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Thursday, 12 March 2015

Echoes _ JOSHA – a portrait – by Orsolya Bálint

JOSHA - the freedom song of a woman

Márta Ladjánszki defines herself as a ‘female creator’, and her choreography JOSHA – a portrait –, is a truly feminine work of art, not just because her solo dancer is the spellbinding Joanna Leśnierowska. We easily identify Josha with Joanna (since the piece is also named after her), but Josha is in fact an imaginary person, with a fictive personality, created partially from the dancer’s movements and stage presence, from the choreographer’s vision and instructions, and also from the scenery and the space she sometimes shares with Zsolt Varga, the musician. 
But who is Josha? This is the question the audience and the performer both ask. 
For us, Josha is a terra incognita, yearning to be discovered. We can only hope to get to know her – to some extent – until the end of the performance, taking us on a journey to explore the external and internal landscape of a person. 
In the opening scene, we see her sitting in the depth of the stage, with her naked back turned to us, in intimate dim light. Wearing only a long blond wig, she looks feminine and teasing, just like a mermaid, or a Selkie, a seal woman from Nordic (among others Irish, Icelandic and Inuit) mythology. She tells a monologue about ending her life just by deciding it, and throwing a party to celebrate her choice, and taking her life into her own hands at last. There she would eat all the food making her fat and unhealthy, and wear all the clothes she always wanted to wear, not minding any criticism, not compromising with real or imaginary standards of society, just letting go of herself. 
The monologue is absurdly funny in its naivety, and poignantly bitter. Why does she have to die to start living like she wants to? Why is it death that has to remind us that we are still alive? Death can be frightening in its finiteness, but at the same time it is the greatest liberation, the transition into ultimate freedom. And Josha is determined to find her freedom, but to break free, she has to fight the invisible demons of self-restriction and self-destruction. When she starts to move, we feel her tension, the heavy pressure making her shoulders slump. She is moving in a space that feels thick and suffocating like mud. It takes her time and effort just to straighten her spine. 
There is a peculiar ambiguity in her being private and (in) public at the same time; the sometimes all too fine lines between Josha playing a role and Josha being herself are blurred. But we do see that she has many roles, and the dynamic dance portrait allows us to see them in a synchronicity – like a real, moving-breathing-thinking person –, as opposed to a static, painted or photo portrait. Sometimes she is seemingly unconsciously switching between the roles, at times deliberately, by putting on high heels, a dress, and changing the dress. 

It is intriguing, that even though we see her mentally dressing down, peeling off the layers of her personality, she starts the performance naked, and puts on the clothes afterwards. Maybe just to show how awkward she feels in those clothes/roles. Or just experimenting with the many roles of a woman, like high heels for the ‘temptress’, and blond wig for the ‘Barbie doll’. 
Each time she puts on something, it becomes her second skin, and for a while we only see her adding more and more layers, creating a more complex, more nuanced portrait of herself, and also evoking the feeling of hiding behind all these skins. She is still not letting go, desperately clinging to her self-imposed restrictions, from which she believes she can create her identity. Or maybe she is only looking for her true ‘soulskin’, just like the Selkie? 
The tale of the seal woman, as retold in Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, is a complex metaphor of a woman’s fate. The seal woman agrees to marry a fisherman, who finds and hides her sealskin (soulskin), with a promise he gives it back to her in seven years, so she can decide which life she chooses. But when the time comes, the husband, being afraid of losing her, refuses to give it back. Being cut off from her true self, she starts to wilt and fade, not even the birth of her child can cheer her up. She is already dying, when her son finds the sealskin and gives it back to her, and after putting it on again, she disappears in the waves of the sea for ever. 
We see in Josha this longing to return to her true self, and being in pain and struggle when she becomes more and more distanced from it. Her movements are broken, just like bumping into invisible walls. She is drawing circles with her hands and feet, like being in an endless cycle. (In fact, a woman’s life is determined by cycles, like the lunar cycles, or the greater cycle of life and death, by giving birth.) How could she find the way back to herself? How could she break the cycles? Does she have to break them at all? 
Meanwhile, the musician Zsolt Varga also enters the stage, leaves and comes back, and leaves again. The minute they are together on stage with Josha, they become man and woman. In their communication, they only seem to reflect, but not really listen to each other, like two separate worlds. She dances self-absorbed; he plays the guitar also self-absorbed, his music is another repetitive cycle. She clearly isn’t dependant on him, maybe she doesn’t need him at all, but he still has an effect on her, making her irresistibly move to his music. He acts like a macho, who doesn’t really care for her either, comes and goes whenever he wishes, but enjoys having power over her, and keeps alluring her with his music, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He seems to be confident and comfortable on stage, like a rock star, while Josha keeps on struggling.
In our time, women are taught from early childhood on, that to get on in a man’s world, we have to fight. Fight like a man. So we can become equal opponents, or even win over the men. We learn to fight, or if it doesn’t work, we find other ways, and manipulate. But this constant fighting or even guarding our defenses forces us to do things and take up roles which may be against our nature, leading ultimately to the loss of our true selves. We become the hostages of the fight for freedom and empowerment.
But there comes a point, when Josha breaks down. She starts to lose her composure and strength, exhausted from the fight, tired of rebelling against the situation, against playing roles, also against the music – she even puts her hand on the guitar to end it. It is an old wisdom, that when you get into a whirlpool in a river, you shouldn’t resist it, but wait to reach the river bottom, so you can push yourself back to the surface. In the moment Josha stops to fight and falls to the ground, she also starts letting go.
The lamp shade coming down from above and landing on top of her head can be a moment of enlightment, or drawing a halo around her head, implying that she went through the transition.  She points with her fingers one by one (still moving in a circle) to the audience and finally to herself, creating a moment of unity, the feeling of a shared experience. The lights (designed by Tomáš Morávek) gradually getting stronger during the performance now all go up at the back of the stage, ‘blinding’ the audience, so we cannot put a distance between ourselves and Josha even by sight anymore.
Márta Ladjánszki believes, “the most exciting thing is to discover our own self through watching somebody else”. I did see myself in Josha. I was shaken and exhausted, as if I went through this journey myself. I realized I was still fighting, the emotions, the tears, trying to keep my composure. It was time to let go, and just be me.  
Orsolya Bálint – KÖM by L1 Association

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