Gretchen Huff and Marissa Mooney both hold dual degrees in modern dance and gender studies from the University of Utah. Together they produced Dollhouse in February, exploring themes of womanhood and femininity in and amongst the rooms of a historic home in the Avenues. Huff and Mooney, also the show’s main performers, led audiences on a planned, and eventually repeating, circuit through all levels of the house and four sections: “Maiden,” “Mother,” “Wild Woman,” and “Crone.”
Many of the rooms featured striking installations created by Kate Gourley-Thomas: a closet full of shelves lined with paper dolls depicting many-bodied women and flora, a heap of aromatic potting soil in the living room over which hung a nest of branches encasing a chandelier, and a mass of gauzy webs crisscrossing a cellar room. Mooney co-created the cellar installation, in addition to creating one for the kitchen: spoons taped to every surface — cupboards, walls, drawers — each one cupping a fried egg.
In the opening, “Maiden,” Huff and Mooney were clad in white bras and briefs, sitting at the foot of a bed. With strategically placed slices of frosted cake, they explicitly used their fingers to deliver icing from cake/nether region to mouth, staring the audience down sullenly. It was confrontational and occasionally uncomfortable, though maybe no more than another intimate setting where performers stare unrelentingly back at audience members.
They moved into an adjacent bathroom, where they performed a duet in an enclosed shower, flashes of which were visible in a mirror, beside a tub filled with lollipops and other candy and detritus. Sounds of their bodies knocking together and a building film of steam on the shower door indicated a strong physicality, as the two continued their exploration of the corporeal discovery of maidenhood.
Downstairs for “Mother,” Huff and Mooney donned aprons with Jessica Pace, who had been frantically frying eggs, and the three cheerily, but sarcastically, danced to Sam Cooke’s “Sugar Dumpling.” The dance commented upon outward appearances, specifically those of suburban housewives, belying troubled inner landscapes (reinforced by a conspicuous pile of prescription pill bottles on the counter). The pill-popping housewife may be a real, and worrisome, affliction, but I felt the depiction here oversimplified the invariably nuanced roles that a contemporary woman might actually find herself taking on throughout motherhood.
In the adjacent dining room, three women passed around a casserole dish of anecdotes on mother- , wife-, and daughterhood, from which they each took turns reading selections aloud. These potentially autobiographical snippets offered compelling challenges found within these relationships. I wanted to linger more here (and did return after completing the full cycle), but we were ushered onward into the peat-scented, dirt-laden living room for “Wild Woman,” where Natalie Border and Meagan Bertelsen, in Pina Bausch-like white slips, awaited.
After circling round and rolling amongst the dirt with these two wild women, no longer constrained by kitchen appliances and the compulsion to clean, Huff and Mooney made the journey with the audience down to the cellar for “Crone.” Here, Samantha Matsukawa passed the time knitting in her rocking chair amid the gauzy web installation. She joined in with Huff and Mooney for some gentle postures and gestures. “Crone” was quiet and contemplative, and in this way opened itself up more for introspection and interpretation than some of the previous and more visually graphic or overt sections.
“Crone” ended outside in the backyard, the performers watering handmade, silvery flowers that poked up out of the yard and out of the deck, before returning quickly into the house to begin “Maiden” again in the upstairs bedroom. I thought this last image of flower-watering, outside in the dark and cold, was lovely and wished the performers had explored this section longer.
Upon re-entering the house through the “Mother” scene in the kitchen, I was reminded of Dollhouse’sfocus on some feminine roles through an antiquated lens. Maybe it’s my own bias, due in part to the potentially privileged lack of constraint I feel regarding my own role in society, but the “woman in the kitchen” trope feels less to me like a concern of 2017 and more one of, for example, 1972 — the year Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, with other feminist artists from Cal Arts, opened Womanhousein Los Angeles.
Upon a post-Dollhouse refresher, I realized the performance I had just seen drew heavily, and even directly, from Womanhouse in several instances. Presumably, this was an intentional effort by Huff and Mooney to position their work within the feminist art historical tradition, but it was not attributed as such.
“How would you like your eggs done / this morning?” Robin Weltsch wrote about “The Kitchen” for the catalog that accompanied Womanhouse. The Kitchen walls were covered in circular nodes that were at once eggs and nipples.
Faith Wilding created a pronouncedly non-functional shelter with her Crocheted Environment for Womanhouse, which featured web-like strands knit together to form a spidery cave, dimly lit by a single bulb.
Wilding performed “Waiting,” a contemplation on passivity in which she rocked back and forth in a chair reviewing her life from beginning to end.
The observation of such close similarities led me to believe Dollhouse wasn’t exploring its creators’ ideas and concerns, but instead recapitulating those voiced by women and artists decades earlier. Problematically, it was unclear to me both the extent to which this was intentional and, therefore, the desired effect.
Regardless of clear context or positioning of intent, a viable takeaway from Dollhouse is that gender roles may be more complicated now than in the 1970s. Struggles voiced by mid-20th century feminists may remain struggles for contemporary feminists, though they might crop up in new ways. Yet, strangely, more subversive elements from Womanhouse were absent from Huff and Mooney’s performance.
In Womanhouse, Judy Chicago’s “Menstruation Bathroom” demonstrated “an image of women’s hidden secret, covered over with a veil of gauze…and deodorized…except for the blood.” Chicago observed, “However we feel about our own menstruation is how we feel about seeing its image in front of us.”
A piece written by Chicago and Wilding featured “two women, each wearing a plastic ‘part’ designating their respective sex. The women ‘play’ man and woman, engaged in the age-old battle about domestic and sexual duties and demands. She wants ‘him’ to help her with the dishes and provide her with sexual gratification. ’He‘ is outraged by these demands and takes his rage out on her by killing her with his plastic phallus.“
Even the eponymous dollhouse in the entryway lacked the subversion of Schapiro’s 1972 counterpart. Here, it could have been any girl’s plaything. Schapiro’s featured a rattlesnake, grizzly bear, peering men, and other threats and reversals lurking within its diminutive rooms.
Dollhouse’s self-awareness remains untenable based on provided information, and even assuming Womanhouse as the springboard, so do Huff and Mooney’s decisions to incorporate some themes while excluding others.
True to Womanhouse, though, Dollhouse “echoes the feelings of a Woman’s place,” as Schapiro first described in 1972. Perhaps those same feelings are just as resonant today, but the ways in which we voice them have shifted, as seen by Huff and Mooney’s inclusion, exclusion, and divergence from Womanhouse ideas. After all, how we grapple with the present is unavoidably shaped by our acknowledgement of and engagement with the past.
Amy Falls holds a BFA in modern dance from the University of Utah and works as an independent dancer and choreographer in Salt Lake City.