It’s hard to know what to expect walking into the theatre of Usine C, the site of Steven Cohen’s “Put Your Heart Under Your Feet…And Walk!” To call it a performance is accurate in some regards but makes it seem grander, more outwardly focused than it is. It is at once a performance, a ritual, and an elegy for his partner, Elu. Presented by fugues in association with Johannesbourg + Bordeaux, Cohen has assembled a handful of vignettes interspersed with filmed shorts that when juxtaposed form a gruesome and beautiful encapsulation of mourning.
Cohen is a choreographer, performer and visual artist born in Johannesburg, now living in France. All of these talents are woven together into the self-described “funerary ritual” of the piece. The stage is stark in its beauty and simplicity. Pairs and pairs of ballet shoes, modulated in different forms and shapes, are arranged in rows across the entire stage. A small vanity surrounded by gothic candelabras sits downstage left, evoking a shrine, while a hanging carcass of record players is positioned downstage right. Cohen enters on stilts shaped like hoofs, balancing on top of miniature coffins. The images of this show are painful and filled with meaning. Admirable is his sharp refusal to smooth around the edges of death, using metaphor to wallow in the gross and sticky feelings that come with it.
Filmed shorts are projected along the back wall between the vignettes. These are memorable for how they glow, projected onto Cohen’s body as he walks across the stage in a beautiful, nymph-like costume and makeup, and for their disgusting content.
The program warns that some audience members leave the theatre during these segments, wherein Cohen is shown, in the same costume, spending time in a slaughterhouse. The star of David on his forehead calls to mind his Jewish heritage and one imagines these acts as his form of sitting Shiva. Images of Cohen hanging from chains alongside dead cows are sure to remain lodged if not for their associations than for their sheer audacity. The audience is provoked again and again into investigating their fears around death, around our bodies and their ties to nature. By rolling around in the muck of death, the performer forces us to do the same.
It is not an easy performance to watch. The audience visibly squirmed and at times averted their eyes. Yet it is also hauntingly beautiful. The images, ruthless as they are, support Cohen’s investigative journey surrounding the death of his lover. There is pain in death, as our bodies return to nature, but there is also love in our remembering. That both come shining through in this performance is a testament to the poetry of the artist’s work.
A particular highlight is a scene where he dons a mantle that has four record players attached, each one playing a different mournful song. He slowly walks through the audience, silent and curious, inviting us into his experience. One imagines these were Elu’s favourite songs, or ones which Cohen used to process his grief.
Cohen moves through each scene with the same delicate tenderness, as if he’s afraid of breaking open on stage. He doesn’t speak, save for a short eulogy wherein he claims theatres have replaced temples as the site of rituals. And we realize that, indeed, we have experienced a ritual. As the stage fills with fog and he dances, nymph-like, through it all, we are moved to reflect on the place death fills in our life, where it is allowed, and how we make peace with it. In death, pain and love vie for attention. Processing both is a journey and the best we can do, according to Cohen’s Nanny, is to put our heart under our feet…and walk.
The 13th Annual Festival TransAmériques presents
PUT YOUR HEART UNDER YOUR FEET … AND WALK!
May 27 + 28 + 29 at 8pm
55 minute duration
1345, Avenue Lalonde
514 844 3822 / 1 866 984 3822