‘A triumph: remarkable, stunning, heart breaking’: Robert Reid on Silvia Calderoni’s extraordinary MDLSX
“I was born twice, I was first one thing and then the other.”
Silvia Calderoni rarely stops moving. Even in the rare moments of stillness, a heart-racing energy pulls muscles and limbs taut. Becoming, always becoming, in conversation with technology, home movie footage, translated surtitles and an audience that feels like its holding its breath for the whole 80 minutes.
MDLSX, from Italian company Motus, is a triumph: remarkable, stunning, heart breaking. It’s an epic journey, the Apollonian and Dionysian intertwined, both Odysseus on his journey and Penelope fending off suitors at home. It’s performed in a torrent of Italian in a dense cloud of hairspray that catches the light as Calderoni sprays it frenziedly around her frozen wild hair. The spray floats out into the theatre, spreading a sticky, sickly sweet note.
A sound track including The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, REM, Talking heads and more give the show a pounding, lyrical heartbeat. Part monologue, part dance and part DJ set, the retro cyberpunk stylings, trippy swirling lights, fluorescent dayglo and silver costumes, mics, cameras, projections, lasers and voice over work together to make MDLSX a living manifesto. It pulls on many texts – Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, Paul B. Preciado’s Countersexual Manifesto – recalling protest marches and demonstrations with their chanted demands for a new social contract. In Calderoni’s recollections of family conversations, Marxism and capitalism carry on a familiar post-1969 debate around the dinner table.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer prize winning novel Middlesex, published in 2002, is loosely based on aspects of Eugenides’ own life. The narrative is closely intertwined with the memoirs of Herculine Barbin, an intersex woman from 19th century France, who is also a character in Caryl Churchill’s Mouthful of Birds. MDLSX is likewise loosely based on events from Calderoni’s life, melded with the narrative from Eugenides’ novel. The performance slides back and forth between the two narratives, blurring the lines between fiction and history, becoming a story that joyously defies arbitrary lines between definitions such as true/false, male/female, live/mediatised…
Assigned female at birth, Barbin was raised in a convent as a girl, but was later “reclassified” as a male after an unlawful affair with a woman resulted in a physical examination. Flat chested and with a body type that is typically recognised as masculine, the doctor’s examination of Barbin in her late twenties revealed she possessed both male and female genitalia. She referred to her gender fluidly, female before the legal determination and male afterwards. In 1868, she was found dead in her home, having gassed herself. Her memoirs were found beside her bed.
According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, (see how far we must stretch to set definitions for the indefinable) intersex people are born with any of several variations of sex characteristics, including chromosomal, hormonal or physical. The medical definition of intersex traits have been controversial and intersex people still regularly face discrimination and stigmatisation, including hormonal and surgical intervention to impose socially accepted sex characteristics.
A proliferation of labels is a sign of crisis in categorical organisation. Binary definitions of gender, sexuality and identity are crumbling in this post-binary era and MDLSX is a deeply intelligent and personal paean to their disintegration. Calderoni’s Motus colleagues and the program notes refer to her using the feminine pronoun and so, for the sake of description, I will too. There’s little information I can find online on how to identify her, but this is unsurprising: Calderoni says in the same interview that “sometimes I dress like a man, sometimes like a woman. I don’t want a label or a classification.” It speaks to the violence inherent in language that I must resort to such a clumsy naming, but this is the prison of definition that MDLSX challenges.
Eugenides’ treatment of Barbin’s story is a coming of age tale. While Eugenides does not identify as intersex, he wrote the novel in reaction to a 1980 translation of Barbin’s memoir and his dissatisfaction with its discussion of intersex people. Middlesex’s protagonist is Cal/Calliope, a Greek intersex man with feminine traits. Among many other things, the novel contains allusions to Greek mythology including creatures such as the Minotaur and Chimera, themes also echoed in Calderoni’s performance.
The first half of the novel focuses on Cal’s family and their migration to the United States, the second half on Cal’s experiences in his Detroit home town and his escape to San Francisco, where he learns to accept his intersex identity. The 14 year old Calliope falls in love with her female best friend, whom she refers to as the “Obscure Object”, but after an accident a doctor discovers that Callie is intersex. Facing the prospect of gender reassignment surgery, she runs away to join a burlesque show. After the club is raided by the police Cal, now identifying as male, is released into the custody of his brother and returns home to learn that their father has died .
Eugenides comments in an NPR interview in 2002 that “Because the story is so far from my own experience, I had to use a lot of details from my own life to ground it in reality, to make it believable for me and then hopefully for the reader, as well. So I would use my own physical appearance. I would use details from my grandparents’ life, the streets they lived on, the kinds of places they lived. And all this made it real for me because it was a tall order to write such a story.”
There are issues here of course of assuming the experience of another person, writing yourself into and, to some extent, over another’s experience; particularly as the experience being represented has historically been the subject of gross distortion and prejudice. In the novel, Cal can enter into his ancestors’ thoughts and feelings, an ability also possessed by Hermaphroditus, the Greek god of Androgyny. Calderoni, in her own way, demonstrates this same ability by slipping in and out of the experiences of the character of Cal.
The lighting, mostly downlights, carves and hollows out the muscles, bones and sinews on Calderoni’s back and arms. She’s strong like a dancer, lithe like an athlete, hunched over the microphones and cameras arranged on a line of tables at the back. A screen on the wall behind shows projections of her face close up and distorted by the camera, performing for us and for the recording eye. The same screen moves through video footage of Calderoni, caught on home video by her obsessively videographing mother, and in footage perhaps shot by the young Calderoni herself, shadowboxing and swimming and preening like a cowboy on a hotel bed.
Just as Cal returns home after the burlesque club raid, so does Calderoni, to her brother’s playful smile. He accepts the sister who has become a brother, cheerfully appropriating gendered norms to demonstrate that nothing really has changed between them, insisting she can “carry your own bags, Bro”. I think we catch an echo that smile in Calderoni’s face, but I can’t be sure this moment isn’t lifted wholesale from the Eugenides. It shouldn’t matter anyway: who we are in the moment can be who we say we are, and our identity can be modelled on others as much as it is shaped by our individual histories.
My smattering of Italian lets me catch recurring words: la donna, l’uomo, il mostro, metamorphosis, rising up out of the rush of text like emphatic notation. The surtitles do a surprisingly good job of keeping up without being too distracting (as always when there are projections and live performance, my eye is restless, bouncing between text, the video and the human in front of me). It makes a kind of visceral sense as a way to experience this show: it’s not unsettled so much as fluid, Cal and Calderoni in dialogue with the media and the way it captures, defines and redraws the past within the now, creating a picture of Cal/deroni, a fragmentary thing that is not proscribed by the limits of the physical body.
In a scene taken from the novel, the hollow, broken sound of Calderoni searching the dictionary in a public library to understand the words used in her doctors file is agonising. Eunuch leads her to hermaphrodite leads her to monster. The word monster screams, chasing Calderoni from the building, and even now is electric with pain and rejection and transformation. Middlesex switches back and forth between first and third person, emphasising the personal and the disassociated nature of a dual experience. MDLSX, on the other hand, remains so embodied, so intensely personal, that its hard to separate the imagined from the biographical, even in the dialogue between the screen and the live performance. Is there really any difference between the two that is more than the decaying insistence on differentiation between humanity, science and politics?
At the beginning of the show, young Calderoni tunelessly sings on the video screen, with her father in the background encouragingly accompanying her. This image is mirrored at the end, when Calderoni, short-haired, transformed by the journey that she has recreated for us, dances with her father. There’s a resolution here where Eugenides’ Cal finds only uncovered secrets and death. “When I die, play The Smiths”, the young Calderoni says early on. The Smiths play at the end to bookend the performance. Please, please, please let me get what I want.
“In beauty,” Calderoni tells us, “there is a little of the monstrous.”
MDLSX by Motus, directed by Enrico Casangrande and Daniela Nicolò. Performed by Silvia Calderoni. presented by Arts House as a part of Midsumma festival. Closed.