The disconnect with our bodies is making us sick. We communicate through disembodied social media and are strangers to one another. As the Coronavirus spreads across Europe, it might sound strange to advocate for a stronger connection with our body and nature, and yet it is through connection that we get to know what our body can do, its vulnerabilities, and how to make it resilient. The exhibition and performance ‘Fabulous Animal’ by dancer and performance artist Zosia Jo is thus unwittingly topical. It is an invitation to rediscover our body without judgment and to find strength by tapping into our animal side.
I have never had a rosy picture of nature. Nature can be terrifying and ruthless. Nature doesn’t ‘need’ us; rather we need nature. We are of nature. Zosia Jo’s invitation to have a more grounded relationship with our body and those of others emphasises strength born of acceptance rather than control. It is a much needed lesson in these times of uncertainty, anxiety, and disconnect.
Some might find it all too abstract, but there’s nothing abstract about the body. The coronavirus spreading illness and panic brings home how we fool ourselves into believing that we are above nature and detached from it. We want to dominate nature even to the point of extinction. We want control over the body. Men, in particular, want to control women’s bodies. They do so through rape and harassment, through restrictive legislation on reproductive health, and through the labels applied to women for what they wear, how they look, and how they move. Zosia Jo wants to ‘shake off the patriarchy’. Yet, her message is for everyone. Women bear the brunt of this ideology of dominance and control, but men are oppressed by this too. The attempt to eliminate vulnerability, repress emotions, and control the body is what makes us weak.
The work of Zosia Jo invites us to stop, watch, and listen to our body. There is an aliveness in the photos and videos of Zosia Jo seeing and experiencing her body as if she has woken up from a long sleep. She plays with her flesh and muscles, with her hair, teeth, and skin. She touches the body of a tree from inside in a sensuous and playful way. She climbs a tree like a monkey. She does not conquer nature, but connects with it.
As a dancer, Zosia Jo tells me that she was always aware of how important the line of the body and the look of the body were. She tells me,
“I got thrust into this world where it was all about ultimately how I looked, even though it’s more complicated than that. I got swept into trying to be thin, trying to be in a certain way. My journey back to performing and dance became a very personal one, one that was about finding myself, empowering myself to feel good about my own body and to dance again. To perform was a big part of that.”
She studied somatic dance, which stresses listening to one’s body to appreciate how movement emerges. She has run workshops for people to experience their bodies without judgment. She has worked extensively with women in Cairo, who rarely get the opportunity to be in a safe and creative space away from the ever-present male gaze. Women are under constant pressure to look pleasing to men. Zosia Jo sought to ‘shake off’ that judgment. She tells me,
“It’s the curiosity about the body, feeling and touching with no judgement, I might be touching the part of body I least like but I have to discover it as if I had no attachment to what that is.”
Zosia Jo listens to her body and only her body. She seems to forget the audience and the camera or, more poignantly, she doesn’t care. Released from the pressure to conform to expectations, be they expectations of beauty, grace, agility, she can breathe freely. Her technique is like breathing, a continuous expanding and pulsating. It’s paying attention to one’s body and only one’s body.
“I wanted to make something that was ugly … let go of this instinct of making something beautiful and just be utterly unrefined. The goal was to be so ugly that is beautiful.”
Yet, she is a performer relying on external validation and enjoying the relationship with the audience. I ask her what she does to communicate how she feels to the public. She tells me,
“Somatic dance can be a bit trippy … I might feel great but I look disempowered, how do I match my own experience with what I’m trying to say to the audience and not look like shrinking and hiding in public space? That is the question.”
It is the connection with animals that makes that communication possible, she asked herself,
“Which animal enabled me to be in the world in such a way that it’s clear I’m taking space or that I’m being empowered? At the same time a feeling good, that is not fake, that is not impersonating a kind of traditionally male sense of what power is or what power looks like, but that I am feeling good.”
Zosia Jo performs the instinctive and earthy character of an animal but juxtaposes with the ‘fabulous’ of queer culture.
“Fabulous … I think of queer culture, dressing up, taking ownership of one’s sexuality. … I like the contrasts between queer culture, glamour, sequins, sparkles, sexuality and shiny expressionism, and animal, which is something earthy and grounded. I loved the seemingly paradox.”
This is what makes it a fun performance. Performance can in itself be liberating. I ask her where she finds the internal validation for this work. She tells me,
“When you listen to physical reality, you can ground yourself and feel grateful just for being present and alive. When you feel what the body can do and get excited about what it can do instead of what it can’t do or instead of what is wrong with it that’s very validating without having to be impressive in any way… It’s not ‘heroic’ movement … moving to the beat, it’s something so human. Everyone can do it.”
Everyone can do it. Everyone can rediscover their body, “wobble all the fat” and have fun with it without fear of judgment, without the need to control it. The empowerment is not in dominating and controlling; the empowerment is in the connection.
Watch the videos of Zosia Jo here.