A few weeks ago, Baltic Circle's communications assistant Essi Brunberg had a chance to sit down with Julius Elo and Xana, the creators of Sleeping Beauty, to discuss their experiences, thoughts and feelings regarding not only their work on the performance, but the themes surrounding it as well.
Sleeping Beauty is a participatory performance that approaches sexuality through power and role play. The performance offers an opportunity to take on a role of either visitor or sleeper – the person who carries out fantasies with a “sleeping” person, or the person pretending to sleep – and gives room to personal fantasies, sensations and feelings, and communication through touch. It’s part of the SexLab initiative run by Reality Research Center, a collective of artists engaged in performative adventures and whose shared aspiration is to observe, question, and renew reality by creating performances. The real masterminds behind the performance, however, are Julius Elo and Xana, two artists with different fields of expertise but whose shared vision of an intimate, one-on-one performance has created something truly unique.
It’s a dreary autumn day when we meet in Xana’s office, but the room itself is an eclectic and eye-catching mix of dark paintings of human figures and playfully whimsical things that add a splash of colour to the back wall. It seems a fitting place to discuss Sleeping Beauty, since my interpretation of the performance certainly has a dash of light-hearted elation amongst the quietly intimate moments of human closeness. As a participatory performance, it invites audience members to a one-on-one event to experience sexuality and intimacy in a safe, secure and welcoming setting.
Elo in particular is no stranger to participatory theatre – for the last ten years, he has created and been a part of numerous performances where audience members have been active agents instead of passive onlookers. Somewhere along the line, these participatory performances inspired Elo to start his artistic research, the focus of which has largely been on bodily interaction in intimate performances. His research has translated itself to a dissertation, an ongoing project titled “Katsoja-kokijan keho esityksessä” (“The Body of the Spectator-Experiencer in a Performance”).
Where Elo has focused on performance art and its research, Xana’s interests lie more with the visual aspects of art and culture. A freelance photographer and videographer by trade, her artistic works consist broadly of paintings and moving imagery. She approaches her work through not only the stories of other people but also the personal, depicting humans and human nature and the things that lie hidden beneath an often illusive veneer. This, however, is not all that holds her attention. Like Elo, her interest in the performer’s own bodily expression in performances and images is an important part of the work she is currently doing for Reality Research Center and Sleeping Beauty – work that has included much of the visual designing. Along with Elo, she has planned and designed the visual aspects of the performance, including the live projection that promises to be a fairly significant element throughout the experience.
Xana’s previous work for Reality Research Center includes working as a photographer at their Queer Up! performative event in 2015, whose working group, incidentally, included Elo as well. It appears that Xana’s and Elo’s artistic paths have crossed more than once – and often during works that emphasise bodies, fantasies, sexualities and gender roles. It’s no wonder, then, that these two have played such a pivotal part in the creation of Sleeping Beauty.
Reality Research Center’s roots can be traced back to students of the Theatre Academy and their community theatre in Kallio, Helsinki. Their desire to delve into the reality of Kallio and their ensuing performances inspired Elo and others to think more broadly – what if one were to explore and study reality in general? What would performance art look like if it was to draw inspiration not just from the reality of Kallio, but from all of reality? It is this desire to really dig into these unknown and untested aspects of life that drive Reality Research Center and its members.The research that Reality Research Center conducts is, in Elo’s words, artist-based. “In that sense, all artists carry out artist-based research. The difference with artistic research within institutions is that it’s more academic, whereas an artist researching their own art is free to commit to any methodology, even create their own.
”The idea behind Reality Research Center, then, is to research reality through art and artistic means, and through that research develop new ways of performing reality. They equally wish to provoke discussion about the meaning of performance art. Artist-based research seems to be almost by necessity reflective – after all, it actively involves an artist in a discussion on their work. This allows artists to actively take part in the creation of performance art culture and the ways in which it’s treated in both written and spoken content.
Both Xana and Elo agree that a certain amount of activism and social commentary is often present in performances and art. “If the work is done honestly, then it’s sure to comment on something,” Xana muses. “Even works whose goal isn’t directly to take a stance can do so, because it inevitably shines through and can’t be missed. If it has an impact on even one person, then that’s some kind of comment already.” But with 40 members and more visiting artists and scholars, it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular message that all of Reality Research Center might have, since not all values and insights will line up the same. While Elo’s focus has been on bodies and sexuality, others have turned their attention to other topics, such as work or mythology. Such a multivoiced collective is bound to be diverse, but there is one thing that has kept the company together: their desire to delve deep into the structures and practices of reality and to find new answers or new questions through performances and art.
Art itself has grown more diverse throughout the years, but while the field of art is more free, institutions still play a huge part in its creation – and restriction. Elo points out that there’s been a distinct lack of courses about sexuality and nudity in art schools; a rather surprising fact, given their significance in performances and art in general. “It’s been left out in the cold, which to me is irresponsible – once they graduate, students will at one point or another have to work with nudity and sexuality, but they’ve been given no tools to do so.” The Theatre Academy in Helsinki, it seems, has taken a small step in the right direction; last spring, they held their first workshop about sexuality, gender and nudity – a workshop led by Elo and Aune Kallinen. It’s clear then that art studies are not what led Elo to this particular subject, but rather his own interest in themes surrounding sexuality and human nature.“
Sexuality is a part of people, but there’s been a contradictory attitude towards it in art. In a way it’s seen as good and present everywhere, but in another way, it’s also still taboo and negative, or it’s simply not discussed,” Elo says.
Sleeping Beauty, then, has been directly influenced by Elo’s interest in sexuality. His research on intimate, touch-based performances have rather inevitably had sexuality as one of its themes, and his forays into sex-positive communities have given him more tools in studying and using it in performances.In terms of artistic research, Sleeping Beauty is therefore an exploration on sexuality. As part of Reality Research Center’s SexLab (2016–2017) initiative, it explores sexuality’s cultural manifestations, its diversity and possibilities, its limits and taboos – and, of course, sexuality in the performative context. SexLab’s Power/Community working group – which includes both Elo and Xana – seeks to unravel the kinds of performative environments in which people can be free to explore and recreate their sexualities. Their goal is to approach sexuality through roleplay and sexual fantasies.
The idea for SexLab came from the need to explore what kind of sexual reality dominates us. “Sexuality is never separate from anything. It’s culturally built and tied to different institutions, so we wanted to look at the ways in which sexuality manifests in performance art,” Elo says.
As a project that’s lasted two years, SexLab’s working group has had the chance to try various things in various contexts. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, has already had a trial run in Wonderlust – a festival in Helsinki “celebrating sexuality in its delightful diversity” where audience members become active participants – although the final version promises to look very different. In a sex-positive event like Wonderlust, the starting point of a performance like Sleeping Beauty is already distinct to that of Baltic Circle – as a rule, people’s mindsets are already on exploring and expressing their sexualities, whereas in the artistic context of Baltic Circle, people might react in differing ways. Both Xana and Elo express their interest in seeing how a performance like Sleeping Beauty will be received, and how such a change in context might change the performance entirely.
In Reality Research Center, sometimes the performance itself is the answer to the research question, and the ensuing text is more of a reflection on the process. Whether or not the performance truly answers the question or merely raises new ones is another matter entirely. What, then, would be the question behind Sleeping Beauty?
“It asks how to approach sexuality or how to handle sexuality in performance art,” Elo answers. “We’ve been interested in how sexuality manifests in public performances and media. How does sexual reality control us, and how can it be deconstructed and recreated? The research question, then, would be this: how does sexuality manifest itself in an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and actions? How do they differ, if they do at all?
”At first, Sleeping Beauty was meant to be a participatory performance for groups. This version of the performance was seen in Wonderlust, but the one-on-one performance we’ll see in Cirko gained traction after Baltic Circle expressed interest in presenting the production. The work itself has been a continuous process of brainstorming, planning and small practical trial runs, the latter of which has allowed the team to see whether or not – and how – an idea works.
In terms of the audience, both Xana and Elo are eager to discuss the more practical side of things. Elo notes that the “experience starts when a person first finds out about Sleeping Beauty and reads what it’s about. It might evoke certain thoughts about your attitudes, feelings and sexuality – ‘is this interesting to me, which role would I like to play, are there any fantasies regarding sleep that I find interesting’, and so on. And when that person arrives to the festival club, they might see a character they find appealing, or a character might approach them instead.
”Xana adds that it’s important that the performers aren’t intrusive. “I feel like the intuitive side of things has been important, too. The situation and the space itself is very free, there’s no obligation on either side, so you can just talk to a performer and then excuse yourself from that situation if you’re no longer interested or comfortable with it all. An intuitive giving, a giving of space is an incredibly significant part of this performance.”
“And intuitive because it’s about what kind of person resonates in you, feels inviting to you, and it has to be reciprocal. That’s where it all starts.”
“Exactly. Half of this is a performance, but there’s another half that’s real life and real desires, which is really intriguing.
”As real life and performance meet, it’s been important that the performers have been able to choose their own roles out of their own fantasies. The performers’ varying desires, wishes and fantasies make up a diverse set of characters, which include a virgin, a kabuki, a cyborg, a drag character… The list is fairly long, and promises an intriguing look at the diversity of sexuality.
The performance is, in many ways, twofold. It begins with first contact at the festival club, where performers will mingle with the guests and audience members can discuss their fantasies with characters they feel drawn to. It’s important that both the participant’s and the performer’s desires meet and line up in a mutually satisfactory way, and once a mutual interest has been established, they can move to the reception area where they’ll be able to negotiate their fantasies in a more private setting. A third person will be available in the reception area, a kind of support person who can act as an intermediary for the participant and the performer if requested. They can also answer any questions that curious audience members may have. The pre-ticket discussion itself is a negotiation on areas like sexuality, closeness, sensation, and potential restrictions and boundaries, an agreement on what is allowed and what is not. Only once a mutual understanding based on consent has been met will the participant purchase a ticket, and the performance itself can start.
Once negotiations have been completed, the ticket has been purchased, and the roles have been chosen, the sleeper will be brought into the calm, intimate space in which the performance will take space and they can settle down in a position they find comfortable. The room itself contains both a soundscape and a somewhat alienating live projection of the room as a visual addition – it’s an intimate space, but the sounds and visuality of the room maintain the theatrical nature of the performance. Once the visitor arrives, the performance begins. As noted in the performance’s introductory text, the participant can choose to bring along gears, accessories or props. Because the performance approaches sexuality through roleplay, and because the performers are in costume, the participants can also choose to play a role, although they’re equally free to simply come as themselves. Since this is a performance that values its participants’ and performers’ privacy, however, there are certain items that cannot be brought into the room – no phones, cameras or other recording devices are allowed.
Xana emphasises that audience members don’t have to have a certain fantasy in mind before they approach a character. “You can talk with a performer just to think and toy with the idea, to approach this kind of concept. Just settling into the sleeper’s role and agreeing beforehand what another person can and cannot do is a thought-provoking thing. You don’t have to have everything figured out – it’s a chance to experiment in incredibly safe circumstances. You have to remember that what’s sexual is different for different people, it could just be someone being in the same space with you and breathing with you. It’s different for everyone.”
“And if you do have a strong fantasy in mind, it might not be something the other person is comfortable with, and another, mutual fantasy might take its place instead, or your original fantasy might develop into something else,” Elo notes. “And if you don’t have a specific fantasy in mind, something might come up when you speak with the other person. It’s also possible that you can’t find a performer willing or able to take part in your fantasy, so you must be prepared for the possibility that the performance doesn’t take place at all, especially not in the way you want it to. So, in that sense, you’ve experienced the first part of the performance, the free part, the negotiation, but the final realisation of the fantasy might not happen.”
“Yeah. The first encounter is part of the performance. And the performance is partly real life, too, and that’s reality. Sometimes your desires don’t match up, and things never progress further.”
Being able to candidly discuss and ponder your desires and fantasies is certainly an experience in itself, as Elo agrees. “It’s a lot. Talking about sexuality and fantasies with another person, expressing yourself like that, it’s not necessarily easy. You’re very vulnerable and it’s an intimate experience. It’s a lot to be able to really think about and express your desires to another.”
The experience, then, can vary broadly depending on both the participant’s and the performer’s wishes. It’s everything and anything that can happen between two consenting people, and can go from one extreme to another – simply breathing with another person to experiencing an earth-shattering orgasm – but the only thing that must happen is that one person is play-sleeping and has their eyes closed, while another person is awake. What seems to be the most important aspect of this performance, then, is that it comes from a place of mutual desire and understanding. Boundaries must be respected so that a person can take part in the performance and feel safe and comfortable doing so, and should that happen, the experience becomes a mutual performance where two people meet.
It’s clear that both Elo and Xana consider the physical and emotional safety of both the participant and the performer an important aspect of the performance. “We wanted to bring the vulnerable and sensitive side of sexuality to this performance, including the fears and hopes and expectations connected to them, and then make space for them and listen to them.” It is important to remember that both parties are free to stop the performance at any time, and should either the participant or the performer feel the need to discuss their experiences with each other afterwards, that’s possible as well.
“It can be a very bright and playful experience. It doesn’t have to be serious. It’s about mutual attraction, so it’s likely to be a very powerful experience,” Xana adds. “Powerful because it’s two people meeting in a way that can very quickly become something really intimate.”
“Absolutely. Because of the negotiations and discussions, you’re more aware of the sexual aspect of it, so you become more sensitive towards it, you’re more aware of what’s happening.”
Both Elo and Xana emphasise that it’s important that the participant’s fantasy is something that is true to themselves. “You’re not just performing the fantasy or inventing one. It’s about quieting down with your own sexuality and asking yourself what you want and what arouses you.
”Experimenting with thoughts like this is a chance for people to truly think about what sexuality and intimacy means to them personally, and how they perceive their own wants and needs. However, Elo is quick to remind us that it’s important not to mix the fantasy with the real thing. “Having a fantasy is different than actually putting it into practice. You might realise that the fantasy you have isn’t necessarily something you want to see realised, and it’s important to understand that difference.
”For the actors, physical items and changes like the costume and the props are a big help in preparing for the performance, but Xana cites more emotional aspects as well: “I become sensitised. It’s likely to be as exciting a journey for the performer as it is for the participant, because you don’t know who you’ll be meeting. The performer has a certain responsibility in the situation because we know how to negotiate and we know how to act, but like the participant, the performer is opening up to another person and that’s a very vulnerable experience.”
Elo agrees. “Both the performer and the participant will be vulnerable and laid bare, feeling and sensing. The main difference is that the performer knows more about the performance.”
“And the performer is more visible in their role because of the costume. And playing a certain role can be very freeing.”
“I feel like I’m completely myself while I’m in character, but it does give you certain freedoms. The way I see it, the character is your fantasy made flesh, and the action is the realisation of that fantasy.”
Both Xana and Elo feel that the performance will bring them outside their comfort zone – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “That the performer also feels vulnerable is a positive thing, because then everyone is slightly outside their comfort zone and on more even footing,” Xana notes. “But it’s also likely to bring a certain kind of excitedness and a tingling kind of energy. It’s not about a confident actor strolling onto the stage and making themselves heard. It’ll be challenging, but interesting, too.”
“The performance is about a sensing and feeling body, so it is an incredibly exciting situation,” Elo agrees.
If Sleeping Beauty has a message, it’s certainly a sex-positive one. It’s an attempt to see sexuality in different ways. It’s also a reminder that sexuality can be for everyone – the performance is queer-oriented, and welcomes all kinds of bodies, genders and sexual orientations.
“Take it as an encounter,” Xana advises as a parting word. “Come as you are, give yourself a chance to look and think about these things.”
Sleeping Beauty can be experienced at Cirko – Center for New Circus during Baltic Circle’s festival club.
Photos: Alisa Javits
Make-up: Anreve Lakelet
The author is a communications assistant at Baltic Circle and a student of English philology and gender studies.