The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is by its nature a very mixed bag. There are so many shows – over two and a half thousand last year – that you can't possibly stay on top of everything. All you can do is to keep your eyes peeled, read reviews, listen to friends' recommendations, and hope for the best. Sometimes you will see huge shows by established entertainment giants. Sometimes you will be one of three cringing attendees of an excruciatingly poor production. And sometimes you'll see a performer you know nothing about, based solely on an intriguing title and theme, and it'll be one of the most phenomenal shows you've ever seen in your life.
Walking past the Zoo Southside, I was arrested by the title S/He Is Nancy Joe. The strapline “I was born a girl but I know it’s a mistake” had me buying tickets. It was a really good decision.
Performer Miřenka Čechová of Tantehorse delivers an intense, harrowing, gorgeous hour of deeply felt dance and multimedia performance that explores zir gender journey with heartbreaking beauty. (**Although I have seen reviews and descriptions that gender Čechová female, seeing the show makes me extremely hesitant to do so, and so I use the pronoun zie/zir.**)
The choice of medium is inspired. The process of transition is, for me at least, a process of coming to terms with one's embodiment and learning to relate as an embodied being to the world around you. Dance is appropriate to portray this process since it is an immensely embodied art form, while the incorporation of props, sound, words, and animated images provides a sandbox for exploring the relational aspects of gender. Aesthetically, this is a beautiful show that makes powerful use of the different media involved.
Čechová is a mesmerizing performer. Zir body moves with, against, in, or out of the projected animations as needed to effectively portray the highs and lows of coming to a gendered self-understanding. At times zie is jerked around like a puppet on strings, buffeted helplessly by societal forces far beyond zir control. At times zir agony is a palpable presence on the stage; at other moments, zir sense of freedom and self is expressed through joyously harmonious dancing with zir animated silhouette.
Several standout images remain printed indelibly in my mind. First, Čechová reeling between doubled-over pain and a pose of crucifixion while red bubbles out behind zir to overtake the white projection screen, a menstrual symbol of enforced womanhood and the torment of dysphoria. Second, the tragicomic scene when zie attempts to reject being transgender and dons the hose and polka-dotted skirt of girlhood, only to find zirself so restricted in movement that zie can barely even let zirself be led in demure waltzing steps by invisible partners. Third, the accusatory spotlights that accompany a coldly transphobic voiceover, and the subsequent curled-up agony in the projected glare of television tuned to a dead channel.
S/He Is Nancy Joe packs an awful lot of thought-provoking material into its 55 minutes. Childhood gender stereotypes, dysphoria, denial, self-discovery, transphobia, and anxiety over medical transition are all explored with sensitivity and nuance. At the end of the performance, Čechová told the audience that it was an extremely personal show, and that much had been quite clear in every motion of zir body.
This is an astounding show, both artistically and as an exploration of gender. My only regret is that I didn't see it until the penultimate day of its run, so I can't make everyone I know in Edinburgh go see it. Tomorrow, Sunday the 18th, is the date of the final show, at Zoo Southside at 1:30pm. Drop everything else and see it. I can't recommend it highly enough.