Rosemary is a thick, haunting smell. Even walking into a show of that title, it takes me a moment to identify the source of that woodsy, pungent scent in the room. I was never very good with smells, but rosemary is a safe bet – it’s obvious. It grows easily. But its headiness, its capacity to overwhelm you, makes it a kind of ritual scent – it is dry, and yet it drowns you. The humble rosemary is mysterious – it smells like a portal to somewhere else.
I have to declare here – I know both these makers well (so I will use their first names here) – and both these humans feel like portals or portents in their own right to me. Jazmine Rose Phillips (Fyuck Sexy; him) is a sound/performance artist/force, known performatively for her abrasive vulnerability, acerbic humour and unflinching activism. Rosie Tapsell (God Belly) is a resolute maker, in the past bringing a refreshing mix of story, intellect and precise embodiment to her explorations of the ecclesiastical.
In this collaboration, they have made Rosemary, a multi-disciplinary dance work seeking to “salvage the vitality” of a sacred feminine icon. And in this current political climate of rising feminine solidarity, where the gendered nature of violence and social disparity becomes more and more apparent each day, it seems fitting to return to the anglosaxon root of our madonna-whore complex: Mary herself. As the programme notes state, she can be a “complex” cultural symbol – but the work here is to put the body back into the most famous tale of a virgin we know.
In the first few moments of the show, Jazmine’s visceral correlative to Mary’s experience does just that – she dreams of unexpectedly giving birth to a rodent in the street, a sizeable creature covered in “slimy sleek little tufts,” damp with birth canal fluids. Having been seen by those around her, she begins to breastfeed, unsettled, caving under the social pressure to love the-rat-she-made. The tension of this maternal experience – one of a kind of love under duress – is at the heart of the way the show unpacks our faithful idol. When Rosie emerges, her vocabulary is layered – gesturing to disappointment, exaltation, repression, frustration and ecstasy. Her intentions change in split-seconds: arms reach up as though listening, then god-fearing and finally in WTF (“what-the-fuck”) emoji perfection.
The connotation between ‘mother’ as an act of endurance and ‘mother’ as an act of repression continues as Rosie continues to carve space with a phrase dripping with stamina and contemporary dance cliche (I know because all the right people are giggling at the floor work). The movement is somehow both epic and wry: we have arrived in spiritual dance party, the timing of which could not be more rewarding. Complete with a statuesque Jazmine pulsing her pelvis to Ne-Yo’s pop RnB hit Closer: the audience is certainly ready for this, and Jazmine’s comedy and relaxation to play with us feels pitch-perfect.
Ultimately the most beautiful quality of Rosemary is the relationship between the two women under lights, both masters of holding space for one another. Jazmine’s comedic gyrating hum under Rosie’s virtuosity; Jazmine’s stillness alongside Rosie’s exertion. In a later moment, Jazmine sits reverently on one of two chairs under the portrait of the idol, while Rosie is left legs akimbo on the floor. Jazmine’s eyes slide to Rosie. We laugh. This is bus-stop clown acting, and we love it. A less restrained performer might follow our lead and milk the moment, but Rose-Phillips chooses not to. It is a gorgeous act of companionship, a choice not to ‘other’ her collaborator. Rather we watch a simple act of invitation, to come sit alongside and to bring their breath slowly into rhythm with one another. This relationality carries throughout the work – in one of my favourite moments, one speaks a monologue in te reo, of the absurd proportions Mary was given by Michaelangelo in his famous Pieta, while the other quietly paints her white communion dress with red acrylic. They are a beautiful pairing in this moment and their tasks are exquisitely simple and complementary.
I am not always convinced by other moments – there seems to be an imbalance of treatment between the two performers, and while there is a rare moment of synchronicity in a hilarious “reading” chair phrase – I long for more in this vein. We are so satisfied by the integrity of their connection, that when the stage space favours one more than the other, I am left feeling that Rosie is the engine driving this show, while Jazmine is accompanying it. This is especially clear in the final moments, where they dance together, but their disparity in articulation sticks out. At points the pacing needs attention or disruption, and when a debutante duet with a spinal column emerges, I am convinced this is a second show we have started, and this gesture at a resolution is not needed in the room.
Despite these questions, I am left captivated by the life and potential bubbling under this work, and it is at its sparkiest when it risks the naughtiness and vulnerability of being present with us, or with each other. The evident empathy and hearing of one another inside the work is at some points gorgeous (they sing beautifully alongside one another in reo and pākehā) and at others, playful (a game of ‘copy-me’ gets silly quickly, and to see the dawkiness of both performers emerge is divine).
But to me, in Rosemary it is the relationship I fall in love with – it is the grace, respect and courage these two performers exhibit in the way they fall together that mends the dark matter of a bleak feminine idol. This is not everyone’s relationship with Mary, as the programme states, so my experience is certainly subjective. But in answer to the question of women, these two give me hope. It is intelligent, certainly. It is attentive, definitely. But it is healing, most thoroughly.
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