, only to have them insidiously absorbed back into an unchanged power dynamic with the male gaze still in full control.

In “JUCK”, however, the gaze is an integral feature of the work, as the ensemble (Feyona Naluzzi Thylander, Sepideh Khodarahmi, Tarika Wahlberg, Cajsa Godée, Madeleine Ngoma, Emelie Enlund, and Shirley Harthey Ubilla) use the strategy of looking back. In doing so, they open up a space where power relations are unstable and changing. What’s more, through a cultivation of the collective, they not only upset archetypal images of ‘the feminine’, but also queer concepts of female sexuality in a way that makes this work explosively feminist, taking it beyond the gender binary. 

The opening scene feels like walking straight into a pre-teen sleepover. A pop song is pumping, and the performers are already on stage, lounging about, talking with each other, exchanging secret jokes, and staring down the audience with flirtatious or aggressive looks. It’s a gentle warm-up, but now that I think about it, it’s also a preparation for battle. As one of the performers opens the show with a spectacular lip-sync to Janet Jackson’s “Together Again”, it suddenly occurs to me that lip-syncing to pop songs used to be a regular pastime for my older sisters and me. When exactly did our playful practice end? And why does this joyful lip-sync of “Together Again” feel like a potential weapon, a tool of resistance? To me, it’s a song that pays homage to those who are no longer with us, and also somehow speaks to a collective consciousness. This anthemic opening feels like both a prayer and a blessing for those who have gone before us, and for what is about to happen.

The song cuts off abruptly, and the energy comes down. In the ensuing silence, the dancers begin adopting poses straight out of hetero-normative culture and fashion magazines. It’s like I am getting a little reminder of all the positions, postures, and ways of being that capitalist culture requires us to fulfil. The delivery of the postures speed up, becoming a kind of dance where certain provocative gestures transmute into something else, something more violent and powerful. Buried in these flashing images, which often reference normative depictions of femininity, I also catch glimpses of gestures that suggest violence towards femme-ness: the creepy leer, the predatory tongue-wiggle, the dude who grabs his junk and shoves his groin at you. In fact, the groin as a motif becomes more and more prominent, and I can’t help but think of the catchphrase “this pussy grabs back”. Through their dance, the performers manage to somehow transform the violence that is often enacted upon the sex of femme-identifying persons into an alchemical mix of anger, love and creative power, and the multi-layered displays of masc-aggression and coquettish-schoolgirl morph into the manifestation of some Almighty Goddess.

The whirlwind of activity is regularly punctuated by the power pose and a stare down. The performers gather very close to the first row of the audience in an orchestrated group stance — the kind you’d see on the cover of a Destiny’s Child album — and take a long moment to look at us, the audience. There is no one look, however. The exact nature of their gaze varies according to who is looking and who is being looked at. After at least 20 minutes of unleashing this many-headed beast of gendered representation in a patriarchal structure — and taking the time to pause to look at us, looking at them, looking at it, all together — we finally get to that holy juck whereby the bodies of the performers spit out their truth.

The stage darkens and the womxn gather in a neat formation, beautifully lit like the Second Coming. With their feet planted in a wide stance, their arms at their sides and slightly pulled back, their hands in tight fists, and their chins lifted, ever so slightly, almost invisibly, their pelvises begin to move back and forth in perfect unison. The thrusting builds, the movement becoming a larger and more powerful, hitting hard on each boom of the growing techno beat. I get goose bumps. It’s as though these witchy-womxn are summoning the many ways in which femininity (and masculinity?) is produced and consumed, and are then systematically shaking it free from their bodies with each and every pelvic punch.

This exorcism of patriarchy feels like a very simple and do-able practice, a daily purge, straight from the groin. In fact, more than once, while writing this text and wrought with my usual insecurities, I take a break from my screen, stand up and thrust at my reflection in the window, shaking off whatever residual fear I have of my own voice. To me at least, it’s a revelation.

But it’s not just the thrusts and it’s not just the looks. There is something more at play here. The closeness of the group, the ways in which they know each other, hold each other, and allow space for each other, all make this ritual very real. It’s this that makes the magic work. For the remainder of the piece, the thrusting continues, but it manifests differently with each individual. There are moments of collective thrusting in unison, but there is also individual thrusting, solo thrusting, slow thrusting, unseen thrusting, thrusting with the voice, the lungs, the solar plexus, the face, the tongue, the fists. They are all an active and repeated response to process the different ways in which each performer has experienced oppression.

“JUCK” is a performance — and a practice — that not only offers up opposition and resistance, but also an exquisite and sensual hope. I am, quite frankly, filled with gratitude to have started my year witnessing six blessed individuals onstage bringing us a message that, with a simple pelvic thrust and a focus on communal support, power can be reclaimed.