Santa Barbara

Rachel Rosenthal

University Art Museum

Much technically stunning performance art is being done—work that it is sensitive, insightful, colorful and professional. But some audience members feel cheated by performances that rely on theatrical technique, as though art has a value that theater does not, as though art can do a job that theater cannot.

Rachel Rosenthal’s Leave Her in Naxos illuminates this question, as have other of her works. The performance was enormously effective, packed with glamour, color, sex and gossip, and offering, among other things, a Kama Sutra pantomime, celebrity stories, glittering costumes and an incredible finale in which Rosenthal had her head shaved. The audience gave the performance a standing ovation.

Rosenthal has been, in her 54 years, a dancer, painter, actress, director, producer, sculptor and entrepreneur. It is this history that she is battling in the performance-art world. She cannot resist using the techniques of theater—the sound, lighting, costumes and sets of traditional dramatics. They have been a part of her performance self for so long that she looks absolutely natural with a microphone in her hand.

Leave Her in Naxos takes its title from the Greek myth of Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos after she took part in the Dionysian mysteries. The theme of splitting and rejoining two halves of a whole runs throughout the various movements of the piece, referring both to uniting the body and the spirit in one individual and to the fusing of male and female into one nature, with sexual encounter as the central metaphor.

The cast of seven worked with prepared and improvised material. Costumes included a few, all glitter and flounce, rescued from the trunk room of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Several segments featured the cast pantomiming sex play while Rosenthal spoke in the background, now searching for something lost (“I had it only yesterday”), now simulating a long and tortuously delightful orgasm. In one informative section, Rosenthal displayed slides of the “loves of my life,” discussing, with a cast member, her relationships, both sexual and platonic. She candidly pointed to the pitfalls of her sexual history, admitting her penchant for “performing” instead of living an honest and courageous emotional life. Finally, in a straightforward speech, Rosenthal admitted to a feeling of separation between her spirit and her body, and to a need to let go of the “dead things” inside her to make way for new growth. It was at this point that an assistant arrived to shave off all the artist’s hair. The action—usually considered shocking and demeaning—became in this context a gesture of hope.

Rosenthal continues to struggle with the issue of theatricality and its meaning in her art and her life. In both this piece and her last one, Bonsoir, Dr. Schon, she has presented herself to the audience as something of a fraud, a simulator of human behavior, a “real performer.” In Dr. Schon she appeared completely nude, allowing assistants to expose her aging body as overweight and flabby, then went on to portray herself as a bit sadistic. In Naxos she rummaged through her memories of lost loves, poked fun at her own self-dramatizing, and ritually stripped herself of beauty and “femininity” by shaving her head. One marvels at the spectacular ego-torture this artist puts herself through in order to pledge her sincerity and candor.

It may be that the value of performance art depends on the performer’s lack of experience in the skills of the stage; in the unsullied, technically unadorned honesty of the artist, the intimation that we are glimpsing something close to the truth. It is easy enough to charm audiences with a lovely show, but difficult to touch them as truly as they wish to be touched by art. This time, though, Rosenthal has gone to the mat with the actress in her, killing off the acting and making way for the painful birth of the artist, the whole person. Perhaps the next phase of her growth will remove the microphone from her hand and draw her away from the spotlights.

Linda Frye Burnham