writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Matters of the Flesh

All You Need
Erika Shuch Performance Project
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, California
April 18, 2004

by Ann Murphy
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy
published April 19, 2004

[Editor's note:  Reader discretion advised; this review contains historical information about, and descriptions of, cannibalism which some may find disturbing.]

"The term cannibalism derives from the name of the West Indian Carib tribe, first documented by the explorer Christopher Columbus. The Carib tribe was alleged to eat others— it remains unclear whether they did indeed do so."

You have to hand it to an artist who wants to get her hands dirty on the subject of cannibalism. I can’t think of many more messy, unappetizing themes, but dance/theater artist Erika Shuch of the Erika Shuch Performance Project eagerly plunged in with her latest piece All You Need, which ran for 10 sold-out shows at the tiny black box theater at Intersection for the Arts through last Sunday. It’s important to note that she didn’t arrive at her subject by herself: Cannibalism has been in the news, and not because food is in short supply.

Just a year ago, self-proclaimed cannibal Armin Meiwes of Rotenburg, Germany admitted to killing and eating 44 pounds of 43-year-old Bernd Brandes, beginning with his penis, which he flambéd and shared with the hemmorhaging victim, who had downed 20 sleeping pills and a half of a bottle of schnapps. In December he was convicted and sentenced to 8 years in prison. Meiwes trawled for willing subjects on the internet, advertising for "a young well-built man who wants to be eaten." Although older than the 18-30-year-old subject Meiwes was seeking, Brandes, a computer techie like Meiwes, replied and was chosen.

Besides its own complement of jokes, the Meiwes case has unleashed a flurry of philosophical discussion. Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal, launching up an inquiry on mutual consent cannibalism, writes: "Lest anyone think that the argument from mutual consent for the permissibility of cannibalism is purely theoretical, it is precisely what Meiwes’s defense lawyer is arguing in court. The case is a reductio ad absurdum of the philosophy according to which individual desire is the only thing that counts in deciding what is permissible in society. Brandes wanted to be killed and eaten; Meiwes wanted to kill and eat. Thanks to one of the wonders of modern technology, the Internet, they both could avoid that most debilitating of all human conditions, frustrated desire."

Although the case begs for a wild dose of dark humor, preferrably Monty Python's, it raises a central dilemma inherent in the extremes of individualism: at what point is mutual consent invalidated by principles of greater social good? Does cannibalism damage the social fabric even as it purports to affect no one outside the consenting act? Shuch doesn't ever get that far. For her, cannibalism is inseparable from love.

But cannibalism takes a truly terrifying turn in Africa, where rebel soldiers in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo are said to be hunting down, slaughtering and eating Pygmy people, often forcing family members to consume or watch others eat organs of fathers, mothers, sisters or brothers. The Pygmy are being targeted because of their seeming otherworldly knowledge of the jungle (which the soldiers literally hope to acquire through ingestion), their magical properties (which the soldiers simultaneously hope to eradicate and acquire), and to terrorize everyone else into absolute obedience. The culture in a swath of central Africa, the jungle now a terrifying zone of political, cultural and spiritual combat.

In California we are haunted by the tale of a group of 83 men, women and children emigrants who set out in wagons from Missouri, took a flawed short cut through Utah, and got caught in a brutal snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada. Forty five of the Donner Party died. Those who got out alive ate their way out, dining on fellow travelers, although careful to ensure, as one historian noted, that "no person partook of kindred flesh." Every summer when my family stops in Truckee, not far from the Donner Pass, we tell the joke: a hostess at a nearby restaurant gets ready to seat a group of diners and announces over the intercom: "Donner Party, party of 6. Oops, make that party of 5." And every year, we laugh. Inevitably I think about being trapped in the snow, starving. But try as I might I never get past the image of blinding white world and deadly cold. I think about how Napoleon’s soldiers, near death in the Russian winter retreat of 1812, resorted to eating their dead comrades. I remember that a group of Uruguayan rugby players whose plane crashed in the Andes in the 1970’s survived by eating the dead among them. I know that in a pinch most of us would bite, even us vegetarians.

But all cannibalism is not the same. Survival cannibalism is still bound by animal need which bestows on it some moral standing or in the very least moral exemption. Cannibalism employed by the rebel solidiers as simultaneously an act of terror and an act of magical empowerment has no such exemption, while Jeffrey Dahlmer’s murderous cannibalism belongs to the end of the human bandwidth where serial murder and other forms of derangement reside. Meiwes, on the other hand, claims to have cooked up for himself the kind of incantatory, libidinized act that more closely coincides with ritual cannibalism in religion, where ingesting the dead preserved their spirit, or strengthened the living, or linked the living with the gods. The Roman Catholics and Anglicans still go through the symbolic ritual of eating and drinking god’s flesh and blood and in so doing believe they are sanctified by otherworldly power and glory. Communion has been abstracted from the actual practice of blood sacrifice, but the ancestral traces are there.

While Shuch places cannibalism at the end of the spectrum with incantatory action, she never delves more than skin deep into the issues of who would or wouldn’t eat human flesh, or the right or wrong of it, or what it even means. Is it just another form of eating, although an outre one that requires pain and blood and sharp utensils? Is it only related to a love extreme?

The hour-long work begins with a team of four movers (Rowena Richie, Victoria McNichol Kelly, Melanie Elms and Jennifer Chien) attached to strings held by fellow performer Jesse Howell, the way a dogsled rider would hold the leads of his dogs. One by one these strings cleverly unzip or untie and remove a piece of clothing from the movers. I waited expectantly for this witty trope to go somewhere. It never did. Instead, what followed was a small, sometimes sensuous, almost sweet look at cannibalism that went like this: "I want you to eat me. I’m serious. I want to be inside of you. For real."

We’re not talking oral sex (that would be "implied not actual" eating, the script says) but knife and fork and blood and flesh eating. With some of the show’s best wit, designer Sean Riley hung utensils (along with a chair, an ashtray and other items) from above. Jars of hideous looking organs draped the right wall, suggesting the formaldehyded body parts in a biology lab. Ishan Vernallis’ video, which added color but was oddly discursive, was projected on the wall beyond. In the knick of time, the utensils presented themselves to the expressive Rowena Ritchie, all ready to eat her lover prey. But soon she got sidetracked and turned the fork into a toothpick and the knife shaft into a mirror. The narcissism of the ultimate gourmand? Dwanye Calizo’s band, perched on a high up platform, droned on.

In her director’s note Shuch writes: "I am hestitant and a little embarassed to admit that this story [about Meiwes] makes so much sense to me. I relate to the feeling of wanting someone so much, of this longing that seems to take over your body and cloud your vision. I have a tendency to romanticize things, I realize, but this story struck me as a love story. Once upon a time there were two men with too much passion in a world that doesn’t accommodate such extremities of devotion. The end."

Is Meiwes and Brandes’ story really about too much passion—two men who had never met before? Or is it about a private psychic hunger that was so vast it led to derangement, the hunger becoming a literalized longing that resulted in murder/suicide? If love, eros and cannibalism are inextricable then what does it mean to love--to either eat or be eaten? This could be comic if it didn’t lead us back to Brandes’ flambed penis. To kill someone, even with the victim’s permission, is still murder.

This tricky bit of fact may be what keeps Shuch from exploring cannibalism as well as she might have: she is caught wanting to use it as a metaphor, but has chosen real-time cannibalism with mutilation as her starting point. Did Shuch know that when Meiwes mapped out meat cuts on the bodies of a few of his near-victims, these men soon fled? Maybe it seemed a lot less romantic to be reduced to shoulder, center, loin, rib-eye and shank cuts than they imagined, since a butcher’s map is about as far from an homage to one's uniqueness as one can get.

Meiwes didn’t really care who he ate, whereas Shuch in All You Need is trying to understand the desire to ingest the specific essence of a beloved other, even if it entails aggression. Love isn't always pretty. I have teeth marks on my belly from where my sister as a toddler took a bite out of me. While it wasn’t delight that drove her to it, it was my flesh and only mine that she was after.

But rather than pushing the cannibal dialogue on, All You Need repeats essentially the same exchange
(I want you.
I’m serious.
I don’t know.
I want to be inside you.
There are other ways.
Implied not actual.)
with different movers, tweaking the tone but only slightly, forcing neither the images nor the ideas much further than they got in the first round. Jennifer Chien makes a small sidetrip into the world of not-eating, but how this is linked with cannibalism is never explored. When we hear the saws ripping upstairs and lots of stomping from the out-of-view cast, when Howell lopes along the ground howling dangerously "Do you trust me?," or when the compelling Melanie Elms turns to us like a vampire with red dripping from her mouth, these become just more elements that float in the space like the hanging props, evocative but ungrounded and forever unexplored.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 15
April 26, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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