Avner: Jerez deconstructs ’50s sleuth novels

“The Case of the Spectator,” part of No Boundaries — a series of global performances presented by the Yale Repertory Theatre and the World Performance Project — went up last weekend at the Iseman Theater in Green Hall. The performance begins with one woman (Maria Jerez), who sits with her back to the audience in a vintage, leather-upholstered armchair, holding two video cameras. Sometimes she moves around and the audience can see a microphone tucked into the neckline of her tight-fitting turquoise dress.

Maria Jerez transports viewers to a moody living room of the ’50s in “The Case of the Spectator.”
Yale Repertory Theatre
Maria Jerez transports viewers to a moody living room of the ’50s in “The Case of the Spectator.”

A table, drink bar, lamp, mint-green telephone set and Sony television, which records footage of Jerez acting throughout the performance, indicate that the stage is meant to be her living room. With household objects and low-tech equipment, Jerez creates video and live-action representations of violence against women from ’50s sleuth novels, and she does so through uncanny illusion-making. In one vignette, Barbies enact a dialogue on camera. Jerez manipulates them in her lap, the front of her body still hidden from the audience, by angling and zooming the video camera, which distorts images on the television screen.

Jerez’s real-time acting breaks off into a bizarre performative world of its own; in one moment, she enacts the climax of her own strangling by keeping the camera focused on one of her eyes as she mouths squeaking girly sounds, while the rest of her body maintains the posture of a relaxed, bourgeois observer who then goes on to light a cigarette, exhaling rings of smoke.

Largely aided by the discriminatory eye of her video camera, Jerez creates ghastly images of small, innocuous objects as large, encroaching figures. Her animation of the physical world is almost Wordsworthian: What Jerez does with Barbie heads and torsos brings to mind “The Prelude,” which describes “the hilly crag, as if with voluntary power instinct, reared its head.”

But Jerez also teaches us something: Her montages portray the horrible redundancy of thriller plots where beautiful women are routinely butchered. Her work catalogues the cinematic murdering of women, underscoring its sadistic glamor, as seen in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” for example — one of Jerez’s favorite films, she told the audience in a question-and-answer session after the performance. What’s more, Jerez does this quietly. She uses minimal music and sound, so for once in the history of live performance/video art, the viewer is not bombarded with a thousand layers of digitized images.

A Madrilenian artist who studied in New York, Jerez currently performs in North America and Europe. She’s still relatively unknown in the art world though; there’s little publicity covering her work. World Performance Project Artistic Director Emily Coates ’06 spotted Jerez in 2007 in a tiny back-alley theater in Paris. Three years later, Jerez performs at Yale with objects initially poached from her parents’ house — a project that took her about two years to complete.

It’s understandable that Coates, one of America’s major modern dancers, would bring Jerez in to perform; Jerez’s work is balletic. The way she isolates certain body parts — her eyes, her hands — to create dissonances with the rest of her body harks back to the work of other famous dancers and choreographers. Trisha Brown’s complex modern compositions and Merce Cunningham’s free play come to mind.

The virtuosity of action combined with a theoretical questioning of gender representation makes “The Case of the Spectator” loud, even though it’s almost piously quiet. Jerez’s incorporation of object and human into coherent vignettes also causes the audience to wonder about its own mental processes. After all, we’re the ones given fragments of images that we unconsciously associate, and so we are coerced into active participation.

No Boundaries, a project supported by the Yale Repertory Theatre and the World Performance Project, will present its next performance, “The Method Gun,” on Feb. 23.

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