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Reviewed by:
  • Performing Utopia ed. by Rachel Bowditch and Pegge Vissicaro
  • Monica Cortés Viharo
Performing Utopia. Edited by Rachel Bowditch and Pegge Vissicaro. Seagull Books, 2017. Paper $35.00. 334 pages.

Rachel Bowditch and Pegge Vissicaro's edited collection Performing Utopia adds to the literature of utopian performance by building upon a triumvirate of scholars—José Esteban Muñoz, Jill Dolan, and Enrst Bloch—through case studies exemplifying the doing of utopia. Constructed in three parts—"Embodied Utopias," "Utopian Laughter from Minstrelsy to Burlesque," and "Heterotopias and Dystopias as Contemporary Spaces of Healing"—contributors represent disciplinary perspectives from fields including theatre, dance, media studies, and [End Page 176] cultural geography. The international scope of the book, addressing geopolitical sites such as New Zealand, Chile, and Brazil, is balanced by detailed accounts of small moments that initially might not appear political, consequential, or even utopian. Cases from the global south provide a refreshing and much-needed dimension to the corpus of critical writing on utopian performance. In fact, while Luis Alvarez's essay "Learning from Ngatahi: Rapumentary Film, the Utopian Imagination and Politics of the Possible" centers on Maori filmmaker Dean Hapeta and his docu/rapumentary film series Ngatahi: Know the Links, the real star of the piece is the global rhizomatic network of activist performers which Alvarez identifies as "a 'diaspora of dignity'" (35). Most importantly, the collection demonstrates the use of utopia as a lens through which performances on and off stage, on film and in person, can be studied. In so doing, it makes a compelling case for utopian performance as more than the somatic experience first described by Jill Dolan, but also a framework through which the quotidian can be mobilized to construct and/or embody utopia, dystopia, and heterotopia.

For example, contributors Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn interpret the archive through a utopian performative lens in order to reveal utopic intentions as well as the dystopian results. Acknowledging Canada as "our home, not our native land," they explore Canada's nation building (1870s-1970s) through photographs of orchestrated encounters between First Nations, settlers, and colonizers at celebrations and spectacles (54). Their analytical approach is a "choreographic interpretation of a complex history of staging colonial expansion into the vast landscape of southern Alberta" (57). It is hard to imagine finding utopia in scenes of indigenous children donning native "costumes" (supplied by their residential school) to perform otherwise forbidden dances at the 1939 Banff Indian Days. But Doolittle and Flynn's choreographic interpretation include interviews with Black Feet elders and the context of the images' production. The additional information highlights how encounters with the "exotic" and the "untamed," are weaponized to offer the utopian experience of taming, transforming, and forging society anew, truly a "no place." These utopian performatives are also an attempt to shield spectators from the dystopian realities experienced by First Nations peoples.

Most of the case studies take place in the backdrop of festival culture; therefore many authors engage with Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque as a site where utopia, dystopia, and heterotopias may exist simultaneously. In Christian DuComb's essay "The Wenches of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade: A Performance Genealogy," the Mummers Parade is a vehicle for utopian free expression, the dystopian history of blackface minstrelsy, and heterotopian gender play. These festivals are also temporal heterotopias offering a break in time and the opportunity to recover a time. Men marching in the Mummers parade, particularly those insisting on appearing in blackface (now functionally prohibited by parade rules and culturally condemned) choose to break from the current moment to enact [End Page 177] what they perceive as a utopian recovery or replication of the past. A Mummers parade participant wearing blackface articulated this notion by stating, "I'm not trying to put nobody down. It's just tradition, it's the way my father paraded" (183).

Performing Utopia's unique contribution is the manner in which almost every case study grapples with utopia and dystopia. While the first two sections of the book only glancingly address dystopia and heterotopia, the final section is where the collection distinguishes itself by identifying utopic moments of hope within the dystopia of post-Katrina New Orleans and...


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pp. 176-178
Launched on MUSE
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