I thought it very appropriate that the rehearsal space for the boxing opera Voice-Box was a children's ballet studio. I could only imagine that between Nutcracker rehearsals, girls in pink gauze may have peered in to see the fierce women of the urbanvessel collective boxing while singing about “slug fests” or doing push-ups. I wish I could have been there when those young individuals were struck by curiosity. I wish I could have asked them what they thought about seeing women box and if it made them feel tough or cool; if they felt taller or stronger, more empowered, or if it made them feel conflicted or confused or even scared. I would want to ask them why they felt the way they did and what they thought contributed to their reactions.
Originally commissioned through the Fresh Ground new works series, Voice-Box is the latest production by the Toronto-based collective being presented this week as part of World Stage at Harbourfront Centre. Singers/composers/improvisers/boxers Vilma Vitols, Neema Bickersteth, Christine Duncan, and Savoy Howe team up with Juliet Palmer, Julia Aplin, Anna Chatterton, Teresa Przybylski, and Kimberly Purtell to create a show which is part boxing match, part opera. The singers move between choreography, voice work, and boxing within a constructed boxing ring rather than a traditional stage. The piece is broken into four rounds and includes fractured narratives and story lines as well as real boxing.
I knew before arriving at the Voice-Box open rehearsal that the idea of gender portrayal is still something many people struggle with and that the show is an attempt to illustrate some layers of this complex notion. I've thought a lot about “toughness” and what it means to be “feminine” or “not feminine” and subsequently what it then means to be “masculine” or otherwise. In a way, I am amazed that we are still surprised by the supposed roles of men and women. Haven't we moved past classifying gender in such a narrow scope? Can't we forget about focusing on how these are women boxers/singers and just enjoy the extremely physical and emotional nature of these two forms together in space? Can't they exist as a group of highly trained individuals who have set out to explore something within the particular frame of this stage/ring?
But as much as I'd like that to be the case, it’s not possible. We can't ignore the fact that these deeply ingrained gender structures still exist or at the very least are transitioning out of an incredibly long-lived past history (which ultimately shadows the notion of contemporary women today). The entire piece is extremely self-aware of the gendered nature of the performers; in a big way, their gender is the point of the piece. The performers have tea parties, flirt, fight in tutus, skip rope, apply make-up black eyes, and perform slow motion boxing choreography. They sing and smile while portraying stereotypical feminine women as well as butch women or any classification in between. The tongue in cheek tone of the piece seems to slip to the side of humour and stylized suggestions of “real” boxing and “real” women.
But there were also moments when dipped into something deeper. I wanted to see the heartbreak and exhaustion of what I can only imagine would occur at a boxing match or training gym. I wanted to hear them sing and feel their (and my) guts vibrating. I wanted to hear their stories and to be held by the performance, drama, and spectacle that I knew these two forms are able to provide. I felt this urge inside of me to see them fight and sing and live while still being seen as “feminine” because I am under the impression that “feminine” or “masculine” are only things we each construct by simply being who we are and existing in the world. We each get to define what gender means for us.
The elemental similarities of spectacle, drama and skill found in the theatre and the sports ring were closer than I anticipated. We as audience members know our place in the theatre; we know our traditional role. We also know our role as a spectator when attending a sports game. I loved the conflict of these two roles (and their consequential social codes) being butted up against each other in Voice-Box. I loved that fight within myself when considering I know how I should behave.
I've heard about Savoy Howe's gym The Toronto News Girls and the incredible Shape Your Life boxing program for victims of abuse that is affiliated with it. I've heard about how this is one of the only women and trans friendly spaces for people to explore boxing and it makes me proud that this place exists in Toronto. It makes me proud that people like her are doing the work they do.