Isabel Lewis

June 3, 2010

Isabel Lewis
Performance Space 122, NYC

June 3–6, 2010

Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa


Isabel Lewis and Josep Maynou in
Strange Action. Photo by Richard Termine.


At first, I felt woefully unprepared, facing Isabel Lewis’s Strange Action—billed as “a dance piece about the peculiar act of performing—and about Mr. T, head-banging and Nicole Kidman.” I’d never watched The A-Team. The most I knew about Mr. T involved his trademark mohawk and other people’s jokes about pitying fools. I also never saw Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the Kidman film Lewis references.

But those deficiencies didn’t matter, since Lewis opened this 50-minute piece by describing these actors as possible McGuffins meant to distract us from what’s important. Bedecked either in massive gold medallions or cascading blonde tresses—perhaps an aspect of the “too-much-ness” to which Lewis alludes—these icons don’t actually exist. Lewis introduces them and tosses them on and off like flimsy wraps. Her title evokes Roland Barthes’s essay “He Who Is Photographed,” a reflection on the “strange action” of posing for the camera and its tendency to obscure one’s “authentic” sense of self.

McGuffins abound in Strange Action. It’s called a “solo,” but media artist and dramaturg Josep Maynou also performs in it—charmingly, distractingly, I might add—but to what end is never clear. It’s called a “dance,” but informal introductions, lecture-like explanations, storytelling, purported hypnotic channeling and recreation of movie dialogue predominates over gestures and illustrative movement. This verbal stuff, rendered in often gentle, mellifluous voices, tends to lead… somewhere, but I take at least partial responsibility for getting drowsy and losing my way well before arriving at a recognizable point.

In Strange Action, dancing means simply lying on the floor in a so-called trance while matter-of-factly speaking the words of one Bosco Albert Baracus (Mr T’s TV role), which are actually adapted from a performance-interview with visual artist Matt Mullican, given under hypnosis. Drawing a helpful flow chart of your actions—that you’re playing yourself, playing Mr. T, playing Baracus—is also dance. And, you know, it works, as long as the audience doesn’t miss what I think is the critical “playing yourself” part.

The head-banging straddles and complicates the line between movement performance and altered states of hyperconsciousness in which, as Mullican has said, “you are aware and there’s this odd relationship to yourself.” After relating how Kidman—a mediocrity in Lewis’ estimation—prepared for a “transcendent” crying scene, Lewis demonstrates one drastic, surefire way to induce sobbing. She rapidly whips her head around like a Berber trance dancer on high-speed until dissolving into sobs. The result is brutally real, visceral to a scary degree—but also fake.


The body has a kind of strange, peculiar “too-much-ness” in its powers to transform both performer and watcher. That much is clear. But Lewis—intentionally, I suspect—leaves us questioning who the performer really is.