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Jill Sigman’s ZsaZsaLand Keeps the Party Going

Jill Sigman. Photo by Louie Saletan
Jill Sigman. Photo by Louie Saletan

There is a moment in jill sigman/thinkdance’s ZsaZsaLand when the audience must participate. “Take out your equipment,” performer Mary Suk instructs us via megaphone, opening her cell phone and holding it up. Phones in hand, we are further commanded to step into the space, closer and closer to a band of yellow caution tape delineating the site on the floor of Office Ops’s event space where the spectacle will follow. One of the dancers, Donna Costello, is blindfolded with a rag, spun around, and pushed into the ring. We are told to use our equipment. Phones fly up, aimed at the faceless figure, preserving her in jpeg, adding a flurry of digital snapshot sounds to DJ Joro de Boro’s sonic backdrop and Suk’s drill sergeant whistling. The chaos is part sporting event, part MTV, and part David Lynch.

The scenario is flagrantly suggestive of the disturbing humiliation and torture images that have confronted the American public since 2004. ZsaZsaLand has many such references. But unlike a segment at the end, where dancer and company founder Jill Sigman is bound and repeatedly knocked to the ground until at last she gives up the will to rise, the scene in the ring does not reduce the audience to solemnity. Sure, we “get it”: an artsy statement on objectification and voyeurism with a shout out to the infuriating Lynndie England photos. It’s all very edgy and appropriately angry at the establishment, but it’s also fun. We get to turn on our cell phones and use them during a performance. We have our own unique piece of the show, and we can text it to our friends or put it on MySpace. 

As celebrity culture and flippant irresponsibility now fly in the face of harsh ethical and economic realities, Sigman’s timely ZsaZsaLand illustrates how easily we inhabit the pop wonderland we’ve been creating for decades. Zsa Zsa Gabor made a spectacle of fame itself, long before Paris Hilton, and it is this legacy that informs Sigman’s commentary. Pre-show performers, noses burrowed into bright plastic flowers, are intoxicated by the mere suggestion of opiate delirium. Then a ceremony announces the official start of the performance. Toby Billowitz pulls a makeshift rickshaw, on which Costello, raised like an icon, inhabiting a space of religious or at least political power, shreds fake money with mystical focus.

A note on context (this carnival really is a lot of fun, despite my focus on its darker elements): Sigman dressed the space for the February performances with yarn, Christmas lights, disco balls, shredded paper, sheet plastic, toy soldiers, play money, and other items, and brought in Joro de Boro, of Bulgarian Bar, and MoGlo (Modern Global) of Radio New York, to infuse bohemian revelry. The hybrid costumes were all flash and bright colors. Sports jerseys coexisted with corsets, bangled belly dance sashes, and other exotica. Dressed for gaudy Mardi Gras, with some Super Bowl for good measure, the performers embodied raw fanaticism, pledging their allegiance to celebration above all else—be it for their team, their country, their culture, or just their own good time at the party.

T. S. Eliot said that “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” In times of crisis, the impulse to keep indulging and delay the hangover is acute, however illogical it may be. And convenient as it seems to lay our current mess at the doorstep of greedy politicians and finance execs, it is also undeniable that delusion has infiltrated all levels of our culture. ZsaZsaLand reminds us how easy—and natural—it is to drink the Kool-Aid, or at least to sniff out the open bars and happy hours.


Mary Love Hodges


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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