Elliot Bomboy thinks most people are not aware that they have a body on a day-to-day basis. Bomboy (‘17, Theater and Performance Studies) started work on their piece inspired by this realization, The Reasons Our Bodies Fail, almost a year ago. In a performance-making class, Bomboy wrapped gauze around their face, and that one action developed into what, for now, will be performed one time only in the Elliott Program Center. Described as a temporal dance piece about being working-class, fat, and trans*femme (a term describing people whose gender identity differs from that which they were assigned at birth, who also express or identify with femininity), Bomboy’s style builds on post-modern dance styles, especially the work of Yvonne Rainer. This sort of performance is deeply focused in the movement of the human body, and impeding those movements as dance.
“I don’t know how much people think about it here,” Bomboy says of the physical nature of being-in-the-world. At a place like Stanford, the body is just a thing used to carry around someone’s brain. Some people, though, cannot afford to stop thinking about how they exist, how their physical body moves through the world.
Fat people are judged on their body everywhere, from restaurants to doctors’ offices. Working-class people overwhelmingly work in extremely physically taxing jobs–standing for hours on end, lifting and moving heavy things, etc. Trans*femme people must conform to a certain image, or have their gender identity invalidated continuously. The actions that Bomboy performs in this piece are gripping metaphors for the way that fat, trans*femme, working-class, and others must perform daily.
“You can’t just expect to show up in your performance space and be able to walk in high heels and ankle weights. You’d hurt yourself,” they say. Every day, though, the people Bomboy represents in this piece practice, so that they fit into a world that is content to hurt them for being who they are and existing where they do–outside of the mainstream.
So how do people practice fitting into a world not made for them? Look no further than the gauze that Bomboy has used to wrap their face. What interests Bomboy is “the deliberateness of it, slowly seeing the face disappear, adding things and wrapping over that.” The potential for layering over, bulking up the face as more layers get added, increasingly conceals what is underneath. Isn’t this what society asks almost everyone to do to some extent? This request becomes a demand for people who identify with those represented in this piece. Add another layer. We don’t want to see your fat, we don’t want to see the makeup on a face that is not what we are used to. Cover that up. And each of these demands makes it harder for people to exist. Those hindered bodies are perhaps most confrontational onstage, where we expect everything we see to come effortlessly. Fat, working-class, trans*femme people, we think, must always be working. And they are, because we make them.
Bomboy’s piece is a reaction to mainstream (and Stanford theater), both building on their theater education at Stanford as well as the theater that is prevalent on this campus. Performance art creates a space for a lot of unconventional work, says Bomboy–where traditional theater requires precision and intensive training, performance art merely requires skill in the ability to conceptualize a piece that challenges something, or that provokes thought. While performance art is often thought of as grounded in making people uncomfortable, Bomboy does not aim to do so. They are cognizant that in movement pieces, fat bodies especially are confrontational. But what if our discomfort came from this piece, not because of this confrontation with the uncomfortable, but because we challenge our own thoughts about who “should” be onstage in front of us? That is what Bomboy hopes to leave us with. “I hope people think about their bodies for even just a minute, and about the privilege their bodies hold,” they say.
I will admit: Elliot Bomboy’s performance piece, The Reasons Our Bodies Fail, is what I would usually call “not my type” of theater. I’m into plays written by old white men, musicals, and, yes, contemporary plays acted by thin casts. But on Friday, February 5th, I will watch Elliott wrap their face in gauze, walk in ankle weights and heels, and whatever else they decide is necessary to make sure this piece is exactly what they feel like it needs to be. I will think about why and how my body does not fail (and if it ever does). I will think about how theater–and the world–will continue to fail other people’s bodies, if we let it.
Painting photo courtesy of ReneMagritte.org