Miami Performance Festival features fire and lace.

My favorite moments at the inaugural Miami Performance Festival this past weekend came from female artists working subversive and visually striking twists on women’s roles and city life. And you gotta love sexy firedancing at dusk.

 The atmosphere at the three festival events I went to was open and eager – lots of young artists, a few veterans of Miami’s avant garde scene, visitors chatting with locals, kids wandering around, everyone snapping photos or filming the work. Maybe the fact that organizer/director Charo Oquet has combined being an artist with motherhood contributed to the community-family atmosphere. (As a mother myself, I appreciated my daughter and other kids – including some belonging to the participating artists – being welcome at the festival).

 The women in the windows of the Festival’s main Design District space on Thursday evening were stunning in a way totally different from the manikins (living or manufactured) you might expect to see displayed in this empty gallery/retail space (donated by Dacra). The single, simple image of Miami performance artist and dancer Belaxis Buil’s “I Am Useful” reverberated with ideas. Buil turned herself into a table; bent over from the hips, hands grasping a pair of bulky wooden knobs like you might find at the bottom of a table, a lace tablecloth thrown over her back with a few books on top. She stayed in this position for an hour, and after not too long she was in intensely audible and visible pain (the wooden knobs had large screws sticking out of them), sobbing, moaning, dripping tears and mucous. The combination of the image and her suffering was layered with potent, disturbing connotations: Woman as a disregarded domestic appendage, as an object on display, female passivity and masochism, silent suffering in stultifying, lace tablecloth draped conformity. She riveted me and most of the small crowd gathered there.

 In the other window Lucy Hynes, another Miami artist, made very different use of her body and a traditional image of femininity. Hynes sat knitting herself into a giant tube, welcoming people to help her unravel factory-made sweaters into the yarn she used to encase herself in a wooly, multi-colored cocoon. Her dark red hair, creamy pale skin, and downcast eyes emphasized Hynes’ calm – she seemed a pre-Raphaelite sorceress weaving herself into a cocoon, a dreamy feminine version of Alice in Wonderland’s caterpillar. Would she emerge differently or disappear? When would she stop? But the piece had no name and no clear ending – when I returned on Friday evening, her cocoon lay empty.

The highlight Friday was Nicole Soden’s “Sacred Geometry”, and if that was for obvious reasons, it was still enthralling. Voluptuous and flamboyant, Soden unintentionally drew a crowd that sat patiently watching as she prepared her piece, pouring sand, colored powder, and fuel-soaked cat litter into two intersecting circles in a cobble-stoned, white-pillared alley in the Design District. She set them alight as it got dark, then lunged and leaped amid the flames, swirling her hair and body, like some spell-casting, ritual making priestess in the city. The image was mesmerizing and gorgeous – enough that Soden didn’t need the self-conscious sexiness. And her body and dance ability are striking enough that more care with her choreography would make for a much stronger piece. Still, beautiful.

I didn’t see everything, and not everything I did see was this striking. The several performances I caught at Sunday’s event at the beautiful setting of the Miami Beach Botanical Garden seemed meandering and indulgent to me. The Performance Festival needs better organization and communication/information – it would have been nice to have some program info about the artists and their pieces, and it was often hard to know what was happening when. But Oquet has made a good start. Here’s hoping the festival will continue.


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