In the opening scene of Beth Corning’s new piece Right of Way, Corning dances a pas de deux with a series of descriptive words that are immediately recognizable as “gendered”: positive terms that get used to describe men (like “strong” and “virile”) cascade and cavort with the more negative attributions given to women (“overbearing”; “slut”; “bitch”). The words draw her on; she pushes back. Her body is shaped and pressured by the language; she tries to shove the words aside.
It’s an eloquent opening for a piece that seeks to examine the performative nature of gender identity. Taking more than one cue from Judith Butler, Corning’s opening emphasizes that gender roles are pre-scripted for us by social expectation; from there, Right of Way proceeds to demonstrate – through a series of short dance-plus-spoken-word vignettes – Butler’s central insight that gender is an act, a series of socially constrained and compelled performances that fabricate the fiction of a gender identity.
Corning’s partner in this work is the terrific local drag artist Jezebel Bebbington D’Opulence. In the first half of the show, both dancers appear sans makeup and glitz, in matching drab shapeless costumes, a move that signals clearly their refusal to “perform” a gendered identity, even as a voiceover insists on asking subjects how they identify themselves. But social expectations aren’t easily refused; a solo by D’Opulence reveals the challenges she faced growing up as a girl in a boy’s body in Puerto Rico, and another featuring Corning centers on the ways women, needing to be ever-vigilant of their safety, are refused the “privilege of obliviousness” that gives men full access to public space.
The second half of the show throws the performance of gender into high relief. D’Opulence emerges like a butterfly out of a cocoon, a Tina Turner lookalike in a bright red bra, tight sequined dress, and fantastically high spiked heels, and proceeds to read from Butler about how drag exemplifies the performative nature of gender identity. The incongruity between D’Opulence’s glam presence and the density of Butler’s prose is amusing, but I’m not sure we needed Butler to get the point: D’Opulence’s subsequent near-flawless lip-sync of Turner’s Proud Mary, juxtaposed immediately after by Corning’s rather less successful attempt to strut around in a tight skirt and high heels “doing” sexy womanliness cements the point home in a more spectacular manner. Femininity’s a performance, and just because you’re born with the right plumbing doesn’t mean it comes easy to you.