A rosé is a type of red wine from which the skins of the grapes are removed just a few days after they’re pressed, rather than after fermentation. It is a wine that has only been lightly and briefly touched by its own skin. But because of its blush, or because it is sometimes made to be sweet, rosé can be judged a lurid or maudlin taste. It is this latter association that Zoja Smutny assumes for her show Rosé Porn performed at Dancemakers in Toronto to culminate her two-year residency: the sweetness of love, how it embarrasses us and makes us sick.
Rosé Porn is an experimental work. In writing about the performing arts, the word “experimental” has often been drained of meaning and replaced by a connotation of weirdness or obscurity. But Rosé Porn is experimental in the literal sense — it is actually an experiment. Smutny is trying out a collaborative way of creating that allows individual artists to integrate and conspire without overwhelming each other. “To work together in order to work alone,” she writes. Out of this relational alchemy, Smutny hopes to reshape the performance space as an arena of possibility and potential, rather than a platform for the delivery of entertaining product.
In order to follow her curiosity about making art authentically with others, Smutny needs to devise an audience that will keep up. This is the real experiment, and it begins in a waiting room where we gather before the show. (This turns out to be a green room, as we too will be performing.) On the wall are handwritten questions and declarations: “What elements of the space are you considering right now?” “Rosé Porn will come to you / will bring choreography to you / this is how it dances.”
Having milled about and checked everyone out, we’re invited to enter the darkened performance space — drinks allowed, pictures encouraged — and to sit on the floor. A soothing male voice tells us to lie on our backs and to pay attention to our breath. Slowly, over the sound of an ethereal electronic beat provided by Victoria Cheong, he instructs us to follow our awareness out of our bodies and allow it to merge with everyone else’s. As we roll up to a sitting position, low-set pink and red lights begin flicking on, saturating some faces in scarlet and scattering long shadows over others. At last, the narrator tells us to rise to our feet and sends us moving around the room.
Most shows don’t take such a long, slow time cultivating a mood. But attending a participatory performance is scary; our nerves are jangling about what will happen and how we’ll do, and Smutny needs us to relax. Out of that alert softness, she and her fellow dancer, Brendan Jensen (our meditation guide from the beginning of the show), detach from the shadows and begin fine-tuning the space and the people in it.
To this point, the performance has followed the logic of momentum: starting in stillness and darkness, rising toward light and action. Instead of continuing the thrust, however, Rosé Porn starts to eddy. Smutny and Jensen initiate a series of small activities, each quickly abandoned for the next. First, as the audience arranges itself around the room, the performers begin laying tape on the floor, forming expressive geometries around standing or sitting bodies. But before many lines are on the ground or anyone has responded to the delineation, the performers move on. Next, they dance one-on-one with audience members — with affected rigidity and hypnotic intensity, making prolonged eye contact and gyrating in a slightly lurching manner — which goes on for a few minutes, and then it’s on to the next thing. Except for a beautifully realized solo by Smutny, where she flickers anarchically against her shadow on the wall for seven or eight minutes, whipping her hair, pumping her fists and hopping quickly from side to side, the show progresses in this impatient manner, pensively moving from one activity to the next. The current of restlessness is echoed in the way that Smutny and Jensen continually move potted plants around the space and futz with the lights, turning them on and off and pointing them in different directions.
This languid fretfulness is the quality that “rosé porn” indicates: brooding over a breakup long after the fact or sprawling on the floor of a friend’s apartment and listening to songs that once felt passionate to a younger self but are now shaded in with darker thoughts. Covering the same ground as her 2015 SummerWorks show, this I LOVE YOU thing, Smutny, Jensen and Cheong take turns voicing phrases lifted from popular culture and what one assumes to be personal correspondence. The words are delivered in a flat, affectless tone, as if they’d already repeated the same things a thousand times before, chipping away at the emotion until all that’s left is a neurotic fixation. They seem bored and weary, and at times it’s hard not to feel the same way.
This is why performing an experiment is so risky — it might succeed. That is to say, the audience might share the sentiment: curious, at best intrigued, maybe it’ll work, let’s all watch and see. In order to create possibilities, there has to be the possibility of failure, and so it feels like less is at stake. But this detached condition is also a state of heightened receptivity, when things might suddenly click. Late in Rosé Porn, Smutny and Jensen crowd around a camera, nuzzling it gently with their hair, like cats. The image is projected live on a screen at the front of the room. In the background we see the bodies of audience members receding into darkness, and it gives the impression that people are much closer than they actually are and embracing their physicality in ways that they actually aren’t. The scene is like a trick mirror that shows what gorgeous intimacy we almost share but don’t. It’s as if we’re seeing our immediate experience as an improved memory, full of wished-for abandon and seduction. There is here, but we are not there.