BUILDING CHARACTER Chambre performers grappling with themes of oppression. (photo by Jose Carlos Casado)
“No one listens if you just tell them what’s wrong,” explains Jack Ferver, a New York-based dancer, choreographer, actor, teacher, and writer, as we sit in the large back gallery space of the ICA at MECA. “Everyone knows what’s wrong, but how do people feel it?”
I’ve come to check out Rehearsal Space: Dance and Conversation, a residency/exhibit/open studio/performance space for the creation of a new collaborative work, Chambre, by Ferver and visual artist Marc Swanson. Since mid-June, the artwork of Swanson (see “Man is the Sum of His Arts” by Mariah Bergeron, July 11, 2014) has taken the role of both formal art exhibit and set design installation, awaiting the arrival of performers Michelle Mola (Peaks Island), Jacob Slominski (New York City), and Ferver to begin creating an original performance piece in the gallery, in a process that has been open to public viewing since mid-July. In its most present iteration, the ICA will host three free performances this weekend, before a commissioned premiere at Bard College in November.
Ferver, 35, gracefully exchanges his stage costume of pantyhose and knee pads (“They’re so gross, like a second fake skin”) for street attire at the end of today’s rehearsal. His compact frame is secretly muscular; his face holds generous features. While he has a resumé that extends through television, feature films, and commercial work, it’s his performance art pieces, combining dance and language, that make Ferver a known artist in the New York gallery scene and beyond, with reviews in the likes of the New Yorker, the New York Times, ArtForum, and Dance Magazine. Ferver has been creating full-length performance work since 2007, almost exclusively autobiographical (Chambre is his first work as a character that isn’t named “Jack”).
For nearly a year, Ferver, Mola, and Slominski have been generating the performative concepts for Chambre during New York residencies at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in the city and the Watermill Center on Long Island. Now, the group is crafting the full performance, for the first time working with Swanson’s ICA installation: two walls of disjointed boudoir space using doors, windows, and closets that meet at a vertex of two giant mirrors. When not on stage, the three performers have sedentary stand-ins in the shape of three pedestaled armatures draped in plaster-soaked bandages. Everything is pure matte white, with irregular gold accents of necklace chains or swathes of paint, like a redecorating job abandoned.
Chambre takes inspiration from Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids, based loosely on the gruesome murder of a woman and child by their live-in help, sisters Léa and Christine Papin, in Le Mans, France, in 1933. The Maids portrayed the sisters as oppressed and obsessed with their bourgeois employer, concocting sadistic games of emulating and killing her. Genet viewed the Papin case as representational of class warfare and the potential effects of poverty under duress. It is considered that Genet’s original intent was for the play to be an all-male cast, though historically most stagings have been played by women (the ICA production enlists Ferver and Slominski in the roles of Christine and Léa respectively, with Mola as their mistress). These themes—class, power, gender, death—specifically charge each phase of Chambre, informing the sounds and shapes of performance and installation.