Bulgarian-Canadian performer and choreographer Maria Kefirova’s performance “Backs boxes towels”, co-produced by DNK contemporary dance and performance, Sofia and MAI | Montréal, arts interculturels Montreal as part of the residency programs of both spaces, opened MAI | Montréal, arts interculturels 2021/2022 season with its Canadian premiere. The American artist, critic and dramaturg Sebastian Kann writes about the performance. 

Photographer: Johan Deschuymer

‘Backs boxes towels’ is a performance which invites us to dwell on surfaces — on a strip of wallpaper, a screen, the outside of a box, the exterior of a body, a fluorescent headscarf. It brings the surface to the forefront by staging translations or relations between inside and outside which are troubled or troubling. Stuff passes through the surface only insofar as it marks what is not revealed, what is not allowed through, or indeed what might or might not even be waiting for us at all were we (the spectators) to somehow gain access the other side of things. 

Flatness (wallpaper, towel, screen, iridescent fabric, headscarves) dramatizes this doubt about the beyond of the surface, especially when those flatnesses turn out to be reversible: seen from behind, a towel presents simply another surface, nothing but that plane, that borderland. A headscarf flipped inside-out changes color, transforms from opaque to reflective, and we learn nothing more about its depth. Kefirova’s hand strokes a fabric sewn with double-sided paillettes, flipping them from dark to light, from light to dark, and our gaze skates across without penetrating. 

‘Backs boxes towels’ opens with Kefirova bundled up, her eyes hidden by large dark sunglasses, her face impassive, still and almost deathlike. A straw juts out from between her lips, signifying nothing in particular. She lifts a microphone to the tip of the straw, her arm dissociated from the rest of her body, and we hear the faintest stream of breath. This sound marks, in the barest possible way, Kefirova’s interiority. But only that — not a particular interiority, something defined and legible, but interiority in general. Her breath indexes something to which we are not granted access, like the mute messenger of a walled city. It’s in that sense that the traffic between inside and outside is troubled in this work: what lies beyond the surface is never revealed in its plenitude, only ever suggested, hinted at with no guarantees.

Which is not to say that this is a dramatic piece. On the contrary, it’s buoyed by a certain humour: the understated humour of expectations defied in the most low-key way possible (at one point, she opens a box of cookies to find: a Dictaphone?), but also the good-natured absurdism of the wise-woman, unsurprised to find herself surfing across a strange and slippery mirror-landscape.

From a certain perspective, this work interrogates the situation of performance as a form. One could even make the bold claim that the whole thematic of surfaces and depths is extrapolated from a particular understanding of performance’s medium-specificity. Looking and being watched: what’s going on in that arrangement of bodies, roles, and expectations? Aren’t these surfaces produced in the first place by this practice of display? What do we want from watching and being watched, as makers or as spectators—what opacities, what transparencies? And how far do we actually get with those desires? 

Western dance culture has heavy ideological investments in the notion of expressivity — movement as an exteriorization of the subject that cuts across cultural and linguistic difference, that is less mediated than language and therefore more authentic, etc… Expression is something we tend to want from dancers, especially imagined as a gesture which grants the spectator access to some kind of real and present interiority. Although expression has a longer pedigree in dance historically, much the same set of ideological injunctions is expressed today in the cult of vulnerability — a particularly contemporary version of basically the same thing — which is regularly presented as a supreme gift and apparently rare talent, something we all need to work at in order to improve ourselves. This collective wish for vulnerability (and its cousin, intimacy) betrays something about the hardness of our times, and it’s not surprising that it should recur incessantly in discourse about the performing arts, where so many fantasies about the subject are played out and made palpable in public. But a vulnerable, expressive, intimate performance comes at the price of certain erasures: it often relies on seeing neither the theatrical artifice which is at work nor the division of labour in which contemporary performance is embedded.

Photographer: Jade Tong-Cuong

With ‘Backs boxes towels’, we’re in territory far removed from that brand of romantic essentialism. Let’s skip down an associative chain with Kefirova: first, she dances in silence to music only she can hear, playing through a set of earphones. Then, she plays sound from a speaker which she shuts up in an unmarked box. Kefirova is like the box, the box is like Kefirova: music on the inside. Only there’s a change, in that the cardboard lets the sound out. Kefirova’s fleshy integument permits no such transparency, sonic or otherwise. Later, on screen, Kefirova shows us a box of chocolate cookies. We get to see it from all angles. Boxes are bodies, so here is another body, this time at work, selling its interiority (the fancy bio shop cookies advertised on its surface). But look inside: no cookies, just another speaker (or is it a sound recorder?). The inside is not what the outside announces: any relation is partial, unreliable, murky, mediated by desire and by commodification.

In ‘Backs boxes towels’, this sequence doesn’t play out in such a direct chronological way. But the resonance between the three moments of contained sound is unmistakable, and it thematizes the hungry gaze of the spectator, who desperately wants the real cookie (intimacy, vulnerability, the dancer herself as a subject) but gets instead something technically produced. Indeed, the spectator, in this instance, gets absence: the ghostly elsewhere and back then of recorded sound, which is at best a trace of presence and in any case definitely not the real cookie. 

It would be reductive to explain ‘Backs boxes towels’ away only as a critique of subjective interiority. There’s more going on here. Indeed, the title itself — which lays out three sets of things in a list, without connecting them, without organizing or hierarchizing, without even the softening effect of a comma — suggests what the performance delivers in spades : multiplicity that’s not defined by a single cohesiveness. The piece has broadly three movements — an ‘A’ section, which is concerned with dance and embodiment; a ‘B’ on sound and time; and a ‘C’ on visuality and space — although there are also plenty of in-between moments which don’t fit neatly into this schema. ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ are kind of placed next to one another, just like the sets of objects in the title, and while their juxtaposition produces specific readings and affects, there’s a feeling that they could each just as well stand alone, or that the order of things could be shuffled around. 

Throwing internal unity to the winds affords Kefirova some joyfully anarchic leeway within the material, and so we get : a medley of national anthems; a towel choreography evocative of magic shows; oblique references to other Marias (the virgin Mary, Maria from The Sound of Music); and a meditative sound bath complete with unidentifiable nature-ish sounds. The dance moments are for the most part dynamic, articulate, and vertical — there’s no goopy formlessness here. Nor is she busy with dramatic weight shifts: one has the impression that, like the textiles on display, the movements here are reversible, as if she could stop her dance at any moment and perform it backwards.

What this prolific free-associativeness produces is a choreographic work which consistently exceeds itself. ‘Backs boxes towels’ is reflective about its own status as a performance, but also points consistently beyond performance, evoking what’s outside the walls of the theatre and the multiple entanglements and traces which produce and ground what appears on stage. As we travel between different zones within the piece, recurrent motifs and tonal qualities help us orient ourselves. But the vertiginous accumulation of materials, references, practices, and meanings in ‘Backs boxes towels’ makes it impossible to settle on a homogenous interpretation which would totalize the work. Instead, one has the feeling that ‘Backs boxes towels’ speaks with multiple voices. 

This slightly chaotic approach to authorship is relieving: it belies some assumptions we hold dear about what an affirmative intervention in the cultural sphere should look like. Performance can be a space for clear messaging, but it can also be a space which is political in a more oblique sense. Kefirova reminds us of what’s irreducible about otherness by confronting us with the surface of things upon which projection and signification spiral out without resolution. And while she provides us with a moment to consider these dynamics, she also lets us feel them. ‘Backs, boxes, towels’ is just as much a conceptual endeavor as it is a sensory and aesthetic one. As sounds washes, movement resonates, and light blooms, it’s clear that the moments at which some kind of conceptual interpretation crystallize don’t have priority over those in which interpretation fails and perception misses its mark. Given the rapid-fire combativeness and parochialism of our contemporary public sphere, which runs on quick judgment, Kefirova’s piece feels like a necessary tonic — and a delectable one at that.


I saw ‘Backs boxes towels’ on 17 September 2021 at the MAI in Montréal, Canada.

With the financial support of National Culture Fund, Bulgaria