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Carrie Ahern, a dancer and choreographer, has a knack for getting audiences comfortable with being uncomfortable. She prefers deep dives, immersing herself in spaces of cultural taboo and creating performance from or within them. Take, for example, Borrowed Prey, a work that involves the flaying of a lamb carcass, performed in a butcher shop, for which she learned to hunt and slaughter animals.
Her latest piece, Sex Status 2.0, is an investigation of domesticity and power via Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist masterwork, The Second Sex, from which Ahern pulled quotes and asked her dancers to respond — meaning she “asked questions of their bodies and their bodies expressed an answer.” The response is an intense performance of intimacy set in intimate spaces. Now in its second run since its 2018 premiere, Sex Status 2.0 is performed by seven dancers, including Ahern herself, in different private homes throughout the city. The dancers make choreographic use of the entire physical space, utilizing end-tables, window-ledges, kitchen countertops.
The performance begins with gestures reminiscent of cleaning. A leather sofa becomes charged with new meaning as a dancer rubs her elbow back-and-forth across it. Another dancer, channeling Lady Macbeth, scrubs vigorously, with her knee, at an invisible spot on the hardwood floor. “I just can’t,” she says, “I just. Can’t. Get. At. It.” The determined repetition of movement, almost frenzied, evokes other determined repetitions of movement. What elusive spot are the dancers trying to get to? Ahern, moving around the carpet, tugging her hands through her hair, provides an answer: “I think I got it,” she says, looking up, smiling. “Pleasure.”
Cut to the Multiple Choice Audience Survey, with questions and a show of hands: How do you communicate cleaning expectations? How do you communicate sexual expectations? (Spoiler alert: response options are the same.) If all of this sounds a bit funny, it is. Ahern astutely couples intensity with levity. Isn’t that what real intimacy looks like?
In a section that plays with inversions of the “male gaze,” and how women see and are seen, dancers lock eyes with audience members. In a “consent” section, dancers ask if we’d be willing to touch them in a favorite way: swooshing hands quickly down the body, for example, or fingers brushing collarbone. Asking for what we want is difficult, but here is Ahern and her dancers making it look easy.
In between, movement happens — duets shift to solos, seamlessly, in patterns undetectable because of our proximity. We’re in it. In the most deeply moving of the sections, dancers come together in a series of repeating formations that resemble scenes from a painting, or tableaux vivants. In one, Ahern lies across the floor, limbs and head cradled by her dancers. In another, a dancer, Donna Costello, extends her arm skyward, reaching, mouth agape. It’s all very egalitarian and beautiful, the women taking turns supporting each other and serving as the central figure.
Sex Status 2.0 is a performance of desire in all of its expressions — anguished, flirty, direct, sorrowful, desperate, awkward, joyous — and, as such, essential viewing. When I first saw the piece last fall, in a tiny studio apartment in Bed Stuy, the intensity was ratcheted up to eleven. (The size of the space really does alter the experience of it.) Our closeness to the dancers makes us feel what they’re feeling. This is important. One can avoid vulnerability — avert their gaze, refuse consent, leave the room altogether — but why would one want to? Ahern is an artist who rewards her audience for their willingness, like her, to engage deeply.
Engagement with boundaries, mind you. At one point during the opening section, my foot suddenly became problematic. “This,” Ahern said, crawling toward me on all fours, pointing, “this, is in my way.”
Carrie Ahern’s Sex Status 2.0 returns today through October 19 at a private home in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn (details available with ticket purchase). The performance features costumes by Naoko Nagata, lighting by Jay Ryan, and a score by Starr Busby.