Tapping Into the Feminine Wild (With Help From Simone de Beauvoir)

Posted October 23, 2018 8:33 p.m. EDT

A rehearsal of "Sex Status 2.0," by Carrie Ahern, in New York, Oct. 22, 2018. Ahern's latest undertaking comes out of her thinking about “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist masterwork from 1949. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

NEW YORK — Carrie Ahern isn’t one of those contemporary choreographers who makes a dance and moves on. She really digs her heels into a piece, and before you know it, she’s created a multiyear project — like her investigation into modern death, for which she learned how to hunt and butcher and slaughter animals. She performed the first part in a butcher shop.

Her latest undertaking, “Sex Status 2.0,” comes out of her thinking about “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist masterwork from 1949. Ahern, 43, is only just getting started. She turned to “The Second Sex” in 2016 when she was reading Sarah Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Café,” which chronicles the existential movement in Europe.

“I had read so many of the existentialists,” she said, but only the men. “I neglected Simone de Beauvoir. I thought, this is idiotic that I haven’t entered her realm before. Then the election happened. I was trying to figure out what project do I want to do? I thought, this is it.”

Performed in private homes beginning Wednesday, the work features seven female dancers who look at the ways in which women are seen — and how they see themselves — in society. How much has changed since “The Second Sex” was published? Men, Beauvoir wrote, propose to stabilize women “as object and to doom her to immanence.”

That doom is Ahern’s jumping-off point for “Sex Status,” which includes a multiple-choice audience survey about sexual and cleaning preferences. (To Beauvoir, the relentless labor of housecleaning means it could never be a satisfying task.) One asks, “How do you feel about getting tips on your cleaning habits?” with four possible answers: A) take it as it comes; B) sick to my stomach; C) yes, please; and D) enraged. The question is also framed around sexual habits; the choices are the same.

In a touch-consent section, dancers approach audience members with a request: To touch them on a favorite spot like, in Ahern’s case, the back of the neck.

The choreography shifts from task-oriented movements referring loosely to cleaning — polishing the floor gradually morphs into twisting and writhing — to a more unfettered, full-body release in an improvisation where the dancers rub up against surfaces and sometimes speak with feverish abandon. It’s intimate, and for that reason Ahern wanted to perform in private residences. Audiences can choose from three locations: Two in Brooklyn (Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick) and Manhattan (the Upper East Side); addresses are provided to those with reservations. “The public and private become so porous,” Ahern said. “Everyone’s home has idiosyncrasies, and as a group of dancers, our own idiosyncrasies interact with that of the home and host.”

Their research leading up to “Sex Status,” including long discussions and improvisations, has been particularly rich for the dancers, especially given the current political landscape. “It was like we were planting seeds and watching them grow, and that our garden felt wild,” said the dancer Elke Rindfleisch. “Like a garden of wildflowers.”

While “Sex Status” has a specific structure, Rindfleisch finds that the work is slightly different every time they perform it, she said, “because it allows for the immediacy of the experience. I find that very feminine. Or what we have defined as feminine.”

For Ahern, that relates to the freedom that she allows for in the piece. “It’s really about permission,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much of that in a dance: To do exactly what I want to do or don’t want to do.”

These are edited excerpts from a recent interview with Ahern.

Q: How did Beauvoir’s idea about women being doomed to immanence inspire you?

A:She talks about how housekeeping and house cleaning are essentially pushing against the negative, and that is why it cannot be as satisfying as working outside the home. Pushing into the negative is work that’s never done — it will never be finished. In some ways, it becomes invisible almost the moment it’s finished.

Q: How did the book guide you?

A: We really worked out of Volume 2, in which she basically chronicles the lived experience and the conditioning of girls or women from cradle to grave. I pulled quotes from that section, and asked questions that we answered through the body.

Q: For example?

A:One of the huge questions that we worked with is based on a quote about what is traditional femininity. I asked this in different ways with the dancers: “What does femininity mean to you?” “Was there ever a time when someone put you into a specific box of femininity?” At the core of it, there was what we call the feminine wild.

Q: Is that the improvisation section?

A:Yes. You’re undoing anything that would get in the way of being yourself. It means that you have to listen to yourself, and that became some of the heart of the piece. As the work progresses, we get more into it. I had everybody create a ritual from a place of deep, unfiltered femininity.

Q: Like what?

A: One of the rituals in the piece is about healing a place where there has been violence. One of the rituals is that you have to go on an impossible journey.

Q: What does that look like?

A:In that one, there’s a sense of stillness and waiting and repetition in order to build your strength.

Q: You’ve said that audience participation is something that can be both comfortable and uncomfortable. How far do you push the uncomfortable and how important is comfort?

A:I think that I have a talent for making people feel comfortable enough to get uncomfortable. It’s really about making people able to take that step so they can start to shift their perspective.

Q: To wake up a little bit?

A: Yes. I need to be respectful. I know everyone’s coming from a different place. But it’s one of the most important things for me to do: I feel if I don’t I’m missing a great opportunity, especially in the realm of the body and dance. We have such a great opportunity to get people more deeply into their bodies. The body is more honest. You can’t abstract it. So if you’re really listening, it will tell you where you’re at with something. That’s actually where the change can happen.