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[Performance Analysis:] METAMORPHOSIS, Lyric Theatre, London.

NB: The onstage persona of solo performer Maria Caruso will be referenced in this review as ‘Maria’; any mentions of ‘Maria Caruso’, or simply ‘Caruso’, refer to the real artist herself.

What we are presented in this performance is not so much a metamorphosis, or a growth through the various stages of life, as solo performer Maria Caruso explains is her intention, but an impermanent assumption of another identity. This was something noted by three separate audience members, as well, I should note, with one remarking that the material was better understood as a ‘presentation of the ego’, as opposed to some kind of evolution or ongoing transformation [of the self]. This is certainly an accurate description of the material presented, with Caruso putting on the various dresses, as though a new skin, and assuming her various new identities/profiles. Perhaps if the intention is to make this ‘metamorphosis’ clearer, the dresses should be presented to us one by one, and not as a broad selection of dresses from which Maria may pick and choose, or something similar to this process — notably, she does not choose from these dresses ‘chronologically’, from left to right or vice versa, either, further distancing us from this intended reading. To have these dresses suspended from the fly tower and not each hung from a clothing display stand or the like, grounded on the stage with her, also implies a certain ethereality and otherworldliness, a detachment from Maria’s logical and earthly plane, as though the dresses come from above. This certainly works for the intended reading, as the dresses come to represent here, and more intensely later on, a certain force acting upon her that she cannot control but to which she is drawn. With our current reading, however, this separation is too jarring; we can easily imagine that she is, indeed, choosing a new identity from the selection of dresses, and each should be immediately accessible for her, existing on and sharing her same plane, coming from her and her world and not from the ether.

This theme of identity assumption is also implicit in the various manners in which she interacts with the dresses before putting them on and after taking them off, from expressions of dread and repulsion to intrigue and enchantment. She chooses to put these dresses on; her dresses, the stages of her life, do not ultimately force themselves upon her. Of course, from Caruso’s perspective, this is because she is revisiting these stages of her life deliberately, but the personal relationships with the work and the therapeutic quality that the work has for the performer are entirely different subjects from the external presentation offered to the audience – unless, of course, this therapeutic aim is coherently and notably interwoven into the work. This performance is not explicit in its use of therapy, however, and I would urge Caruso to reconsider what these demonstrations communicate, as opposed to what they signify for her personally.

A further example of this has its place with what I shall refer to henceforth as the ‘comfort rag’, the beige fabric to which Maria returns repeatedly in this performance and from which Maria is supposedly birthed at the beginning. Caruso explains that holding the comfort rag as though a child in her arms was a symbolic representation of the prospective child she thought she would have but miscarried in real life during earlier conceptions of the performance. Whilst this is a moving and saddening aspect of the performance, there is a difference once more between intention and execution: because the comfort rag has been a protective force, something we start the performance with and return to regularly, something that nurtures and comforts, brings closure, nostalgia and peace, to cradle it once the final dress has been put on and to walk away with it implies both a resistance to give it up and a sentimental attachment to it, the need to reciprocate the nurturing and perpetuate the once-beautiful and once-therapeutic relationship. That all of the material we have seen thus far should be considered solely symbolic expressions and yet this nurturing gesture should be considered as literal mime, representative of an actual baby, leads to a semiotic and stylistic inconsistency. This action automatically references the feelings, sentimentality and affects associated with the rag, not a real-life infant child. If this and any other aspect of the performance requires further explanation in order for the audience to understand it, the performance is not complete and sufficiently articulate alone.

I mentioned that we start the performance with Maria ‘being birthed’; on the contrary, she merely wakes up. She demonstrates no unfamiliarity with the rag which she takes with her on her journey through the narrative but merely demonstrates the affection and sensuality associated with it. Lack of responsibility, isolation, sensuality and defence/comfort are certainly effectively communicated, but their origins and how these come to be understood by the audience are the issue here. Caruso demonstrates little awareness of what her performance is actually communicating outside of her own mind, and an example to evidence this view is her mention that the blue colour of the final dress is highly sentimental to her because it is the colour of her company, Bodiography. This esoteric information could perhaps only be understood by a few, select audience members — namely those who know her and her company well — and so, again, the performance fails to communicate effectively alone, without extraneous explanations, and emphasis on personal significance outweighs the reality of what is being presented.

Caruso argues that the audience are “free to make up their own mind” about her performance, that any interpretation is valid, as with any other piece of art. This is an overemphasis upon potential psychological results of and emotional responses, which fails to recognise that the performance itself does have an objective reality, a material reality: we are presented physical, existing entities employed to communicate information deliberately. This information exists; it is the fundament of the performance; without it, the performance could not exist itself. The information may be partially concealed, abstracted, stylised, but is inevitably communicated by the performer in various ways; these 'ways' [use of movement, voice, imagery, etc.] are objectively observable and studiable, and reliance upon audience emotional response does not protect the integrity of the performance or make it invincible. This is a far too common mentality amongst today’s postmodernist artists, to comfort themselves with the quality of their work by arguing that their work is multilayered and multifaceted and, usually, also that any positive opinion and response is warming and validating and that any negative one is merely an interpretation unless deemed gentle, constructive and useful.

It is important that our artworks retain their agency. Whichever emotional responses they prompt, which is certainly beyond the artist’s control, the artwork itself should communicate and execute well its intentions and objectives, and the artist should be aware of and in control of these objective communications.

This being said, I must note that Caruso has a wonderful outlook on the psychological significance of artistic expression, notably through dance and movement, and has a wonderful understanding of its capacity to empower, diversify and articulate. A wonderful perspective to lead with.

The imagery with which we are presented is certainly bold and striking, and whilst incongruous with Caruso’s own personal experience of and intentions for the play, choreography is legible and coherent, overall. However, I am afraid that this choreography soon becomes underwhelmingly repetitive: Caruso’s regal walks across the stage, the comfort rag draped across her shoulders and trailing behind her, or her falling forward onto one leg through the stiffened forearms she holds in front of herself and, or patting, open-palmed, upon an imaginary obstructive barrier — each of these latter two being interactions with or actions against "the wall". The latter, patting movement is particularly weak in its repetition, given pre-existing associations with comic mime; it feels cliché, unoriginal, an easy representation.

Resulting from this and from the performance's structure, there is a great sense of predictability in this performance. By her approach towards the very first dress, seeing how Maria embodies a new profile and performs a distinct and contrasting choreographic repertoire, it is clear that each dress will prompt a new profile. It also becomes clear upon her second return to the comfort rag that each subsequent return will prompt these aforementioned regal walks, and sensual, fluid movements. Caruso also has a tendency to trace the stage concentrically, clock-wise, merely walking to the back of the stage, away from the audience, to return to perform a movement towards them, sometimes breaking this circular movement to follow a diagonal from Upstage Left to Downstage Right. This is most characteristic of the comfort rag segments and the red dress segment but is something that persists throughout almost the entirety of the performance. Further variation is thus required.

The final area I should note is the use of metatheatrical techniques. The vast majority of this performance is self-contained, i.e. prompting no audience interaction or address, and so I find the decision to perform such actions as throwing the dresses into the audience, or screaming or smirking cockily at them, to be rather perplexing. The communication in almost all of these moments is that we are somehow behind any pain and suffering she exhibits as well as her vulnerability, that we are victimising her in some way. These ‘empowering’, volatile and often aggressive or arrogant actions do not communicate the mutuality with the audience that Caruso intends; instead, they acknowledge a defensiveness, a disconnect, a conflict. Caruso noted in the post-performance Q&A that the ending usually sees her walk through the audience with her final dress, entering into the audience’s world and sharing their hope, confidence and open-mindedness for the future. Yet, I fail to see how dumping the dresses, and thus the traumatic stages of her life, into this space to leave them there, correlates with this peace that the space is supposed to offer. The implication would be different if the dresses were discarded with pride, empowerment, confidence, as though this space represented in its entirety closure and catharsis; alas, she often discards them with expressions of fear, dread, unease and sorrow, and so the space becomes more of a void of repressed material than a territory of hope and peace of mind.

Nevertheless, though rather overly simplistic in areas, this remains a well-structured and intriguing watch. Though admittedly shaky in performing some movements, particularly with high lifts of the legs, Caruso retains great form and corporeal awareness, overall. Her choreography is also generally explicit and sufficiently expressive. I would just pay far greater attention, in particular, to the scratching movements with the black dress. The manner in which this movement is executed, its urgency and lack of localisation do not communicate self-harm or frustrations enacted upon the self but merely extreme itchiness. It is not a clawing or an abrasive, angry scratch homing in concentratedly on a particular region of the body, which would imply self-harm, and her expressions incontestably manifest great worry, fear and physical pain.

Music is entirely fitting with the qualities and aesthetics of the segments, and each piece itself is well composed, if repetitive now and again in its motifs. Lighting is far too harsh, overall, but does have its impressive effects, such as the final imagery for which it allows: Caruso walking into a dark abyss, away from the stark lights at the apron and back into the otherwise unlit stage. A strong ending visually.

The misalignment between intention and execution that I have elucidated above is the main driving force behind my rating below, before repetitiveness of choreography and lack of creative responsibility. This performance is certainly engaging but is by no means a representation of 'the frustrations of the world', as the slogan on the official programme reads, nor is it a demonstration of a metamorphosis or self-development.

“An intriguing but somewhat simple performance that miscommunicates its true concerns.”


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