Crossing the Line

Heather Kravas (top and bottom). Photo: Jason Starkie

The photo above is of Heather Kravas, but not Heather Kravas as she appears in her Kassidy Chism. That Kravas wears a little black dress and reddish pink high-top sneakers. Her lipstick is red and so are her fingernails, but she walks with small steps like a well-behaved little girl. Start trembling now.

Kravas shared the program at Danspace Saint Mark’s—October 6 through 8—with Jeremy Wade, who’s currently based in Berlin, but no stranger to New York’s downtown dance scene. In terms of artistic transgressiveness, they’re kindred spirits. Kravas has watched the YouTube competition routine of ten-year-old hip-hop dancer Kassidy Chism and painstakingly learned it. (the child is several years older now, and that particular video has racked up over a million hits.) Kassidy thrusts her skinny little arms this way and that, lifts her knees high before every stomp, and pumps her pelvis with authority, mouthing and miming the words of the recorded rapper. She’s a non-stop lexicon of moves that mix stereotypical sexy-girl with stereotypical street-smart toughie.

Having performed the number, Kravas proceeds to deconstruct its elements, reducing them to their most primal level. Chism opened her mouth a lot. Kravas opens hers and leaves it that way. Sounds of deep growling and meowing become cacophonal and more mechanical (music by Preshish Moments), while Kravas tilts her head back and tries to stretch her mouth even further. Her pink finger nails become claws. Her cheeks tremble. Her eyes roll up. Saliva trickles down onto her black dress. Hip-hop meets butoh.

Next, Chism’s pelvis captures her attention. Having wheeled a very large mirror into position not far from the audience in Saint Mark’s Church and re-angled one of two big Klieg lamps (lighting by Kathy Kaufmann), Kravas drops her underpants, wads the skirt of her dress up around her hips, secures it with gaffer’s tape, faces the mirror and stares into it for a while. Then she gets down on all fours and, in dim light, to the sounds of birds tweeting and cats yowling, begins to hump and arch her back methodically and rhythmically. Get the picture? The tempo increases; her thighs shake. As you watch, something strange happens. The motion of her hips makes her anus disappear and reappear. Pretty soon, it begins to look like a mouth opening and closing in time to the two-beat rhythms of the score. I imagine it crying out for help.

Everything Kravas does in Kassidy Chism is taken to extremes. In another sequence, she shakes her head and body until you imagine her brain sloshing around. She lies down on her back and emits a few loud cries of “MAAAAA,” holding the last utterance long enough to make you marvel at her lung power. Having removed the sneakers to show her painted toenails, she holds her breasts (something that little Kassidy had no need to do) and proceeds to jump and jump and jump. And kick and prance. Yet in between each of her radical acts, she walks like a demure child, rather pleased with herself.

This isn’t the first time that Kravas has created a butt display; one was featured in her last spring’s The Green Surround. However, the sequence is particularly suited to Kassidy Chism—one of the several formal strategies she adopted to distance herself from the implicit eroticism of the kid’s routine (and the commodification of sex) by taking elements of it beyond decency. How shocking is her piece in today’s world? On October 13, the “Thursday Styles” section of the New York Times covered the launch party for a book of photographs, Culo by Mazzuco, two years in the making. The naked models (all women) were shot with their bottoms front and center. Asses appear to be the new tits.

Jeremy Wade and possible converts. Photo: Doro Tuch

Jeremy Wade’s work is transgressive in other ways. The personae he embodies in his fountain include faux-naif evangelist, ravening animal, goblin, sly jester, idiot savant. His movements often come disturbingly close to those of a person with a severe neurological disease.

He begins as an unconventional tour guide, expounding on the beauties of Saint Mark’s Church. Rapt, stumbling over his words at times, he calls our attention to the carpet covering the risers. Yes, it’s industrial grade, but look at how it descends the steps like a waterfall; note the flawlessness of its seams. He talks about the difference (or distance?) between our heads and the ceiling, marvels over keystones and arches and the rainbows cast by the stained glass windows. Kaufmann obliges him with elegant lighting. This is a charged space, he announces joyfully and a “garden of geometry.” He notes, too, that “this room has seen a lot of naked people.”

Wade also keeps reminding us that we’ve got to get ready, to wake up to something. Finally he decides we are prepared. For what? He invites us—no politely orders us—to encircle him. And almost everyone does. (I have to fight my impulse to resist—too many memories of the 1970s).

Then he embarks on an extraordinary, almost terrifying performance. Drawing in his cheeks, contorting his body, he sucks in. . .what? Our energy? Our life force? His body is an elastic jungle of twitches and spasms, as if every part of him were trying to find new channels of communication with every other part. After a while, he begins to blow it all out at us.

This isn’t a silent process, and I’m not talking about Tian Rotteveel’s sound score. Wade grunts and growls and howls—every sound seeming wrenched from his vitals. Some people can’t take their eyes off him; others, apparently discomfited, periodically look away. Gradually, he calms down and asks us to hum together on a tone he proposes. The acoustics of the church respond, and pretty soon the space indeed begins to vibrate. A soaring, secular hymn produced by a shaman, who (virtually speaking) has ingested some transformative substance that wracked his body and elated his soul.

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  1. Martha Ullman West says

    “Asses appear to be the new tits.” And assholes appear to be the new Republicans, how apt. In this case, Deborah’s description is so graphic it makes me so not want to see this show as I can’t begin to tell you. This does me no good at all: it sounds a good deal like tEEth, a Portland-based company, whose studio space is called Mouth, which is getting a lot of national attention. If Kravas might be categorized by Freud as an anal personality taken to its out of control extreme, tEEth’s oral fixation is also more tedious than shocking.

  2. says

    Deborah’s vivid description made me recall a piece by the Paper Bag Players–a swell group for kids with but one number to their age (and their playful grown-ups). After each of the dancer-actors blithely displayed her/his personal movement style, the others responded: “You call that dancing?”

  3. sandi kurtz says

    Asses may be the new tits, but it sounds like Kravas is still finding boundaries and dancing all over them — thanks so much for the vivid reporting!