The element of surprise is one of the few underrated performance facets these days. So often when I attend dance performances, I find myself growing bored, even as I am confronted with superbly talented dancers and even intricate and innovative choreography. This was not the case at all when I saw Anne Juren perform MAGICAL, co-created with Annie Dorsen, at New York Live Arts: over the course of an hour, I found myself undergoing feelings of enthrallment, revulsion, discomfort, and simple, unfettered joy at the wonder of the human body as it dances – but never boredom. This is a big deal.

Magical © Christoph Lepka
Magical
© Christoph Lepka

MAGICAL started off innocuously enough: Juren, clad in a kitchen apron, stood surrounded by various kitchen gadgets and flatware. As she plucked each sparklingly stainless steel item from its counter spot, she announced its name and mimed the action it is typically used for, all with the tease of a smile at the corners of her mouth. A few simple magic tricks made an appearance – a cup disappearing into a paper bag, an egg disappearing from a mixing bowl (only to seemingly reappear out of Juren’s vagina). Laughter was ample amongst the audience, as Juren had everyone eating out of the palm of her hand the second the curtain parted.

Things didn’t get too weird until Juren took a pair of scissors and sat downstage of the curtain, carefully snipping holes in her halter dress until she had completely cut it, her bra, and her underwear off. Each snip was deliberate and still completed with Juren’s coy half-smile upon her face, as if she were daring the audience to not take her seriously. By the time she expertly inserted the blade of one half of the scissors into her left forearm until it drew copious blood, however, no one was laughing; every eyeball in the room was riveted on Juren.

After tying what was once her dress around her head, so that she couldn’t see the audience, Juren spent the next five minutes doing nothing more than bouncing to Christophe Demarthe’s rock-and-roll-esque score. I appreciated Juren and Dorsen’s decision to let this bouncing go on for so long: by the time Juren escalated into robotic, completely uninhibited dancing (still with the dress covering her head), I had grown tired of studying and comparing every body part and jiggle of her anatomy. The shock value of the completely naked female body had evaporated, and what was left was a stunning display of ferocity and lack of restraint. It was the most candid performance I have seen over the last year.

The remainder of the piece involved Juren’s very talented sleight-of-hand, as she removed item after item from her vagina – which she’d have you believe is capable of holding quite a lot. There were batteries, a flashlight, a lit string of white twinkle lights (which hilariously “burnt out” the moment she removed the full string from her lady parts), and a humorously long, brightly-colored handkerchief.

Dorsen and Juren’s piece pulls from five performances of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Marina Abramovic’s Freeing the Body and Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, the latter of which provided voice-over text for the opening of MAGICAL, as a shiny silver box, apparently remote-controlled, skidded around near the center of the stage. Bruno Pocheron and Ruth Waldeyer’s lighting design was phenomenal: complementary and yet still witty. I suppose Juren herself is the real master of this piece, though. Her enticing mix of coyness, reptilian disdain, and complete lack of concern for the audience at times made her performance one of the best I’ve seen of late.