Through beautifully poetic movements and engaging drama, Jasmin Vardimon has created a unique choreographic voice that enables her to explore deeply controversial social and political discourse. I had the pleasure of attending the opening show for her latest creation Medusa, a highly conceptual performance enriched with deep symbolism and motifs which offer an acute observation of human behaviour. The performance is both a visually stunning art piece with fluid and graceful movements, as well as being a learning experience for audience members as we tapped into our emotional and creative intelligence in order to digest Medusa’s many layers of symbolism. The only shame is that the performance was in theatre for such a short period of time. The quality of choreography, the passion of the dancers, and the standard of sound and light technicians was nothing less than sensational, bringing the myth of Medusa into the modern day.
Few recall the origin story of our feminine archetype, remembering her solely as the monster who turns men to stone. However, this is only one aspect of her narrative. A mortal woman transformed into a mute by jealous and lustful Gods. Vardimon’s Medusa focuses on the creation of the myth, rather than the image of the monster itself. First appearing in Ovid’s 15 book long poem Metamorphoses, Medusa began a beautiful human girl, raped by Poseidon, and subsequently turned into the monster we are all familiar with by the vengeance of the jealous Athena. The performance did not censor the discussion of rape, making it – at times – uncomfortable to watch. Nevertheless, it is a necessary confrontation of the ultimate manifestation of male dominance, which allows us to deepen our understanding of the Medusa archetype.
~ A myth dismissed as the onset of primitive imagination ~
In Jungian psychology, myths arise as a key component to the evolution of the collective consciousness (almost like a shared psychological awareness). Myths allow for healing and understanding of a damaged and suppressed subconscious through physical and verbal enactment. Focusing on the myth of Medusa, there is more depth to the archetype that we often mistake as another cautionary tale surrounding the dangers of female seduction (like that of Eve’s). After experiencing Vardimon’s Medusa, I felt inspired to explore the much deeper nature behind the powerful feminine symbol.
Gaze is a significant aspect of the Medusa archetype. Her ability to turn people to stone signifies the stillness inherent to self-reflection. But, this reflection tends to show us aspects of ourselves that we cannot stand to bear witness to, and so we hide them deep within our psyche. We respond to Medusa’s allusive gaze with fear, a fear that the gaze of our deeply suppressed subconsciousness may destroy us completely. Specifically, Medusa’s creation story stirs discussion around a womans relationship to patriarchal assimilation, becoming the gaze of the abused feminine consciousness. Medusa lurks in the shadows, like women lurk in the shadow of man. Femininity always hidden by the shadow of patriarchy. Vardimon’s Medusa addresses this discourse both indirectly, as the women wear black pantsuits, but it is also directly addressed in the early dialogue of the performance. To paraphrase, ‘We all have a shadow, a woman resides in my shadow – never allowed to be greater than me, the man, who stands tall in the light. Thus, a woman, living in the dark, can never cast a shadow of her own’. The identity of the woman is bound to the existence of the man, always the submissive, always the inferior, always the suppressed.
Shame, rejection, guilt, insignificance, inferiority, fear.
States of being embodied by Medusa.
Not only does Medusa symbolise reflection and stillness but, rather paradoxically, she also represents fluidity and the concept of transformation. She brings awareness that we live in a liquid society, comprised of fluid beings permanently in a state of change and evolution. This can incite fear into a suppressive patriarchal world, labelling Medusa as a deity of death and destruction. But transformation is more complex than simply catastrophe. The snakes on her head suggesting fertility and fruitfulness, as life transcends death. It may help to recall the ancient Ouroboro, an image of the snake eating its own tale, symbolic of eternal self-renewal, and the concept of creation emerging from destruction.
Vardimon had the difficulty of creating the multi-layered symbol of Medusa in a clear and concise way, and yet, upon some reflection, I believe her attempt was profitable. As Medusa is a transitory character, performer Patricia Hastewell Puig adopted many guises to articulate her nature. At first, Patricia’s head was wrapped in a thick rope to illustrate entrapment, as well as a sense of inward reflection. As the performance developed, Medusa’s image became more fluid, as dancers used their hands to bring to life the image of the snakes, moving from entrapment to freedom. This transition exaggerated the fluidity and transformative nature of Medusa. A creative play on a classic. Patricia takes the rope once wrapped around her face and coils it around her oppressor Athena, a testimony of human perseverance and growth against the strength of a God. Thus, Vardimon’s direction renders Medusa human once more.
Following the intensity of the performance, we had the pleasure of participating in an intimate and laidback Q&A with the director and dancers themselves, gaining rich insight into the personal motivations behind such beautifully powerful art.
There is so much more to Medusa than the myth. Director Jasmin Vardimon spoke directly on the social significance of the figure Medusa, which allows the story to be persistently re-told and re-interpreted. Vardimon translates a contemporary understanding onto the face of classical mythology by attempting to deconstruct the modern day misogynistic perception of Medusa – citing the example of Donald Trump referring to Hilary Clinton as Medusa in a derogatory attempt to silence her autonomy. Coming from an understanding of Ovid’s poem, and thus Medusa’s creation story, this both perplexed and inspired Vardimon. Though Vardimon also perceives Medusa, not only as a key archetype in today’s discussion of gender politics, but also understands her nautical connotations which draw upon our current discussions surrounding the environment. In 28 different languages the word medusa translates into ‘Jellyfish’, a creature that has been around 700 million years, the longest surviving on planet earth. In fact, scientists believe jellyfish will be the sole survivor of climate change, as they flourish with the warmer waters. The fluidity of the dance movements incorporated into the performance, with the addition of plastic sheets, beautifully enacted the movement of waves. The gradual devastation of climate change runs alongside Medusa’s transitory narrative, the closing image being one of intoxication – the tragic beauty of both Medusa and Mother Earth, intertwining the two individual tensions of gender and environment. Interestingly, Medusa actually began with Vardimon’s desire to address the problem of climate change and pollution – the myth of Medusa later emerged from a brainstorm with the dancers.
The eight creative dancers come from varying walks of life, with all different kinds of backgrounds including Barcelona, Scotland, Belgium, Croatia, Australia and so on. The combination of unique and individual cultural, political and theatrical perceptions contributed to the power of the poetic piece. The choreography developed as Vardimon would open dialogue with the dancers, bouncing ideas off one another until they create stable foundations to rest their narrative upon. It took a total of three months to perfect the final choreography, showing the hard work and dedication that went into the performance.
Originally Medusa was intended to be an all-female cast, but later saw the addition of male dancers as Vardimon found it difficult to explore all the discussions that Medusa raises. The male characters in the piece do not come across well, rather, predatory, vulgar, and crass. When talking about the difficulty of embodying such antagonising roles, central male dancer Joshua Smith believes that performance art provides safety in exploring and experimenting with such difficult and sensitive social topics. He finds it humbling to be given the opportunity to express his own insight on such important political debates. Joshua offered an interesting interpretation of the piece, as he perceived the robotic movements incorporated into the performance to be a reflection of the increasingly robotic nature of human experience. ‘The ability to connect on a human level is deteriorating, while technological communication expands.’ He then went on to discuss the growing popularity of human-like robotic dolls, debating their possible impact on pre-existing gender tensions.
The beauty of Medusa is the layering of interpretations and meanings that are built upon the classical Greek myth. The director, the dancers, and the audience members are given the space to explore and understand the significance of the feminine archetype. If Medusa is the representation of perception and reflection—the gaze of another upon us stirring self-consciousness —then to what can the audience relate the most? The feminine rage? The doll-like housewife? The robotic state of being? The primal males? What we connect with most during the performance, our own unique take, reveals the deeply hidden parts of our own psyche. The very heart of Vardimon’s Medusa is not the retelling of a mythological narrative, but rather a poetic deconstruction of a powerful feminine symbol.
Medusa, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Monday 22nd October – Wednesday 24th October.
Words by Briony Willis.
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