For a more enhanced experience, PS122 has committed to commissioning program notes for each major production. We’re hoping that through these writings we can provide a deeper connection to the ideas that are prevalent throughout the work or the artist’s body of work and how these ideas relate to contemporary issues permeating throughout society. Our goal is to foster dialogue so if you feel compelled to share your thoughts, leave a comment.
Program Notes for COIL 2016: Panopticon by Jillian Peña
Written by Katherine Brewer Ball, Assistant Professor of Performance Studies at Wesleyan
Jillian Peña is the love child of The Parent Trap’s twin sisters, Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills. Put another way, Peña’s work is simultaneously perverse, adorable, and demanding. From the dance video triptych, More Than Love (2006), starring up to twenty versions of Peña in one frame, to the rigorous balletic child’s play in Polly Pocket (2014), Peña’s dance is filmic; bodies are edited and choreographed together to create mirroring alignments like the low-fi Brechtian movie magic of Hayley Mills’s mesmerizing debut. Beige and pink spandex covers Peña’s twins, triplets, or quadruplets who inevitably star in every piece. “Like dancers,” Hilton Als writes, “none of us gets over that figure we see in the practice mirror: ourselves. Choosing your twin gives you that reflection forever— or as long as it lasts.” This moment of self-recognition—which Als attaches to queer desire, to a need for an “us,” to a wanting we call twinning—is where Peña is stuck. But she’s stuck on it like she’s sweet on it. Watching Peña’s performances, I am reminded of the deep pleasure of the mimetic, of seeing a look and putting it on your body, of hearing a sound and putting it in my mouth, of moving in step on a sidewalk with a twin who is also a lover. Extending the stage of the practice mirror, Peña asks her audience to sit with the uncanny pleasure of the multiple, a pleasure with deep roots in the history of dance, from the Tiller Girls to the Rockettes.
In The Guiding Light (2012), I watched dancer Cassie Mey’s body multiply into other dancers as the screen behind her cut and echoed the twinning figures. I remember Mey holding her body in an impossible position for the entire show; it could have been that she was on her toes the entire time, moving in tiny steps across the floor, making me feel ballet’s visceral impossibility, its laborious desire to masochistically match. While Peña’s performance pitch does not vibrate right into the audience’s face, it does demand their full attention. She shows us that looking isn’t so sweet: to look is to see a mirror reflection of a virtuosic ballerina, and it is means of cutting or controlling the bodies upon which the gaze rests. Thinking with Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon, I wonder what it means for a dancer’s body to be visually available, to be a sickly sweet pocket-sized object for consumption. As Foucault observes in Discipline and Punish, “Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness […]. Visibility is a trap.” Peña isn’t giving us an answer to the uneven power dynamic of looking, but she catches us in it like a fly in a glue trap, like twins in a parent trap. Bringing onto the stage a queer twinning of children that never want to grow up, Peña’s dancing bodies are everywhere in the flesh and celluloid of her work. But instead of her dances simply giving over to the surveillance and mastery of ordered ballet bodies, Peña’s multiples continue to repeat until we lose the desire for an original singular figure. This cacophony of looking produces a momentary pleasure of plurality, of Narcissus’s excess, on a stage that is both a mirror and a come on.
© Photo by Ian Douglas