Don’t forget to bring cash when you go to see Ivo Dimchev’s Lili Handel! Presented at Central Saint Martins as part of Dance Umbrella, Lili Handel offers you the chance to bring a little piece of the artwork (some drops of Dimchev’s blood) home. It’s a show that will not leave you indifferent – you will either love or hate it – and it is highly witty, entertaining, and never too obvious. In a minimal setting, Dimchev manages to transform the mundane into divine and grotesque images reflecting on the role of the performer, the viewer, the artwork and the object of art, all at once.

Ivo Dimchev © Tamas Katko
Ivo Dimchev
© Tamas Katko

Lili Handel comes in from a side door, unsure on her/his black heels and singing an unknown opera aria. S/he wears only a pearl-decorated G-string and a short feather jacket. Her/his head is shaved, two small chains trickle down the temples like hair, and a white face and overly red lips complete the outfit. In the background a slowed-down voice sings. S/he sits on a once-elegant chair, crossing her/his legs, exposing most of the thigh (not that it could be covered anyway). Is it a woman? Hardly. A man? Maybe. A transvestite? Possibly, but more accurate would be to say all of them, as at the centre of the performance, rather than gender, is the body. And this becomes very clear as we watch mesmerised at the poetry in motion of Lili’s buttocks shimmy while s/he erupts in regular screams of “Party! Party!!” It is a party for her/him, as Dimchev enjoys performing for us. Like the chair Lili is sitting on, it is a tale of consumption that we are told (or rather shown), and it is the performing body we are feasting upon. Lili is at once consumed by her/his role of performer – at a certain point s/he asks a member of the audience if he wants to have a beer at the bar, as s/he does not find pleasure in performing any more, and her/his back aches from the unnatural, arched, pin-up-style positions s/he constantly adopts – and consumed as well by us, looking at his/her exposed body. Ours is a cultural and erotic feast. Highly crafted, with no detail spared, everything is exposed to the eye. Drowning in existential desperation, Lili is saved by streetwise, Dadaistic humour, while questioning our small habitudes and ticks. Are we not all performing, all the time?

Lili Handel is a series of tableaux with a pastiche of real and invented references. The show has all the elements of performance art: naked skin, talking, minimal movement, interaction with the audience, and blood. Copiously sweating and seated on the chair, Dimchev creates absurd images: we see him flirt with us, sensually caressing his leg, arching the back like an old star, and running with a cowboy hat, purposelessly, somewhere and nowhere. With pre-recorded and often distorted songs, either slowed down or generously up-tempo, he produces a continuum of vocalisations going from beautiful opera singing to the purring of a cat, but most often emitting opera-inspired noises. His light double entendres are naïve and obscene: we see him in a BDSM-inspired manège (when the ballet dancer moves in a circle around the stage’s edge), slapping his buttocks and doing split jumps while crying “ouch, you hurt me” and regularly checking if they are getting red.

Dimchev is constantly moving between the characters of starlet, transvestite and himself, identifying with none. He erodes the distance between performance and reality: he fakes a loss of interest in performing; he advises us to relax and enjoy something simple and beautiful as he is tickling our nose with a white gymnastics ribbon; he clinically pricks himself (no blood on stage) to sell a tiny bottle of his blood as a relic in an improvised auction (artists, it is known, go to any lengths for money). Cunningly, he questions the audience in the manner of a market survey: “What do you want to see? What should I perform? Give me a reason”. And as he gets his answer, he tiptoes back, giggling, singing “You Are My Sunshine”: complex pleasure.

The intricate poetic symbolism of the white lily – at once purity and eroticism, but also associated with the death of an innocent – and Handel, which besides being a famous German last name also means “trade”, perfectly fitting the piece and its obvious commoditisation of the performative body. Lili Handel does not have a gender, and neither does it have a genre. It rests somewhere between butoh, performance art and burlesque, being all and none. It is a red-lipped, grinning Dimchev gingerly tiptoeing back and forth between the genres. But does it really need to be captured in a definition? And anyway, where does reality end and performance start?