Urbanvessel Deconstructs Gender One Punch at a Time in Voice-Box, Review by Cara Spooner

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.





7 comments:

Mariel said...

After seeing Voicebox on Thursday, I had the chance to step up to the bag and swing a punch in the postshow boxing corner. In a skirt, pointed suede boots and boxing gloves, I hit that punching bag with wild abandon. It felt good, really good. I started punching and just kept going, almost as if I couldn’t stop. People stopped and stared. It was a performance in itself and I think it was telling: I obviously have some pent up female aggression. Then, after being instructed to breathe out of my mouth (I'd been holding my breath) and getting some stance tips, I tried again and this time, each hit felt like a release. Combined with the adrenaline, I think I finally started to realize what the show was really about, what this unexplored, untapped idea of female aggression really means. I consider myself a completely non-violent person and I rarely get angry. And yet, I couldn’t stop my fists from flying at that bag and pelting like it was yesterday's left-over mashed potatoes. Where was this coming from? Of course I understand the idea of female aggression but what was happening to me? I’m not an aggressive person, am I?
I feel as though these questions, these insights and critical ideas about women and aggression, are what this piece is really trying to explore, however, the segments remains too passive and fragmented in presentation to really reach the guts of the issues. There are moments of brilliance where the fleshy ideas start to come out (the nose bleed solo, for instance) but overall, the flow of the piece doesn’t allow the audience to connect with the depths of the material. I wanted an uncompromising look into the world of women’s agression, power, structure and society. What I expereienced was more of a series of interesting and strange vocal/physical explorations which didn't seem to connect. I wanted to know why? Why opera and boxing? Why scat singing and choral work? How do they relate to boxing? To women? To agression? What does the tea have to do with anything? Am I just not looking deep enough? Perhaps, but I think the lack of direction in the piece took away from its potential power and made the issues lacklustre at best. I feel lucky to have been one of the few to stay after the show and try out my "hammers", as this was a direct tap into the visceral juice of the issues; I just wish the show was able to get this kind of a reaction from the performance material itself.

See you at the gym. Dukes up!

Mariel said...

After seeing Voicebox on Thursday, I had the chance to step up to the bag and swing a punch in the postshow boxing corner. In a skirt, pointed suede boots and boxing gloves, I hit that punching bag with wild abandon. It felt good, really good. I started punching and just kept going, almost as if I couldn’t stop. People stopped and stared. It was a performance in itself and I think it was telling: I obviously have some pent up female aggression. Then, after being instructed to breathe out of my mouth (I'd been holding my breath) and getting some stance tips, I tried again and this time, each hit felt like a release. Combined with the adrenaline, I think I finally started to realize what the show was really about, what this unexplored, untapped idea of female aggression really means. I consider myself a completely non-violent person and I rarely get angry. And yet, I couldn’t stop my fists from flying at that bag and pelting like it was yesterday's left-over mashed potatoes. Where was this coming from? Of course I understand the idea of female aggression but what was happening to me? I’m not an aggressive person, am I?
I feel as though these questions, these insights and critical ideas about women and aggression, are what this piece is really trying to explore, however, the segments remains too passive and fragmented in presentation to really reach the guts of the issues. There are moments of brilliance where the fleshy ideas start to come out (the nose bleed solo, for instance) but overall, the flow of the piece doesn’t allow the audience to connect with the depths of the material. I wanted an uncompromising look into the world of women’s agression, power, structure and society. What I expereienced was more of a series of interesting and strange vocal/physical explorations which didn't seem to connect. I wanted to know why? Why opera and boxing? Why scat singing and choral work? How do they relate to boxing? To women? To agression? What does the tea have to do with anything? Am I just not looking deep enough? Perhaps, but I think the lack of direction in the piece took away from its potential power and made the issues lacklustre at best. I feel lucky to have been one of the few to stay after the show and try out my "hammers", as this was a direct tap into the visceral juice of the issues; I just wish the show was able to get this kind of a reaction from the performance material itself.

See you at the gym. Dukes up!

Coman said...

I saw Voice-Box last night and second your observations Mariel.

Here's my "gloves off" artistic response as a member of The Embassy.

As a World Stage/Fresh Ground production, Voice-Box bills itself as a (theatrical) "event" but alas, in midst of the gendered/relational humour and the predominant (physical) dance/fight posturing, I found myself craving for sustained (raw/unintimated) aggression between women boxers that evoked the visceral, sweat-dripping nature of a boxing match.

Disappointingly, it was only at the very end, during the curtain call, that I finally began to experience something that registered in my gut (and not just in my head).

Voice-Box left me wanting for more.

More of an understanding of urbanvessel's supposed intent: mapping/contrasting the edges between female aggression and violence and the connection of female voice to physical and psychological power.

Instead, I found myself waiting for the self-consciously playful gender de/construction to drop and for the real raw (and perhaps surprising) investigation of what "punching like a girl" is all about.

The use of 'rounds' as a dramaturgical frame felt underdeveloped and trite. When appropriating structure (from boxing in the case of Voice-Box), I wish to be transmitted a sense of the "why" and "how" of the re/contextualization.

As a new opera/music theatre piece, I agree that Voice-Box does not need to be narratively linear. However, like any audience-engaged "event", there needs to be a reason why we are being asked to co-participate ( i.e. I wanted to be brought to a place where I questioned why I was cheering, or laughing for that matter).

The written program excepted an article by Elissa Poole that was published in Words & Music and Opera Canada magazine promisingly citing Joyce Carol Oates in her 1985 book On Boxing as almost like an artistic call to arms: "Men fighting men to determine..masculinity...excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously-she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous."

Ironically, I feel like the first two manifested in Voice-box but not the latter, which would have been the most interesting (and perhaps riskiest) to explore.

In short, I expected to be taken on a visceral and transformative journey that threaded the various themes and theatrical vignettes so that I can connect the psycho-social, political and formal aspects of seeing women scrapping it out and "displaying strength, sweat and skill".

Disappointingly, all I got was cleverness and "tea".

Coman said...

I saw Voice-Box last night and second your observations Mariel.

Here's my "gloves off" artistic response as a member of The Embassy.

As a World Stage/Fresh Ground production, Voice-Box bills itself as a (theatrical) "event" but alas, in midst of the gendered/relational humour and the predominant (physical) dance/fight posturing, I found myself craving for sustained (raw/unintimated) aggression between women boxers that evoked the visceral, sweat-dripping nature of a boxing match.

Disappointingly, it was only at the very end, during the curtain call, that I finally began to experience something that registered in my gut (and not just in my head).

More...

Coman said...

Voice-Box left me wanting for more.

More of an understanding of urbanvessel's supposed intent: mapping/contrasting the edges between female aggression and violence and the connection of female voice to physical and psychological power.

Instead, I found myself waiting for the self-consciously playful gender de/construction to drop and for the real raw (and perhaps surprising) investigation of what "punching like a girl" is all about.

The use of 'rounds' as a dramaturgical frame felt underdeveloped and trite. When appropriating structure (from boxing in the case of Voice-Box), I wish to be transmitted a sense of the "why" and "how" of the re/contextualization.

As a new opera/music theatre piece, I agree that Voice-Box does not need to be narratively linear. However, like any audience-engaged "event", there needs to be a reason why we are being asked to co-participate ( i.e. I wanted to be brought to a place where I questioned why I was cheering, or laughing for that matter).

The written program excepted an article by Elissa Poole that was published in Words & Music and Opera Canada magazine promisingly citing Joyce Carol Oates in her 1985 book On Boxing as almost like an artistic call to arms: "Men fighting men to determine..masculinity...excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously-she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous."

Ironically, I feel like the first two manifested in Voice-box but not the latter, which would have been the most interesting (and perhaps riskiest) to explore.

In short, I expected to be taken on a visceral and transformative journey that threaded the various themes and theatrical vignettes so that I can connect the psycho-social, political and formal aspects of seeing women scrapping it out and "displaying strength, sweat and skill".

Disappointingly, all I got was cleverness and "tea".

Dan Daley said...

Voice-Box depicts the oppression of women in society, expressions of sexuality and the nature of female aggression. This is the first presentation of the work and I got the sense that more revisions are to come. It is evident that dramaturgical work has been done to simplify the complexity of the issues at hand and to present the performance in a segmented manner. The whole experience is highly entertaining despite it’s somewhat pieced together nature.

Savoy Howe’s stories of overcoming discrimination, sexism and bullying are absolutely enthralling, especially when she tells them herself. I think I could have sat and listened to her talk and been completely absorbed by the world she has experienced. Equally thrilling is the fight sequence at the end of the show between Savoy and a representative fighter, Janice, from the NewsGirls Boxing Club. However, if I really want to see boxing then I should go and watch boxing. I need to remind myself that this is a work of theatre and what we are there to see is the creativity in which the artists interpret the themes, motifs and facts about the sport.

I was truly amazed by the arrangement of vocal work in conjunction with physical prowess. Vilma Vitols taking punches to the stomach while singing Carmen is stupefying. The performance played out like a sequence of vignettes, each designed to highlight something different about female behaviour and psychology.

I can’t say I agree with the sport of boxing as the best direction for anyone to explore their aggression. The culture of boxing seems to promote violence, albeit with fists and not guns, but violence none the less. I believe boxing requires a level of discipline, to not use the training unless in self-defence, much like martial arts will also require of its students. However, there is a rigour and a sense of control in martial arts that I feel boxing is without. Savoy told a story about initiating women of her gym by taking them to the local bar and giving them 45 minutes to pick a fight. Maybe that makes you tougher, but it sounds more like someone going out and looking for trouble instead of trouble finding them.

I believe in the messages of the performance, but wonder about how serious it will be taken. Of course this is just one theatre show, but perhaps audiences are missing the point. Despite the promotion of aggression, it comes down to empowerment which may require a few more punches to the gut before we reach equality.

Dan Daley said...

Voice-Box depicts the oppression of women in society, expressions of sexuality and the nature of female aggression. This is the first presentation of the work and I got the sense that more revisions are to come. It is evident that dramaturgical work has been done to simplify the complexity of the issues at hand and to present the performance in a segmented manner. The whole experience is highly entertaining despite it’s somewhat pieced together nature.

Savoy Howe’s stories of overcoming discrimination, sexism and bullying are absolutely enthralling, especially when she tells them herself. I think I could have sat and listened to her talk and been completely absorbed by the world she has experienced. Equally thrilling is the fight sequence at the end of the show between Savoy and a representative fighter, Janice, from the NewsGirls Boxing Club. However, if I really want to see boxing then I should go and watch boxing. I need to remind myself that this is a work of theatre and what we are there to see is the creativity in which the artists interpret the themes, motifs and facts about the sport.

I was truly amazed by the arrangement of vocal work in conjunction with physical prowess. Vilma Vitols taking punches to the stomach while singing Carmen is stupefying. The performance played out like a sequence of vignettes, each designed to highlight something different about female behaviour and psychology.

I can’t say I agree with the sport of boxing as the best direction for anyone to explore their aggression. The culture of boxing seems to promote violence, albeit with fists and not guns, but violence none the less. I believe boxing requires a level of discipline, to not use the training unless in self-defence, much like martial arts will also require of its students. However, there is a rigour and a sense of control in martial arts that I feel boxing is without. Savoy told a story about initiating women of her gym by taking them to the local bar and giving them 45 minutes to pick a fight. Maybe that makes you tougher, but it sounds more like someone going out and looking for trouble instead of trouble finding them.

I believe in the messages of the performance, but wonder about how serious it will be taken. Of course this is just one theatre show, but perhaps audiences are missing the point. Despite the promotion of aggression, it comes down to empowerment which may require a few more punches to the gut before we reach equality.