“Emilyn Claid Untitled is magnetic” | review

Image of Emilyn dancing in a black background

Words by Josephine Leask. Performed at The Place.

Emilyn Claid brings her magnetic presence and seductive interplay of identities back to the stage after 22 years with her solo Untitled. Reflective, humorous and unbelievably moving, she avoids a big Diva entrance but dazzles differently. Learning how to perform again as a mature, queer dancer, she teases and thrills as she eases into her changing body. In many ways Untitled is the process of accepting and enjoying transformation and it’s riveting.

Claid starts her solo with an ending. In silence she takes up her position, centre stage in a pool of exposing light. A clenched fist covers her mouth in a gesture of self-doubt as she tentatively walks in a circle, her focus internalised. She reaches out her arms as if to embrace the surrounding space and feel her power, then drops into a wide-legged, confident squat, one arm bent and resting on her hip. From this position of observation, she looks out, curious, to meet our gaze. 

Untitled was created by Claid’s desire to perform again. She asked choreographers Florence Peake, Heidi Rustgaard and Joseph Mercier to help her. Peake and Rustgaard each choreographed sections that were interwoven and layered with her own material to form a seamless whole. Their quirky, distinctive artistic voices shine through creating a richly textured show that is visually striking in imagery, narrative, movement and design.

Claid draws on her past, present and future. She makes reference, with an action, a prop, anecdote or a piece of music to her extraordinary history as ballet dancer, new dance pioneer, independent artist, artistic director, teacher, writer, professor and Gestalt therapist. Her collage of material builds on lessons learned, truths revealed, stories unfinished, loves and losses. There is no end to the entertainment: camped-up routines, tough-in-cheek virtuosic ballet steps and dressing up. Wearing her 72 years like a well-worn yet revamped costume she plays out a lifetime of transformations as mother, lover, gender-queer lesbian, grandmother and partner, centered around three significant props: a lavish skin, a lump of clay and a theatrical headdress. 

The electropop dance music of Planningtorock begins – Claid switches into cruising gear, striding across the stage with desiring purpose. She creates her own queer dance floor, brimming with endless possibilities and dreams, embodying its language and codes. Claid in black leather trousers and sleeveless top, tattoos decorating her arms, shaved head and killer cheekbones – she’s captured us.  With small suggestive hip tilts, precise hand gestures and a seductive smile, she strikes a series of poses in this triumphant celebration of queering. Later, she performs again to Planningtorock’s clubby tight dance beats, emerging splendidly in a skin of fur and flesh-covered latex, created by designer Shanti Freed and Antonio Psaila. Lovingly stroking this magical material, she manipulates it to become a death shroud, the pink membrane stretched taught over her face. Then draped over her shoulders as a shaman’s cloak. But it’s also an erotic object of her desire, spread out like a flayed skin before her.  Crawling over its fury contours she caresses and sniffs before dragging it possessively between her teeth and off-stage.

In a more frivolous scene, Claid elegantly adorns herself with a huge, excessive headdress of greenery, antlers, birds and other intriguing delights. Asking us to guess the significance of this camp extravaganza she reflects back to her ballet career, where in a production of Cinderella she performed as a walking candelabra. Here she tells of her humiliation at being given such a role – as an extra within the company but also her gratitude to the costume department for introducing her to ballet’s camp side. 

At last she introduces the final prop, a pile of moist, dripping grey clay, sitting lumpen, lifeless, sexless on its moveable table. Yet it matters the most. She assures us she’s learning to live with it. This organic grey matter might signify Claid’s body – the thing that has accompanied her all her life. The thing that grows, shrinks and falls apart, that hurts and causes her shame. She labours to drag it across the stage; smears her face with its gooey matter, gives it therapy, pulls bits off, or kneads it into erotic shapes. Finally she embraces it and in a shocking and touching action immerses her face fully into the soft, damp centre. 

Claid performs with care, rationing her energy, unafraid to stop and be still. In these special moments, alongside the fun and games, we see her vulnerability, her letting go and slowing down. Although Untitled nods to endings and closures, Claid gives us hope in her ability to channel uncertainty and perform change. Showing us how to give in to gravity, she reassures us that the ground is never far away.

Header image by Dahlia Katz.