This summer I had my first encounter with Sara Joel, seeing her solos Enfold and Surface at the SummerDANZ: Emerging Artists program at DTW, and getting another look at Surface at the Solar Powered Dance Series at Solar One. Her work stood out at both events. Joel is an artist who excels at making beautiful, simple art whose focus is her own pregnant body.
Tonight I finally saw her 2007 film collaboration with Jody Oberfelder, Rapt (cinematography and editing by Leslie Avery Gould), at Kinetic Cinema’s Liquid Films evening curated by Amy Greenfield. I am fascinated by my own fascination with her; there is nothing complicated about her movements or concepts– in a lot of ways they’re downright conventional– but there’s something undeniably compelling in her swirling, swimming, swinging imagery.
In the film screened tonight, Joel is underwater in a silky, trailing red dress, and as in Enfold, her pregnancy is not immediately apparent. The bold garment shifts from a cloud around her to an umbilical cord to a shedding skin, and in the last images, she gathers together a rose from its petals (shot in reverse) then releases the pieces to float to the surface.
Depending on your view, her’s could be a hopelessly outdated, idealized vision of femininity, or an empowering testament to the grace and creative potential of the female body. My critical, studied eye sees Woman-as-Womb, Body-as-Vessel (reject! reject! down with patriarchal concepts and Rousseau’s Sophie!) and Joel does situate the pregnant form in otherworldy, “nature” realms: the air and the water. But the work also rejects our Western medicalization of the body and its functions. She doesn’t really do anything dangerous, but there is a touch of “fuck you, hospitalized birth and fear-induced epidurals” to hanging from the ceiling upside-down with a third trimester belly popping out.
But what I think really makes it all work is that it isn’t so overtly political or goddess-worshipping. She’s a dancer (former Cirque du Soleil) making dances that are informed by her own body’s talents and capabilities. Short, soft movement poems of roundness and life.