In the world of performance art and theatre, the name Steven Cohen has become synonymous with producing performance art pieces which draw an audience out of their comfort zone and challenge the social norms which we as a society hold dear.
His most recent work, Put your Heart Under Your Feet and Walk/To Elu is no different. Originally performed at the prestigious Montpellier Danse festival, the production functions as a beautifully orchestrated ritual that pays tribute to the performer’s recently deceased soulmate Elu, who passed away in 2016.
The production itself is composed of a number of stylized performances and intense, visual projections. These take place on a stage which features an installation of numerous ballet shoes fastened to a wide variety of sculptures – from sex toys and crucifixes to skulls and Jewish symbols. These are arranged in neat rows across the stage and seem to symbolically reference the departed.
The audience is drawn into the performance from the first video. Cohen is getting the words ‘Put your Heart under Your Feet and Walk’ tattooed on one foot. The physical motion portraying this is often done wearing very uncomfortable shoes under very arduous conditions. When Cohen first appears on stage, he is seen wearing a white dress and high heels attached to two snow-white infant-sized coffins. Supporting himself on long crutches he takes a slow and faltering walk past the rows of neatly arranged ballet shoes. By enacting this long and strenuous journey onstage, we are made privy of the agonizing nature of Cohen’s grief.
In the two remaining videos which separate the moments of his performance, Cohen walks around an abattoir. The videos are graphic. The projections are explicit when it comes to portraying the gore associated with the slaughter of innocent animals. Some of the audience members get up to leave, the harsh reality of death which these videos portray are not for everyone. Those who stay for the final half of the two part video are compelled to bear witness to Cohen as he fully immerses himself in the blood and guts of a slaughtered cow. Cohen’s fear at the sound of the heavy machinery is palpable. The scene, open to numerous interpretations, could be giving us a glimpse into the inner turmoil which Cohen must have felt following the death of Elu.
In the next segment of his ritualistic accolade, Cohen puts on a thin headpiece with a small microphone and states that “the law cannot tell me how to mourn – your taboo is not mine.” Echoing these sentiments, Cohen proceeds to consume a spoon of Elu, his ashes to be exact. At first this act seems unspeakable – but when he utters the words “I am your grave now”, his pure, unconditional love for his partner shines through, wiping away any taint which we may have associated with the unfamiliar action.
At the end of the production, the audience is invited to take a walk on-stage for an up-close, personal inspection of the visual elements. Most of the audience members oblige. They walk through the rows of ballet shoes, creating an atmosphere of a silent congregation in the temple that is Cohen’s grief and love.
By Keegan Frances and Megan Kelly