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photo credit Don Mason
Maybe I watched too many old movies as a girl; from a very young age, I had an absolute belief that someday I would inhabit the glamorous, refined world of classic films - gorgeous sets, exquisite costumes, moody lighting, impossibly beautiful people in dramatic situations.
The role that Latinas played in this sphere was almost always identical, and I wanted it for myself: the rapacious, talented, exotic singer whose passionate, demanding desires are shared with the audience (and the leading man) in over-the-top musical numbers.
My starting point was Rita Hayworth's seminal striptease in Gilda, in which she revealed almost nothing, yet promised everything, and demanded everything in return. In classic American films, I found many more examples of the archetype, both portrayed by Latinas and portraying them: Ava Gardner's fiery Maria Vargas in The Barefoot Contessa, Rita Moreno's libidinous Anita in West Side Story, Gwen Verdon's man-eating Lola in Damn Yankees!, Lupe Velez's satin-wrapped "Mexican Spitfire," the humorously enticing Carmen Miranda, even a silent Dolores Del Rio portraying the original Latin seductress of Bizet's opera, Carmen.
There is a duality in claiming the fierce identity of dangerous beauty. On one hand, that persona is incredibly empowering. Being irresistible means one can claim any prize; "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets." There is a liberating sense of safety and security in knowing one owns the tools to attain one's object, as well as a freedom in releasing all other considerations and putting all one's efforts into that performance. That choice, however, relegates one to a single role in a single sphere. Any element of cunning or skill captures only the powerful man, not his power directly; and this single-minded pursuit makes her the recipient of all other women's disdain and calumny, leaving her exiled from a broader circle of support and affection.
In Whatever Lola, the iconic black satin gown worn by Rita Hayworth in Gilda extends to become a literal, spherical cage within which the performance takes place, lit by a single crystal chandelier; a clear view by the audience is only possible through minimal gaps in the "petals" of the sphere. The performer can share the performance with the audience by adjusting the petals, but it doesn't change that her serenade is a game of solitaire; she is ultimately tied to the heart of the enclosure and separated from connection by the very object that transforms her into her temptress ideal. (Or he; other performers of differing ethnic and racial origin and sex are invited to participate in this work, changing the gender and ethnic dynamics of the piece.) Songs will be pulled from appropriate films and classics of the cabaret genre.
Lola's first presentation starred myself, artists Alyssa Taylor Wendt and Randi Renate Mabry, and actor Justin Scalise. While all of us had sung before, none of us were professional singers, and the act of studying YouTube clips, sheet music, and old films to prepare for our moment in the sphere was a transformative moment for all of us. We were amazed at what a change taking on that identity, putting on that dress and makeup and jewelry and hairdo, made in ourselves. It was liberating but terrifying; in spite of the 27-degree weather outside (with a 10-degree windchill!) as we did our performances bare to the wind in strapless dresses, we never felt the cold until we were finished. We recognized the limitations of our situation, but we were buoyed up by the role we had co-opted for ourselves. That huge metal structure, powered by nothing more extensive than a couple of doctored boat winches and dozens of pulleys, became a world within which we expressed a new and powerful side of ourselves.
I find solid continuity of this piece within my larger body of work, since I explore themes of both creating and receiving comfort. For the performer, fantasy of transformation into an ideal --and its more elaborate popular- and counter-culture variants hero-worship, karaoke, drag, and cosplay -- is a rich and vibrant form of self-comfort. In parallel, the audience's voyeurism has a pleasure, and a comfort, all its own.
In the future my plan for this piece, in each new location where it is presented, is to find a team of volunteers to serve as Lola trainees. I will present them with the songbook and list of films and YouTube clips we created from songs gleaned from the films I studied, and hold workshops to explore the role of this and other stereotypes in their own life, and to teach them to free their voice and move confidently. After a month of preparation by the trainees, the Lola cage can be installed and on view for one month to six weeks, during which time the trainees will practice using it for their own performances in a culminating event and show. I would be especially proud to work with trainees from populations at risk, who may have a more vivid interaction in their lives with limiting stereotypes and situations.
Whatever Lola is currently available for performance at events, fairs, museums, and galleries.
The artist invites inquiry by groups or organizations interested in co-presenting this work in socially impactful ways.
The artist thanks the following for their help with this project:
This piece was created in part with a grant from the Economic Development Department Cultural Arts Division, City of Austin.
Women & Their Work provided umbrella support for this grant.
Engineer and Project Manager: Kenneth Fowler
Welding and Construction Assistance: Jay Henderson, Kenneth Fowler
Performers: Alyssa Taylor Wendt, Justin Scalise, Randi Renate, Suzi Stern, Vincent Tomasino
Sound Engineers: Jason Young and Chris Burch
Filmmaker: Jon Windham
Photographers: Lindsay Hutchens, Philip Rogers
Presentation Partners: Sean Gaulager of Co-Lab Projects; Los Outsiders; Mexican-American Cultural Center, Austin, Texas.