MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL At one point in Look Mummy, I’m Dancing, Vanessa Van Durme reflects that perhaps the trouble with discussing being a transsexual, transexuality or transsexualism is that they’ve all got the word sex in them. But it’s got nothing to do with sex, she says.
At one point in Look Mummy, I’m Dancing, Vanessa Van Durme reflects that perhaps the trouble with discussing being a transsexual, transexuality or transsexualism is that they’ve all got the word sex in them. But it’s got nothing to do with sex, she says. Well not with doing it, or with what’s between the legs, those things that lead us to blush, wince, snigger or guffaw. It’s about what’s between your ears. ’Up here’ she says pointing. It’s about how you think and see out at the world, what you see in the mirror.
In the same way, this monologue performance is purportedly a transsexual story, a memoir of a life long struggle with sexual identity, but again, it’s that sex word. Just admitting you’re going to a 1hr 25 min performance (with no interval) on transgenderism that comes with strong language warnings and whispered controversy can elicit the same sort of responses - that’s partial why she has created this tour – to challenge preconceptions. But it’s as much a story about being human, of trying to find a place in the world: love, acceptance, respect; to find a sense of identity as it is about how gender defines that journey. This is a very honest, hauntingly so, articulation of that universal struggle as this very brave strong woman has experienced it. Though for her it’s a journey that has required her to leap a lot more ‘hurdles’ than most.
Look Mummy, I’m Dancing is a performance that has come to the Melbourne International Arts Festival after successful tours across Europe and the United States over the past three years and is based on her memoir, Kijk mama, ik dans (Look, Mummy I’m Dancing).
The performance opens with a very tart ‘down the shops’ story, a daily struggle with a supermarket queue waiting for the couple in front of her. The man manages to find something to niggle at, criticise and complain about in everything his partner has chosen. As our narrator, Vanessa listens to his tirade, watches the uncomplaining woman and shares with us her muttered thoughts “Leave the bastard! Make him cook his own dinner! Why stay with that loser..”. Then she wonders, Is that what it’s like to be a woman, to not complain, to have three jobs, wife, mother, and a ‘real job’? Doesn’t a man have just one? Have I made the right choice?
From the bare stage with its laminex table and the two chairs, Vanessa takes us as though we were all at a kitchen confessional through her struggle with two identities. She was born a boy in Belgium in 1948, a boy who walked funny, only wanted to play with dolls, dress up like a princess and dance. She didn’t become the sports star, or the doctor of her parents’ dreams but studied acting. Still she, as a he, could never quite pull off the heroic leading man roles. There was military service, first love, dark times of depression and loneliness before she made the decision to fly to Casablanca, the only place in 1975 where she could have her sex reassignment surgery. She portrays a person who was always a woman trapped in a man’s social role as much as genitalia.
Through it all she shows us her parents’ responses: anger from her father, worry from her mother, guilt and disappointment, concern and fear. And an enduring loving relationship with her mother that was a strength throughout her life.
She hints at how finally becoming a woman was something of a heady affair, one that lead to a rushed marriage with an inmate in a Spanish prison, possibly to prove her womanhood as much as her ability to be accepted as a ‘normal’ woman. None the less it became a 16-year relationship she says, one good year and 15 bad ones, a throwaway line.
It’s a resume gap of sorts, as twenty years after her ‘change’ she re-emerged as a theatrical force, creating a career in script-writing, a popular radio persona and over the past nine years a return to theatre.
Those writing and performing talents are well expressed in this performance where she guides the audience with humour, pathos and drama as skilfully as any conductor. With multiple roles and simple characterisation, both male and female, we are transported through her life, able to see characters as clearly as if they were accompanying her on stage. But in the final scene, as she sits and cuddles a doll as naturally as any mother, though that has been one part of being a woman she has never been able to share, it is her raw honesty that strikes at your soul.
Honesty can make the most unnerving subjects straightforward. Her exposure, of all the most basic, guttural, visceral and foibled experiences of her life is an invitation, to accept, judge or reject as you will, but the invitation is extended with openness. It makes her performance all the more powerful and intimate, she commands extraordinary presence and audience absorption. At times barely anyone breathed. When she finished people stood in ovation.
Admitting you have a sexual identity disorder is still something of a conversation stopper, now, let alone back in 1975 when she had her ‘operation’, when she felt she had no choice. She might quip that now you can get a sex change done with your supermarket coupons, it’s a good gag, but I doubt it’s ever going to be that simple. Working out who you are, never is.
Look Mummy, I’m Dancing is playing at the Arts Centre Fairfax Studio from Tuesday 13 – Saturday 17 October at 7:45pm, Sat 17 Oct at 2pm. Audio Description Sat 17 Oct at 2pm
Written and Performed by Vanessa Van Durme
Directed by Fank Van Laecke
Produced by Swan Lake