Embittered Swish is a performance art vehicle founded in 2016 whose first project was a trans adaptation and reformulation of Jean Genet’s 1943 novel Our Lady of the Flowers. Embittered Swish works across a fine art, theatre and club context and has shown work at Performance Space (PACT), Transgenre, La Mama Courthouse, firstdraft gallery, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Brunswick Mechanics Institute and Monstagras.
Embittered Swish’s Next Wave festival 2018 show Estrogenesis interrogated the medicalisation and commodification of trans identities. Estrogenesis was about a futile resistance to the oppressive medical system in the near future where gender transitioning has become suspiciously streamlined and binary. The work was episodic and used live music, dance, projections and poetic monologues to show struggles for power, alliances formed and betrayals enacted. The work featured a live electronic music score by Romy Fox, costume design by Debris Facility, set design by M’ck McKeague and Jacs Antcliff, and translations in Auslan by Bethany Robinson.
How did Embittered Swish make Estrogenesis? These are some reflections on my director’s notes, memories and conversations I have had with other Embittered Swish members (Romy Fox, Mossy 333, Ainslie Templeton and Bobuq Sayed).
CREATING INTIMACY / ‘SOFT SHELL CRAB’ SCENE
We knew that after Mossy escapes the hospital Romy would bring her back to life with her music in a kind of Frankenstein’s monster moment. But the connection between these two outlaws after this moment hadn’t been made. We knew it should involve something intimate and physical, and some music played together. We had made a scene in an earlier development where Mossy and Romy mirrored each other pulling out chin hairs, inspecting their genitals and tearing out their adam’s apples. This older scene wasn’t right for this moment because it showed a connection but not the care that we needed.
Shian Law ran a dance workshop for us that focused on floor work — cushioning our own bodies on the floor, being grounded, practicing balances and rolls with each other. Shian was working from what he has learnt, practiced and developed in a dance and contact improvisation context. Mossy articulated these exercises as working on our ’dual strength and individual strength’. I wanted to bring this floor exercise into the show because I saw how we all responded strongly to the particular moment of being picked up in a bundle on the floor by each other; it was a moment of focused intimacy. Following previous feedback that our work was about disconnection, we wanted to have more moments of deep intimacy and connection in our work.
So this moment of intimacy between Romy and Mossy began by me getting them to write each other love letters. Then I got them to do some physical playing, taking it in turns to help each other get to the other side of the room (with and without touch). Then playing with being in a kind of falling embrace together and taking it in turns to help each other up. Romy and I had explored this falling in earlier scenes (that didn’t make it to the final show) about swapping our hormones (swapping T for E). This falling embrace work led to Romy and Mossy moving as one creature. The next rehearsal we warmed up with the floor rolling work from Shian and then moved into more of this moving as one creature with a sense of dreaming together.
I talked to Mossy and Romy about how they remember this scene being created. Both of them remember how once it had clicked, trying to recreate the original improvisation didn’t work. It was important to find a way back into the feeling of the moment. Mossy said that the way we got it to work was when I asked them to slow right down, close their eyes and alternate who was leading/following, and let go of looking exactly the same. The imagined focus for Mossy was being hit by the same wave in the water. Romy reflected that at first it was hard to communicate entirely through her body (she is our sound designer and has the least experience as a performer) but once we started focusing less on choreography and more on feelings it became more like improvising music. With her eyes closed it made it easier for her to focus on Mossy’s body and forget the audience. She experienced this moment in the show like a little nap where she didn’t have to worry. Romy was only connected to Mossy and their breath together; she didn’t have to be connected to the whole stage’s rhythm through her live score. Romy remembers that originally she was following Mossy entirely but then we switched it more, created anchor points and let the lead swap around. She remembers the difficulty of sitting on stage at the right angle and with the right balance. Sitting on stage at the beginning is a part of the dance and we went over and over this for it to be smooth and in the right place.
Playing with how this scene sat in the show was also interesting. It originally began with Mossy and Romy talking at the window but without the audience being able to hear. It then moved to the floor where Romy fixed Mossy’s hair and she spoke of wanting extensions in it. Because we needed the scene to go a bit faster relative to the slower scenes around it, these beginning moments got taken out. The Auslan translation (done on stage by the performers themselves) also slowed things down. The scene happened after Romy and Mossy played a song together and once we started running all the scenes together it was clear that for the rhythm to work we needed to cut out the extra movement to the window.
A ‘PERFECT GIRL’: AINSLIE/SILICA
In a lot of the early development of Estrogenesis Ainslie was in Sydney. In her absence we thought she would be a great evil nurse character and she was excited to play the villain. When Ainslie was in Melbourne briefly in March she and I had a chat about the evil nurse and perfect girl. Ainslie spoke about how being a ‘perfect girl’ is a true but not true thing for her. It isn’t sustained but is, rather, a tainted privilege that can be ripped away suddenly and repetitively. We shared our horror and joy in not recognising ourselves in the mirror because of hormone changes. And we spoke about the ever-surfacing taboos of trans bodies. Being a woman and putting all that work in to be her; her body still rises.
On one of the early days of the final rehearsal period in Melbourne we were sharing stuff that we had made with Ainslie. We showed a video of Mossy being this perfect robot trans woman. It was a grotesque advertisement for joining the easy three-step program to transition. We had intended to make something to represent the evil future and the trans robots/puppets in an uncomfortable way and thought that this idea could be somehow recreated with Ainslie. While watching this video Ainslie felt really angry and frustrated. She felt that the video appeared as a caricature of herself, as in the play she is one of these perfect girls. Ainslie felt that the video naively assumed binary trans women are part of the ‘problem’; victims of their own making. She also felt that in the context of the ‘gender fuck’ of the majority of Embittered Swish she was cast as ‘one of those bitches’. Binary presentation doesn’t mean gender experience isn’t complex. Ainslie spoke to me about how it is actually a lot of work to make your female gender labour less visible. In contrast, I think about how little labour my trans masc gender is, even when I cross dress. Ainslie thought that the video was disrespectful of all the work of trans women.
We were also ignoring the work of men in the actual history of pharmaceutical hormones. Ainslie wanted this history to be a part of the work. Ainslie articulated that trans women are an important part of the economy that privileges men; the doctors who make trans bodies for their fantasies, men who are tranny chasers, the male gaze that sexualises trans women, the heroic male doctor who is the source of this violence. Before having these discussions with Ainslie, my character was a series of different bad men, created to contextualise the other characters. But it was clear that I needed to be a solid Doctor with an ancient power. This power is pathetic but is the true driver behind the power of Silica (Ainslie).
Talking about Silica to me after the show is over, Ainslie reflects on the violence of trans women who ‘get away with it’; perpetuating power dynamics and hierarchies. She identified with and enjoyed playing the character of Silica the cyborg woman who was full of fear; that is why Silica seeks these changes, to make her stronger. We thought that her monologue near the end would be a chance to shatter the scary mask of her character, a way of showing her flawed and aching heart and the muddle of the disaster of the world mixing in her body. But Silica was desperately grabbing for power the whole time and the monologue ultimately confirmed that.
This video incident brought to the surface a tension to explore; different trans femininities are privileged in different contexts. The making of Estrogenesis really put our differences up against each other to dance and fight. The show made me think of a gallery of portraits all jostling to be seen. The empowerment of playing a twisted version of ourselves also came with the tensions of how others viewed us and where power flowed.
THE FUTURE OF GENDER IS A BINARY
Bobuq’s role in Estrogenesis changed as we tried to find a way to be clear that they were an outsider to a white trans narrative, but also have their own active part in the story. Early on they played a researcher from the future of the future looking back on a trans rebellion to the corporation of transition (called Hormonium) and in conflict with their boyfriend who wants them to fulfil the role of the ‘hung Arab top’. Bobuq brought in an article they had read about the aggressive sexuality that is projected onto certain brown and black bodies in the queer sex economy and how this is related to orientalism, colonialism and Islamophobia.[^1]
Trying to find Bobuq’s place in the plot led us to talk about the link between colonisation and the ever increasing enforcing of the gender binary. Because of white supremacy, we suspected that the future of trans-ness will be an ever more rigid gender binary. In this future world the trans journey is about perfectly passing as the gender opposite to what you were assigned at birth. Non-binary gender doesn’t exist. This compulsory binary feeds into and upholds colonial structures.
In the final work Bobuq played Shafik, who wanted a resurrection and proliferation of non-binary genders, but Hormonium (the medical machine) takes over their amazing creations. Shafik is not trans or white enough to transition in this super binary future. They develop technologies for others that they could never use themself. In talking about the pathologisation of trans-ness we talked about how trans-ness can(not) exist outside of the medical system. ‘What bodies are entitled to trans-ness?’. Bobuq wanted to play someone whose relationship to trans-ness and the system wasn’t clear-cut.
Shafik couldn’t transition because it would have required them to be vulnerable, assimilated, specific. Their desires blur; to be, to fuck, to destroy, to survive. From Shafik’s betrayal monologue:
Trans fems bleeding into fugitives, running in the dark, buried under ruins, peering at me from across the borders. I never got the chance to write my gender manifesto, I was homeless, at work, on the run.
Shafik was masculine in relation to the express femininity of the trans outlaws and nurse, especially in the space of the sex on premises/brothel. Masculinity is read by an audience onto my trans masc and Bobuq’s non-binary body because of the relationships we set up, but it sits uncomfortably on histories, longings, cultures and swishy mannerisms.
Bobuq identifies as an ‘assertive bitch’ in the collective. They wanted to play a character that is unhinged, manic and despicable for a good reason. A denial of power and agency was this reason. We took this further by having Shafik help Subject 33 (Mossy) and XY (Romy); providing a pure form of hormones outside of the evil ‘Hormonium’ corporation. But these girls kept the hormones to themselves, squandering them away and betraying Shafik. So in turn Shafik betrayed them back to the system. Bobuq spoke a lot about how we could complicate trans narratives of empowerment. We wanted to make different characters’ freedoms and expressions rub against and destroy each other.
Mick Klepner Roe, director of Embittered Swish, reflects on collaborating, and on bodies rising and falling in Estrogenesis (Next Wave, 2018).