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Delivering the truth in dance

CM 18/09/2021

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A common Latin aphorism – probably wrongly attributed to a man, one Sir Francis Bacon, to be precise – dictates that “knowledge is power.” Yet another ancient phrase, said to originate with the Greek god Apollo in the Delphic maxims, reminds us wisely that it is crucial to “know thyself.’’ 
These adages prove true in most areas of our everyday lives, and have been internalized by strong women with even stronger survival instincts. From the glorious myth about the Middle Eastern heroine Scheherazade, whose knowledge of over 1,000 tales saved her from getting beheaded by her husband, to the bravado-filled biography of the poet and parachutist Hannah Szenes – who declined to give away knowledge at the risk of her eventual demise – our modern culture perpetuates countless stories of female protagonists whose knowledge is their secret weapon or the reason for their downfall. 
But what happens to the balance of power in society when knowledge is withheld from women? What changes when women are denied the most basic knowledge, that of their own bodies? These questions are at the heart of a new dance performance by the dancer, choreographer and journalist Ori Josephine Lenkinski, set to premiere at the Akko Theater Festival next week. 

In her latest and undeniably feminist oeuvre, the Canadian-born and Tel Aviv-based dance performer sheds light on a specific and practical kind of information she believes most people are woefully unaware of: The function, importance and delivery of the placenta in childbirth. 
In a recent conversation with The Jerusalem Post, the 40-year-old Lenkisnki shares that the inspiration for her new show stemmed from her own personal experience as a mother of two young children, who was somewhat traumatized by the discovery of what the process of delivering the placenta entailed as she prepared with her partner for the birth of their first daughter. 
“What usually begins my pieces is an idea or a question that bothers me, sits with me and which I can’t let go of,” says Lenkinski, who has performed her work in numerous festivals in Israel and overseas. “Then I have to do something about it.”

The question of power

The query that plagued Lenkinski this time around and provoked the emergence of the piece Birth Preparation Course first occurred to her nine years ago. 
“When I was pregnant for the first time and 34 weeks along, I took a birth preparation course. A doula my partner and I had hired came to our house and used visual aids to describe to me over the course of three meetings what was going to happen when I gave birth. I remember thinking to myself: ‘Oh, she has to come with a doll to show me? Don’t I know this stuff?’ But the truth was that I did not.”
After she had already delivered her daughter in a natural birth, Lenkinski – a slim but nonetheless striking presence who gesticulates animatedly to drive her point home – recalls, “The midwife came at me with a little shot, and said: ‘Now you’re going to give birth to the placenta.’ I was shocked. It came out, enormous and heavy, and in one fell swoop my body was mine again. I did not feel this relieved when the baby came out. This difference was one of the most profound things that happened to me in my life.”
While recovering from her literal watershed moment, Lenkinski adjusted to life as a new mother but couldn’t forget the confusion she felt at her birth preparation course and at the moments of delivery. 
“Every single person we see walking down the street was born with a placenta. I have seen so many representations of birth, but the placenta is never depicted there. Why didn’t I know? Who does it benefit that I don’t know? I’ve been carrying this question for a long time, and it pushed me into creating this performance.”
The societal dynamics she doubts and explores through movement and text in Birth Preparation Course are therefore not related only to issues of femininity or autobiographical strife, but rather seem to touch on the Foucauldian preoccupation with the notion of power, its possessors and those who are quashed under its heel. 
Lenkinski would likely agree with this statement, seeing as she believes that her new performance “is connected to a bigger issue. When we take the power of a woman’s body and marginalize it, when we don’t teach about it, when we turn it into something sexual and push it off to the side, we make women much easier to control and abuse. Women who are kept in the dark are easier to victimize.” 

A performative class far off in space 

This is not the first time Lenkinski touches on the topics of motherhood and birth in her work. The subject was prominent in Carriage (2018), a dance film co-created with choreographer Rachel Erdos – a longtime collaborator of Lenkinski’s, in many of whose works the performer took part. Developed with six pregnant dancers and starring the artist herself as well, the creation observed and embraced the changes and challenges of pregnancy. 
The hardships and expectations wrought on women’s bodies by society, including a bravely revealing nod to her own experiences of miscarriage, were underscored by Lenkinski in yet another work: The Suit, a homage to Jackie Kennedy that first premiered in 2019 at Tmuna Theater’s Intimadance Festival. 
This time around, Lenkinski is zeroing in on the reality of womanhood through the prism of the placenta. She attempts to spread the factual data about the only temporary organ in the human body in an interactive and humorous 30-minute performance – or rather, “class” – that requires the active participation of the audience in a creative twist on the original birth preparation class she once took herself. 
To do so, she takes on the presence of a fictional character: A computer program “that adopted the form of the female body,” which delineates the process of reproduction, gestation, childbirth and the role of the placenta in it to an 11th-grade class of foreign species in far space. 
With a voice an octave lower than the friendly tone she employs in conversation outside her rehearsal space at Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station and intentionally robotic body movements, Lenkinski discusses in earnest the changes women’s bodies undergo in pregnancy. She remarks dryly on the physical pain and mental anguish that childbearing includes “for female humans,” and even asks viewers to whip out from under their seats small bags full of baby dolls in order to be quizzed about the female anatomy. 

Between language and movement 

In this piece and much like in her previous ones, Lenkinski doesn’t make do with sharing her perspective by creating movement phrases. Instead, she combines dance with spoken language, resulting in a performance that melds together theater and dance practices. 
The hybrid might be induced by the fact that Lenkinski isn’t merely a dance performer who creates her own work as well as performs in other choreographers’ creations, but is also a writer. A regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post who covers dance, she also writes about parenthood in a bi-monthly column for Haaretz and is the founder of Creative Writing, an English-language online platform for responses to performance. 
“In the current process toward this piece, the [combination] really challenged me. The language part was so clear, and it was hard for me to find where I can put in the movement, because it has to be justified. With every text that I perform, my body is expressing the subtext.”
Indeed, one of the most resonant highlights of the work arrives when Lenkinski slips out of character to simulate a human testimony, sharing her own ambiguous feelings about the bombshell of fresh motherhood and her personal encounter with the placenta. Just as gratifying are moments when the artist breaks into unexpected dance sequences, suddenly writhing in agony on the floor to emulate the positions into which women go as they grapple with their contractions mid-labor. 
Asked why she opted for a science fiction narrative instead of delving into a more autobiographical chronicle, Lenkinski reveals with a laugh that she is a fan of the genre, “specifically of Star Trek.” But primarily, the artistic choice was made because “I understood that I don’t want to talk about my experience in this piece. Those pieces already exist on stage, I have seen them and I love them. It wasn’t supposed to be about me as a woman and what I went through, but about us as the human species, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
Birth Preparation Course will be performed by Lenkinski at the Akko Festival September 20-23. Tickets are available at 2207.kupat.co.il/show/J-2

Source: Jerusalem Post

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