Eisa Jocson dances beyond exotic

Reliving a TBA performance of gender exaggerations, sexy technicianship, and unintended crowd control.

All these poles. Bus stop poles. Parking sign poles. Load-bearing poles upholding boxy overhangs, with people’s bikes locked to them. They stood out to me as I headed to Eisa Jocson’s Death of a Pole Dancer, and I wondered: Why have I never seen someone dance on one of these? Portland being one of the most stripper-rich cities per capita, as well as a DIY/guerilla/performance art mecca, it seems like you’d routinely spot someone casually practicing a few moves, but never. It just doesn’t happen.

Why not? Well, the minute it did, honking and hooting would ensue. “The places you do see it, and the way that people think about it, are…do I want to say ‘symbiotic?'” says a dancer friend.

“Conversant?” I suggest.

She means: the venues in which pole dancing is typically performed limit the way it’s perceived; in turn, the way it’s perceived confines it to certain venues. Typically. But TBA performers* break many rules. As it turns out, Jocson, who must have noticed the same thing we did about poles’ ubiquity and latent performance potential, began “pole tagging” in 2010:

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And now, with Death of a Pole Dancer, she’s attempting to bring to the discipline further breakthroughs. For instance, it must be a rule that pole dancers don’t show their audience the pole setup process. In a performance space where a pole isn’t perma-installed, you can still put one in. Jocson’s TBA performance in the BodyVox Education Studio highlighted that process.

Dressed stripper-style in a black halter top and ultra-short miniskirt, platform stilettos bound onto her feet with black electrical tape, she hauled a long gear bag into our circle of silent bystanders. The only sounds in the room were the clop of her shoes and the rasp of Velcro as she undid her gear bag, producing the chromey pieces of a dancing pole that might as well have been a giant woodwind or a gun. Methodically, she lined up the pieces on the floor and locked them together, tightening them with a utili-key. The anticipation of what was about to happen was about half of the show, and established the performer as more of a technician than a mere pretty face.

While she was doing that, a note on the seating arrangement: in the small gallery-like room outside BodyVox’s main theater, there was no official seating, which forced some ad-hoc problem-solving and crowd cooperation. The constraints of the room were such that we had to squish, and some of us had to sit. At least two couples deemed themselves too special for this process, standing in front of others seated on the floor, or other standers shorter than themselves. They deflected gentle requests with snappy shutdowns and curt excuses.

“I have bad joints,” said a man who was about 6’5″. I can’t sit down.” The crowd accommodated, clearing a space at the back where he could stand and see without blocking others. He refused to take it; the back row was symbolically beneath him.

I hadn’t seen this type of crowd consternation at TBA since several years ago, when David Eckard’s outdoor performance was upstaged by a very vocal drunk homeless heckler. Two TBA ticketholders had tried to shush that outsider with their best theater manners, and were shocked when it didn’t work. Why didn’t he understand that the other man in the park (Eckard) was implicitly allowed to orate to the crowd, while he was not? Another ticketholder performed an interesting duality, loudly voicing “requests” for the crowd to hear, yet whispering threats of violence (more audibly than he thought) in the offender’s ear.

All this to say: TBA’s crowd management snafus sometimes create their own spontaneous social practice/experimental performance moments, beyond the official shows. When confronted with personal inconvenience, which of society’s character tropes will you take?

Now back to the performance: Jocson took her sweet time installing the pole, polishing its shiny surface with a chamois until it responded with rhythmic shrieks, and enlisting an audience member to help her complete its erection. Then she began to subject the object to tensile testing, yanking on it with first just her arms, then her full body weight, forcing it over and over to bow out and snap back, wedging it tighter into place. Her tugs and exhalations became rhythmic and the pole became firmer. Now she reversed her movement, flinging her body at the pole sternum-first, chest-bump style. She glowered and breathed sharply like a filmic ninja fighter as the lights lowered. “Railing against the rod,” one onlooker described it. Does this description sound steamy? It was. Dangerous, too, as Jocson segued into advanced pole-dancer moves, looping round and round, climbing up and hanging upside-down to finally cue some music–a slowed-down, distorted rendition of Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself.”

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She rotated in a circle so all sides could take in her lithe body and tortured expression. She was at least trembling, possibly sobbing as she slipped down the pole, catching herself with her hands and finally collapsing face-down as a bright light swept in diagonally to cast her image as a shadowy, high-contrast noir comicbook graphic.

The lights came up, and again, the crowd had an opportunity to perform its various selves. One of the most obnoxious resisters to sitting down was also the first to shrug and leave the room, stepping around the prostrate Jocson while others were still nervously watching. Some of us thought this might be a test, that if we continued to watch Jocson, we might see more performance—until house manager Paul Susi** peeled us reluctantly away.

Ten or twenty minutes later, we were invited into the much more spacious BodyVox auditorium for Jocson’s second act, Macho Dancer. Jocson, who, oddly enough, got into both pole and macho dancing upon the suggestion of her aunt and studied with the forms’ masters, certainly commits to her performances, to an extent that the TBA previews call “hauntingly accurate.” In camo shorts, knee pads, a tank, and cowboy boots, she burst onto the catwalk to a playlist of ’80s headbangers and husky-voiced radio ballads, as a fog machine enveloped her in vaguely vanilla-scented clouds that caught and suspended the light.

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Macho dancing—a phenomenon Jocson deems unique to the Phillippines, but that at least echoes Western male entertainers like the Chippendales and country/rock/metal singers—uses a small, distinct vocabulary of moves that include looming and crouching, grinding hips and flexing thighs, various hair tosses and finger run-throughs, bicep curls and ab flexes, and the saunter and nose-wipe moves so often made by b-boys. In a 45-minute routine, the repetition got—I’m sure depending on who you ask—either redundant or hypnotic. But like most exotic dancers, the variation was provided by an escalating state of undress. Jocson first freed her hair from a ponytail, then stripped her shorts, revealing lace-up skivvies stuffed with a large diagonally-tucked dildo. Eventually she removed her top, too, leaving a dog-tag-length crucifix dangling between her breasts. The full effect of a figure with flowing hair, gender duality, and a sacred amulet, looming above the crowd on a catwalk ensconced in clouds, evoked some ancient deity in a way that transcended any tawdry flesh-peddling. Jocson had made herself less spectacle than specter.

The crowd—either subdued by sitting or dumbstruck by the performance—filed out in an orderly fashion.

 

 

*It’s worth noting here that Portland Center Stage also hosted out-of-element pole dancers this summer as part of the lobby entertainment for long lines waiting to attend the JAW festival.

**Susi, seemingly still in character from his recent turn as The Player in Anon It Moves’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, was both dashing and perfunctory as he corralled the large crowd out front and within the BodyVox space.

 

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A. L. Adams is associate editor of Artslandia Magazine and a frequent contributor to The Portland Mercury.

Read more from Adams at Oregon ArtsWatch | Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

 

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