Put Your Heart Under Your Feet… And Walk!
Put Your Heart… is a mournful poem of unbearable beauty, which follows the march of a survivor through a land of mourning. A singularly extreme ritualized cantata.
A mournful poem on the disappearance of a loved one. Queer princess and delicate moth, Steven Cohen wanders through a limbo world that is both fairy-like and nightmarish. Building a sanctuary to the deceased lover with whom he shared the previous two decades, the South African choreographer comes face to face with his grief and pain, going so far as to eat a small portion of his lover’s ashes. A piece of unbearable beauty.
Tottering on shoes with coffins for heels and supported by wobbly crutches, the performer in search of the absolute wends his way forward, at times in ballet slippers, at other times in a video where he dances in a white tutu amidst the bloody slaughter of cattle in an abattoir. Plunged into the abyss of a world between the living and the dead, the ceremony is crude and cathartic. Put Your Heart… follows the march of a survivor through a land of mourning. A singularly extreme ritualized cantata. A radical, sacrificial solo of sweetness and savagery.
Produced by Compagnie Steven Cohen
Conceived and performed by Steven Cohen
Lighting Design Yvan Labasse
Coproduced by humain TROP humain – CDN Montpellier + Festival Montpellier Danse + Dance Umbrella (Johannesburg) + Drac Nouvelle-Aquitaine (Bordeaux)
Presented by Fugues in association with Usine C
Written by Elsa Pépin
Translated by Neil Kroetsch
Premiered at Montpellier Danse, on June 24, 2017
Steven Cohen (Johannesburg + Lille) Compagnie Steven Cohen
The choreographer, performer and visual artist Steven Cohen was born in Johannesburg in 1962 and now lives in France.
His striking artistic interventions appear in the public space, in museums, galleries and performance venues, and have been presented in major festivals the world over. In these provocative, political works he hones in on individuals and communities that have been marginalized by society, beginning with his own homosexual/Jewish/white/South African identity.
His work has been banned in his native country, and the performer questions the principle of domination imposed by mankind on the natural world, challenging the hierarchies and status quo that exist between humankind and the animal world.
He is renowned for his performance piece Chandelier (2002), in which he wore a tutu-like chandelier attached to a corset as he teetered on impossibly high heels as he interacted with residents of a Johannesburg township about to be bulldozed. His 2013 “uninvited public intervention” Coq/Cock also created controversy, and he was arrested for dancing under the Eiffel Tower in Paris with a rooster tied to his penis. Pursuing his nonconformist approach, in 2017 he presented Put Your Heart Under Your Feet… And Walk! at Montpellier Danse, a work of resilience and a gesture of survival that he created following the death the previous year of his lover of twenty years.
The title refers to the phrase spoken by his nanny in response to his grief, which he then had tattooed onto the sole of his left foot. For his first appearance in Montreal, Cohen remains committed to his persistent radicality, provoking disgust, fear and contradictory emotions in this funerary ritual.
The stimulus for this piece was the death of your lover Elu. Is it for you an act of resilience, a ceremony to bring his memory back to life?
I created the piece in order to integrate the death of love into the love of living. How else do you carry on? Elu is not alive in this work but he is present, evoked, summoned. It is not about Elu but about loss, my grief and mourning, for grief leaves a gash in its wake. I won’t be presenting this piece much longer but I will feel it forever.
I tried various ways of representing Elu in this piece, a few images and photos, but my efforts weren’t successful, so then I created the show around that absence. Elu’s path to dance and a professional career was similar to that of the boy in the British film Billy Elliott. He chose to study dance in the most conservative part of South Africa and became a ballet dancer, with all the humiliation that that entails in an ultra macho milieu. The hundreds of ballet shoes onstage evoke that long journey.
The title is something your former nanny said, encouraging you to continue to live after Elu’s death. Is it a mantra that helps you carry on?
I read about grieving that the only thing that can help is to keep moving. Paralysis is a bad thing mentally and emotionally, it’s harmful to the imagination. That phrase of hers–which became the title of the piece – was so clever. She was telling me to continue, to keep moving, and that’s what this piece is about. It’s about loss, about forward movement, overcoming obstacles, coping with the burden of bereavement.
I walk on very high heels and with crutches, because I wanted walking to be difficult but not impossible. I don’t rehearse in high heels. I wear them only once I step onstage, with no backup plan in case I fall. That risk is part of the performance. I’m no longer young. I’m 56 and surprised that I’m still alive at a time when many my age are dying. Walking on high heels expresses that fragility and risk. I’m an old queen with lots of dead and beautiful shit.
Along with the high heels you wear a mask of Atlas moth wings. Why is that ?
It is a mask of the Atlas moth, the largest of their kind. It lives for only one or two days. It has no mouth and thus cannot feed itself. No mouth and no food equal a very short life. For me it symbolizes the brevity of life. The moth wing mask looks like makeup or an adornment, but actually it is a very delicate, aesthetic corpse.
As for the shoes, they are fundamental. Primo Levi wrote in If This is a Man that a man who has shoes can find food, but with food you can’t find shoes, a reflection of his experience and understanding of the Holocaust. In wartime, shoes are more important than food.
Is the discomfort that the audience might feel when viewing the scenes in the slaughterhouse intentional? Is it a deliberate critique of the violence done to animals?
The audience should feel the same discomfort at the meat counter in the supermarket, even though the blood has been washed away. My presence in the abattoir is to show them something real, not something made for the performance, but a banal, everyday activity that might help me connect with the audience or might not. Some people leave the venue during that scene.
The spectators are forced to take a position. For me it is a literal representation of death, and that means accepting all the fluids that come with death. The video sequence lasts ten minutes and is of only one cow being killed. The workers in the abattoir see hundreds of animals killed every day. It is terrible for them, disturbing to endure all that violence.
They are the real heroes and victims of that practice. My piece is not a vegetarian rallying cry, but focuses instead on power, the daily violence that exists for animals and humans. I wanted that blood to evoke Elu’s death from haemorrhaging, and it’s easier to film blood in a slaughterhouse than in a hospital. We never see inside those places, but they exist; there’s nothing extraordinary about them.
“A touching tribute to a departed lover. (…) A beautifully orchestrated ritual.”
Keegan Frances and Megan Kelly, Cue Media, 2018-07-07
“A bafflingly beautiful work. (…) Cohen’s aesthetics, composition and design are impeccable. The theatricality of his impressions is spellbinding. His artistic innovation and creative ingenuity is extraordinary.”
Pinto Ferreira, Iol.co.za, 2018-03-13
“You will never see a braver, more passionate and powerful performance than Steven’s.”
Monique Vajifdar, Sunday Times, 2018-03-11
“This is not a dance work. It’s a work of impeccable love.”
Robyn Sassen, Robysassenmyview.com, 2018-03-08