Recently, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution’s production of Five Sisters by Guy de Cointet. If I Can’t Dance, an Amsterdam based organization is dedicated to exploring the evolution and typology of performance and performativity in contemporary art. They sponsor Performance in Residence, which looks at important past performances from the viewpoint of contemporary practice. This staging of Five Sisters was the result of research from the program’s first participant, Marie de Brugerolle, an art historian, curator, dramatist, and professor at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. Touring Europe and America, the production made its way to Los Angeles, where de Cointet lived and developed his art career and premiered the play in 1982 at Barnsdall Park Theater before his death in 1983.
If I Can’t Dance and de Brugerolle succeed at reconstructing a show, with the look and feel of a contemporary performance, that supports de Cointet’s work. No doubt the au courant quality, in part, is due to the choice of de Cointet and his Five Sisters, a prescient play that observes a growing acceptance and normalization of the rejection of women echoing in contemporary culture. With this script, he puts his years of examining and experimenting with language into a work that Artforum calls “his most resolved and mature play.” Unlike his earlier plays where language-based props played a key role, in Sisters, language is the key role. He condenses fragments of media and cultural language, with coded messages directed at women, into a 45 minute script. This compression of language combined with melodramatic acting can result in something we laugh at, and indeed it is satirical—but by nature of the satire, we are ridiculing ourselves.
It has been 30 years since the first performance of Five Sisters and this latest production honors de Cointet’s sensitivity to his environment and his foresight in recognizing an increasingly relevant condition in our culture. Mr. de Cointet, Ms. de Brugerolle, and If I Can’t Dance deserve the rounds of applause they have received for this endeavor.
Guy de Cointet moved from France to New York in 1965, then relocated to Los Angeles in 1968 to work as an assistant to Larry Bell. While in Los Angeles, he produced a wide range of work from installations and drawings to books and performances, much of it, focused on visually representing words and language, at times, deconstructing their uses. Largely influenced by Raymond Roussel, known for creating his own set of rules for language, de Cointet was fascinated by language and keenly observed how people derived meaning from it, despite its ambiguous nature—its potential to illicit multiple messages. He studied how it was used as an instrument to code messages, especially by media, and examined how people received these messages. De Cointet experimented with creating his own language and his own code, often using symbols and signs—where code was clear, not hidden in the vernacular. His visual and performance work reflects this exploration through a spectrum of references from literature, French and American soap operas, cinema, television, radio, conversations, newspapers, pop culture. Though marginally recognized by the public for his work, de Cointet, “an artist’s artist,” greatly influenced other artists, including Mike Kelley, Allen Ruppersberg, Catherine Sullivan, and Paul McCarthy.
While de Cointet’s earlier plays included many props giving the audience a visual experience with language, Five Sisters, departed from these works. It was scripted with a collage of language fragments from southern California’s culture of beauty and bourgeoise urban luxury, as experienced by women. With no use of props, the plays impression is solely conveyed by lighting, language, dramatization, and costuming. The minimalist white staging allowed the accentuation of extreme mood changes in the actresses that create the soap opera-like tone, while also reflecting the significant impact of lighting changes from reds to blues to yellow and white. In addition, the actresses were clad in semi-sheer white dresses, in flowing fabrics, maintaining a white-on-white, minimalist visual while simultaneously accenting their movements, their femininity.
Jane Zingale, an original Five Sisters actress and Director of the current staging, began the performance with a monologue of Espahor ledet ko Uluner! Her body writhed and crouched in contortions that matched her tone change from bullish to childlike as she performed the piece written in de Cointet’s invented language. This opening hinted that Five Sisters would not adhere to any code of traditional theater.
The women in Five Sisters do not undergo any character development, but rather caricature development; as the play progresses, they are redundant iterations of themselves. One sister has developed something of an allergy to the sun—she faints, cries, undergoes dramatic mood changes when exposed to its rays. This affliction developed after a trip to Africa, where she interacted with some indigenous people, whom she often recalls with hearty drama, accentuating cultural worldliness, embracing the exotic, “Aaaffrrricaaaahhhhhh.” Another sister is repeatedly said to be in need of a vacation—much like snippets of conversations heard in southern California’s workaholic culture. Two more sisters appear. One, an artist, is disturbed by her own work and obsessed with the color red in them. The other is obsessed with changing her clothes—always unsure of her appearance. Their problems are about extremes while their delight revolves around discussions of maintaining youth, new age health, doctors, and cosmetic surgeons—matters that treat aging as a disease. The dialogue takes on the language of advertisers, of beauty products as the sisters discuss health defined by “luscious hair, vibrant energy, balanced minerals and vitamins.” Intermittently, the women also blurt out non sequiturs—”I will go and comb my hair. I feel proud of my hair these days.” —”I’ll go lose 10 lbs.” —”I’ll go take a nap.” With each line of dialogue, de Cointet further paints them as formidable women, but not impervious to the bombardment of cultural and media messages about maintaining youth, beauty, sexuality, vitality, and the appearance of health.
The five sisters have names but that serves little relevance as they don’t reflect any identity. The names are mere words that is associated with the sisters’ individual conditions and their common condition—a heightened anxiety, a confusion around the urban dilemmas that afflict them. At some point, one sister loses her hearing, another is unsure of her own presence. Identity becomes insignificant, as they lose bits of themselves, and in fact, the fifth sister never even appears. Does she exist? Does it matter?
By Quynh Nguyen