Performance review: I Am (Not) This Body, Arts House, Melbourne Fringe Festival

A a cross-disciplinary exploration of the performer's relationship with her body in the world.
I am (not) this body. A short statured woman is standing on a plinth.

When being interviewed, the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was occasionally asked about his weight. He once replied that his body was his instrument and, as an actor, he had to work with it as it was. 

A new performance art piece by Leisa Prowd did indeed show that a performer’s body is their instrument, whatever the challenges it may present. Prowd has a significant CV of performance art behind her and has lived in both Melbourne and Berlin, cities known for their commitment to their arts. In this show, Prowd engaged with the challenges of what she calls ‘being four-foot in a six-foot world’.

The show was a memoir with existential overtones that dramatised key moments universal to all humans: birth, the mirror stage, sex and free expression. Prowd moved with elegance and a joie de vivre, dancing around replicas of other bodies and finally resolving her attempt to find mirror images of herself by engaging audience participation in changing a costume that solidified the themes of the show.

That these themes were at times unsettling is indicative of a society that finds difference confronting. A screen with surtext juxtaposed the harsh language used to describe dwarfism, drawn from Prowd’s own experience, together with a haunting score that created an occasion for liberating movement. 

Prowd’s movement explored the dilemma of a performer whose instrument required bystanders to confront their preconceived notions of what a body should be. In its way, the performance was as powerful and challenging as that of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in Death of A Salesman, albeit with a substantial feminist inflection. 

Read: Performance reviews: How to Shave and It’s Like a Circle, Melbourne Fringe Festival

In commissioning the show, Arts House and its disability-led initiative The Warehouse Residency demonstrate why Melbourne is a centre of excellence for disability arts. This delicate, important show, reminded each of us that we live in bodies that condition our minds and showed us the power of finding freedom through expressing both of them. 

I Am (Not) This Body
Co-Presented by Arts House and Melbourne Fringe
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Creator and Performer: Leisa Prowd
Lighting Designer: Richard Vabre
Composer/Sound Designer: Dan West
Production Designer: Eloise Kent
Sculpture Artist: Pimpisa Tinpalit
Dramaturgy: Brigid Gallacher and Zoe Boesen
Dramaturg: Brigid Gallacher
Creative Producer: Zoe Boesen/Loom Arts and Management
Production/Stage Manager: Stephanie Young
Videography: Brett Walker

I Am (Not) This Body was performed 11-15 October 2023 as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin