THE POPE’S TOE
Xsight! Performance Group
at MoMing Dance & Arts Center
April 5-8 and 12-14
As you might expect from its title, The Pope’s Toe capers irreverently around its sacred subject. But anyone who knows the dance-theater work of Xsight! Performance Group would expect nothing less. All You Can Eat and Other Human Weaknesses, the group’s premiere performance last spring, ranged brilliantly and abrasively over some far-flung territories. The Pope’s Toe has a more confined subject and a more coherent shape–and a more sober attitude. The free- ranging hostility of All You Can Eat has lost its hysterical edge in The Pope’s Toe and been directed full-force against the Catholic church.
Brian Jeffery, the set and costume designer and one of Xsight’s three members, has tricked out the bare MoMing stage to suggest sumptuousness. A cross is scribbled on a rectangle of light upstage; incense burns; one downstage corner has been lavishly draped with lengths of gilded or flocked material in burnt orange, green, and gold. Ken Bowen’s clever lighting achieves, among other effects, the dappled look of shadowy indoor spaces lit through stained glass.
The Pope’s Toe has four sections–“The Confessional,” “The Church,” “The Rectory,” and “The Streets”–each “directed” by one of the three Xsight members. Though the piece is pointedly not a narrative, these three play distinct roles. Timothy O’Slynne is a high priest, perhaps a bishop; Jeffery is an altar boy or junior priest; and Mary Ward is an everywoman of the church–Eve, Mary Magdalene, whatever beaten-down sinner you can name. Ten additional dancers round out the cast.
There’s no story, but there is a progression. Two psychosexual springs feed The Pope’s Toe: the clergy’s homoeroticism, and the way the church has messed up women’s sexuality. The work opens with a priest (O’Slynne) reciting a rhymed narration of an erotically charged encounter with another priest. Then we move to an image of a naked man (Jeffery) on a pedestal with a horn. That image is glimpsed by a woman (Ward), who walks the balcony with a candle. We next see her, in long, flowing robes and medieval headdress, confessing to O’Slynne that she’s seen a naked man, and not just any naked man but a priest. But wait a minute–how has his sin become hers? And is it a sin–where do we draw the line between spiritual and physical yearning? Where does the pope’s toe end and his holy office begin?
“The Confessional,” directed by Ward, focuses on the woman’s reaction to “sin”: confession, penance, communion. In Ward’s long solo, watched by two men wearing cops’ badges, she circles her head with her arms, laving her face with one hand, then the other; crosses her arms and beats her fists against her own breast; clutches her hands asymmetrically behind her back and drags herself with a spastic stagger across the floor. Communion is a raised index finger carried to her mouth–but obscenely, her hand resembles a gun. Finally she’s hoisted onto a cop’s shoulders; his head is covered, but he thrusts his fist and arm between her legs and straight through her skirts in an impeccable image of sexual violence and control.
The two middle sections shift the focus back to the clergy, though the woman reappears in interludes in which she eats an orange and, later, dances ringed by fetuses in jars. “The Church,” directed by Jeffery, lays bare the supposed masochistic underpinnings of religious ecstasy. The priest reviewing his troops–the choir–performs a kicking jump somewhere between a cheerleader’s leap and a goose step. Jeffery, as a choirboy in see-through red chiffon, sprinkles himself overliberally with holy water in a giggly, sensual sign of the cross and rhapsodizes about suffering. Later the priest puts him through his sacrificial paces.
O’Slynne’s section, “The Rectory,” shows off his infectious oddball humor. O’Slynne as the priest is trailed by his followers, who wheel like a flock of migratory birds so closely behind him that they crash into him when he stops. Finally alone, the priest sports with and fondles some silky underpants–but then he’s surprised by two of his congregation. Clutching the undies in one hand, he strives to conceal the fetish and maintain his dignity. It’s funny, and pathetic. But gradually we see that the priests deny themselves nothing, while they shame the woman for her sexual lapses and violation of the church’s controls.
There’s more, much more. The Pope’s Toe multiplies its allusions dizzyingly, but certain motifs–a foot, for example–tie the sections together. Early on, the woman’s bare foot peeking out from her robes suggests her vulnerability, perhaps her sinfulness. But when she bares the priest’s feet and washes them, his feet are enshrined. Later, the priests wear high heels and seem to pierce Ward’s hands with their spikes as they walk carelessly over her. In the last section, shoes armor the feet–or in Ward’s case, hobble them.
That final section, “The Streets,” like the first is under Ward’s direction, and it shows in the revenge fantasy that permeates it and in the stepped- up importance of the dancing. Pure movement tells the story more than acting, images, or the spoken word, and it’s a story of liberation. In a weird but somehow right analogy, ballet stands in for religion: both are rigid, controlling, and repressive, especially of women. Three dancers urged by the others to “Jete! Jete!” are blocked by another three mechanically repeating ballet exercises. Finally one of the first three breaks through the barrier, but instead of a jete, he takes an incredible headfirst dive and slides along the floor. It’s a neat physical joke to take ballet’s airborne leap and make it just as big and just as fantastic but as close to the ground as it can get.
Although Ward’s final rhetorical question to the audience is inclusive and forgiving, we can’t forget the priests so recently cowering behind her, seemingly begging for her protection. The Pope’s Toe offers a limited and perhaps female perspective on the church, partly because Ward’s sections bracket the work, and partly because she creates more extended dance sequences than the other two and uses them to reveal emotion. We see the woman from the inside, and because Jeffery and O’Slynne have more comic sensibilities, we see the priests from the outside, as villains and figures of fun.
The Pope’s Toe is nothing if not ambitious, and it’s loaded with vivid visual metaphors. It may seem hard, then, to complain that it’s not bigger: less schematic, more compassionate. The priests may be hypocrites, they may glory in their maleness and privilege, but in some sense they’re as much victims of their own physical natures as the woman is of hers. I saw little sympathy for the priests’ humanity, however. One exception is the trio’s bow, when O’Slynne runs like an eager boy to pick up his bishop’s cape and drape it over Ward’s shoulders. Just that simple motion, almost an afterthought, goes a long way toward restoring the equilibrium.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jacqueline Sapien.