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Secret Lives Exposed: Anna Azizzy Shines at the New Hazlett Theater

“The Secret Life of Gym Girls” is captivating, hilarious, and poignant

Photo by Renee Rosensteel.

Continuing Recital’s sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2019–2020 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of The Secret Life of Gym Girls by Anna Azizzy, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo and guest panelists Jason Baldinger, Emma Vescio, and Ariel Xiu. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.

By David Bernabo

In The Secret Life of Gym Girls, interdisciplinary artist Anna Azizzy uses the world of prepubescent gymnastics to examine queerness and transness, along with issues of ageism and power hierarchies. And while that may sound heavy, Azizzy addresses those issues with an overflow of humor and energy that provides an accessible pathway to understanding and sympathizing with the stress of maintaining a life hidden from society, a life with secret desires and needs. The piece is also technically impressive. Azizzy performs all of the characters, utilizing a number of fabulous, campy costumes and a unique technological solution to staging. By avoid stereotypes and prioritizing the absurd (yet poignant), Gym Girls is a triumph. Azizzy creates a performance structure that can grow and mutate as different pockets of the gym girl universe are revealed.

In addition to filming, editing, and animating the projections on stage, Azizzy also performs every character aside from an occasional choir of singers that emerge from time to time. The “ensemble cast” includes the four gym girls (Harper, 10, Pam, 13, Gracie, 16, and Abbie, 6), their respective moms (Frankie, Gene, Beth, and Jackie), and the team coach. Azizzy takes turns playing different characters while the rest of the ensemble exists on a rear-projection screen that acts as the back wall of the stage. There is no overarching narrative; rather, stories about most of the characters’ secrets are told in sequence, kind of like a large band where each member takes a turn at the mic.

Near the beginning of the performance, Harper is creating a noise opus in her bedroom. Upon hearing her mom, Frankie, announce that her gymnastics friends have come over, Harper shoves her instruments under the bed and cues up Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U.” This is an early and relatively low stakes example of a character literally hiding their passion and their urges in favor of assimilating into a group. A dance routine is created, unifying the gym girls. By giving in to homogenization, the four girls create a bond and a sense of empowerment even if they have to lose a piece of themselves. This habit of creating a routine to insulate oneself from fear and the wider world reappears throughout the performance.

In the case of Harper’s mom, Frankie, this need to hide her true self backfires. Frankie’s long-term secret affair with painter Nancy results in an immense number of painted portraits of Frankie, but very little exchange of personal information. Nancy’s access to Frankie is surface-level — iterative views from behind the easel across the room — and, presumably, physical. When Frankie proceeds to emotionally open up to Nancy, Frankie’s fear of revealing her true self takes over. It manifests as a physical force that rumbles throughout the house, causing a closet to open up, spilling out a suffocating wave of seemingly never-ending pictures of paintings past.

This is a physical piece. While digital characters glide through computer-assisted flips and dives, Azizzy, a former gymnast, performs these feats live on the stage. The tension of the characters’ experiences is magnified by the risks that Azizzy undertakes. Will they will land the difficult feats required by the performance’s script? (They do.) Will they pull off the human/digital gags like forming a human pyramid in the pool, pulling digital objects across the stage, or riding in a car with a digital mom? (They do.)

The most hilarious scenes involve surrealistic fantasies. After falling onto the balance beam in what looks to be an awkward and painful position, Pam’s first sexual experience is sparked. She is transported to a personal world, away from the eyes of the judges for whom she is performing. She is depicted rollicking in the joys and unexpected pleasures of straddling the balance beam, only to then suddenly find herself shut inside a menacing elevator that brings her to what could only be described as orgasm hell.

Later, Pam’s somewhat prudish mom finds a release as a wrestler, adhering to a fake script and thrilling audiences as Mrs. Gene Baxter.

Once the fantasy sequence is understood to be part of the language of this work, Azizzy utilizes it to build more nuanced examples of gender fluidity. While working out in the gym, practicing vault routines, the gym girls start to ogle a pair of “hot boys” lifting weights in an adjacent room. Their once flawless handsprings, vaults, and round-offs begin to loosen and the gym girls are transported into a variety of sexual fantasies. Harper and Pam experience more traditional notions of youthful sexual understanding, while Abbie, 6, envisions the blonde hot boy and the scruffy one both proposing marriage and then proceeding to fight over her. When it is Gracie’s turn for a fantasy, Gracie wants not to be with the hot boys but to be one of the hot boys. Gracie wants the hot boys to see her/them as a peer, as a fellow hot boy. These representations of transness are complex and miles away from mainstream stereotypes.

This scene also alludes to a plotline that is more fleshed out in Azizzy’s previous works for the gym girl universe. While the old gym girls falter in their gymnastics routines when sexual fantasies encroach into their mental space, Abbie maintains perfect form. In For Retired Gymnast, Azizzy more directly address the idealization of pre-pubescence in the gymnastics world. The coach character begins to favor the younger Abbie to the physical detriment of the other three girls. Staged as a choose-your-own adventure video game, the coach opts to work with Abbie only while the other girls fall one after another to injuries. The Secret Life of Gym Girls alludes to some of these concerns, but keeps the focus on the characters and their personal struggles.

Most of the support that the characters receive is through self-realization and not from any type of community despite their friendships. This separateness between the characters could reflect the fragmentation and isolation of modern life. Near the end of the performance, Gracie’s mom Beth walks into a Cracker Barrel dressed as “Mr. Jefferson,” a male presenting person of Beth’s creation. When self-consciousness gets the better of Beth, they leave the Cracker Barrel and wander through a darkened corridor in a moment of profound sadness. Eventually, they wander into a garden and conjure a vision of themself as Mr. Jefferson in a reflecting pool, resolving their internal conflict. Azizzy is quick to temper the dark moments with humor and resolution.

The last scene opts for a stillness, a quiet not felt during the sagas of the gym girls and their moms. A character, possibly Azizzy or Harper or one of the other gym girls, is patiently psyching themselves up to attempt a maneuver on the balance beam. They are older, perhaps, wiser. The muscle memory of one’s youth has dissipated and a fear of falling, of injury, of failing has crept in. “Separate from your fear,” Azizzy tells themself. This more mature voice mirrors one of the reasons Azizzy made this piece — to reclaim what has been lost during one’s youth and to find the enjoyment in it on one’s own terms.

Panelist Bios:

Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Watererer, Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.

Emma Vescio is a curator and arts writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She received her Bachelors of Arts in History of Art and Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research involves relationships with objects, intimacy, queer theory, definitions, personal archives, and time. Vescio has curated shows at Bunker Projects, the Silver Eye Lab, PULLPROOF Studio, Lucky Cloud, G1|CW, Phosphor Project Space, and The Union Hall.

Ariel Xiu is a freelance dancer, artist, and educator whose works encompass live performances, paintings, drawings, holography, videos, collage, and sculpture. Currently residing in Pittsburgh, they have a great interest in Eastern thought, horrorcore, showbiz, and discussing literature.

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Performance/Music/Art/Film. If you would like to submit an article, contact David here: http://www.davidbernabo.info/contactdave/

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