Edinburgh Fringe 2013
‘I was born a girl but I know it’s a mistake’. Transgender and the alienated body using the visual approaches of comics and graffiti. A docu-dance, a unique style of street-ballet, hip hop, pop and lock.
Moving fluidly between contemporary dance and mime, S/He Is Nancy Joe tells the story of a young transman growing up in the Czech Republic. Realising at a young age that he isn’t comfortable with his female body, it takes until adulthood for Nancy/Joe to accept himself, and to work out his place in the world. Mirenka Cechova’s performance is emotional and raw, accompanied by a backdrop of hand-drawn animation, and a soundtrack that mixes classic pop songs with European techno and hip-hop.
Watching Cechova, you begin to realise the gendered nature of most, if not all, dance performances. Even in the freshest of contemporary dance shows, men and women are often given gendered roles, either for partnering reasons or thanks to their previous training. But Cechova is emphatically un-feminine, free from any of graceful flourishes usually given to female roles. Her energetic performance is all lanky limbs and abrupt stops, and she often affects a kind of birdlike gawkiness that highlight’s her character’s discomfort in his own body.
There’s no real attempt to disguise the fact that Cechova is female-bodied, which is sort of the point. At times she struts; other times she’s awkward. But at no point does she seem remotely feminine, which makes it particularly effective when her character is finally forced to wear women’s clothing. Up until then the costuming is essentially unisex, and the addition of a traditionally girlish outfit is viscerally uncomfortable.
Miloš Mazal’s animation adds a unique dimension to the performance, allowing Cechova to seemingly duet with her own shadows, or rail against a chorus line of dark, threatening figures. It also allows for a very pared-down set: a screen, some paper, and a wheeled desk that functions as a variety of different props. This is one of those rare shows that could not be improved by additional budget. There’s no need for a complicated set when the background animation gives us clever details like the dancer leaping between the panels of a comicbook like she’s part of the cartoon itself.
One peculiarity was the slightly dated tone. While the confusion and angst of the coming-out process is a powerful subject, Nancy Joe’s ignorance (apparently into adulthood) about the concept of being transgender led me to believe that the show took place in the ‘80s or ‘90s. It wasn’t until a montage of “It Gets Better”-style YouTube videos appeared towards the end that I realised it was set in the present day.
Also, Mazal’s animated illustrations were reminiscent of late 20th century indie autobiographical graphic novelists like Robert Crumb, Joe Matt, or Alison Bechdel: sketchy and simple. The black and white aesthetic was effective, however, since it highlighted the occasional splashes of colour as Cechova was surrounded by a stop-motion animated wave of unwanted menstrual blood, or a mountain of hand-drawn pink antidepressants.
The combination of animation and Cechova’s dancing are enough that the occasional voiceovers are not remotely necessary. In fact, at times they seem to marr the subtlety of her performance, breaking the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell”. After spending an hour watching Nancy/Joe struggle with and eventually accept his desire to be comfortable in his own body, the audience shouldn’t need to be told what he’s feeling. It seemed like an odd choice, considering Cechova’s range of physical expression, and the show would probably be better without any kind of narration at all.
At the end of the performance, Cechova informed the audience that the show was inspired by the experiences of her sister, which makes sense. The mood was painfully truthful, but gave the impression of having been simplified by an outsider’s point of view, meaning that it may seem more powerful to audiences who are unfamiliar with the LGBT experience. However, the fairytale nature of Nancy/Joe’s story is universal: the ugly duckling who finally gets to become a swan.