Divine decadence, darling 2020

Dur 14.00 min, 4K video
Director Kristina Steinbock
Cinematographer Sebastian Danneborn
Editor  Julie Nymann 
Music Peter Peter and Petyer Kyed
Cast  Hans Møller, Søren Høg, Ditte Amalie Hagelund Johansen, Nina Skovgaard Schneidermann og Mikkel H Lund.

The video work is inspired by early 20th century cabaret scenes, in an era when stage performances hinted a critical, political agenda and pushed for sexual liberation through satire, poetry, music performance and songs. Divine decadence, darling invites the audience through surreal, staged scenarios in an empty nightclub where the audience are introduced to five performers living with disabilities. They perform authentic and political testimonies, questioning self-ownership, bodily integrity control of one's own body and sexuality, while simultaneously celebrating the amorous and decadent cabaret universe. The intimacy and sensuality that people with disability embody, is seldom spoken of in society. Using cabaret references against the history of freakshow and todays idea of the ‘perfect body’ the work tends to deconstruct the representations of disability and breaking long-lasting taboos. 

Do look now! – performing erotic other-bodiedness in Kristina Steinbock’s film cabaret

By Svala Vagnsdatter Andersen, PhD

In Divine Decadence, Darlingwe are invited into a velvet cabaret space. The music allures us from a distant piano as we linger in a soft corridor waiting to be let inside. A master of ceremonies appears to greet us singing the signature ‘Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!’ from the musical Cabaret, and we are cast as audiences when he says, ‘Look closely at our bodies – our beautiful bodies’. In a wheelchair with full exaggerated makeup on and doubled in a mirror, he is a rare sight. And when he introduces the rest of the cabaret performers as erotic, sinful, and disabled, we know that we are in for an alternative version of the traditional cabaret’s staging of politically edgy and playfully erotic entertainment.

The body political issues are here presented loud and clear – ‘shamelessly’ as one of the performers states. The five actors are all beautifully dressed up or stripped down with teasing lingerie adorning their othered bodies thus expressing desire and sexuality in ways not often experienced outside of the performance space. The obscenity of the erotic disabled body makes it culturally invisible, but here we are urged to witness it. Simultaneously, what becomes obvious is a mainstream refusion to even acknowledge disability and sexuality in the same picture, because sex in our cultural sphere is so closely connected with potency, agency, and the performance of able-bodiedness. In this film, on the other hand, five not-so-able-bodies are performing sexuality – they talk about it, they wear it through clothes and makeup, they sing it, dance it, question it, live to show and tell it.

In fact, the film balances on the ambivalence of our unability to picture the disabled body as sexual while not wanting to let go of the thought: how do they do it? Traditional 19. century freak shows increased the audiences’ curiosity by not showing, but clearly hinting at the freaks’ sexuality, by presenting odd couples like the giant and the dwarf, the Siamese twins and their spouses, or by showing a line of children alongside a freakish mother. Very often, the blurred status of gender or sexuality constituted the freaked element as in the bearded woman or the hermaphrodite (now known as intersex). Thus, suggested sexuality and reproduction were always features which added monstrosity to the exhibited freak bodies.

In Divine Decadence, Darling the freak scenario turns towards the spectator and asks that we look and listen without prejudice. Here is the man with cerebral palsy who tells about his troubles with orgasms as his body cannot endure spasms; the man who tells the frustrating story of Snow White and the seven horny dwarfs who are eventually left in favour of the prince; the blind girl who sings her heart out about abusing men for kinky sex; the tiny woman in an oversized corset who lets us in on her desire to be explored. She calls her body ‘the hidden land’. The question remains, what gaze is available to us if we are to discover othered bodies’ sexuality – the polarity of the clinical gaze and the freak show gaze certainly do not capture the experiences touched upon in this film cabaret.

The singing girl is blind. It is definitely impressing to watch her play the piano, but when she goes on stage as an exotic dancer the subversive aspects of her performance become obvious. As she sings by the piano: ‘I only have two more holes where my eyes should be, so you don’t have any power over me’. When she then wriggles into the spotlight in her thigh-highs and bodystocking the spectator is somewhat bewildered. It turns out that a strong component of striptease is visual contact with the dancer and the watched object accepting and performing its objectification. The blind girl is certainly performing her sexuality, but the big smile on her face may not be for our gratification. Instead of her mirroring the spectators’ desires we get a slight peek at the girl’s experience of herself as a sexual and sexually desirable being. The same applies to the little man with the top hat who flirts explicitly with a mirror on a selfie stick as he laughs and says: ‘Am I not desirable?’. There seems to be no need for an answer to that question as long as he is making eyes at himself.

The reclaiming of one’s own sexuality is a fairly political move for a group of people who are usually twice freakedthrough their disability and sexuality. By choosing the cabaret as a setting, the film furthermore points at the performativity that underlies the spectacles we are witnessing. Every identity is performatively installed in us in accordance with cultural models and expectations which are more or less possible to meet. We never perform our identities to perfection, but we can aim to come close. Even the identity as disabled is performative and to some degree socially constructed – which bodies are able to function inside the norm depends on how we administer and arrange our material culture. The bodies we meet in the film are all in some way physically impaired. But as the master of ceremony says, they are all shamelessly erotic. As such, they are performing disability quite imperfectly. They refuse to fit into the paradigm of the disabled person as one to be pitied and at best fixed. Because they wear their sexuality proudly on their sleeve and are performing their erotic identities demonstratively, they must fail at meeting society’s expectations to the well-disciplined disabled body. Somehow, you cannot do both simultaneously.
Thus, when the man in the golden braces exclaims ‘Let’s celebrate imperfection!’ he may not just be pointing at the bodies in wheelchairs or those with sight impairment, but also at their imperfect doing disability, doing sexuality, and doing cabaret at the same time. The cabaret film in itself is a strange combination of entertainment, body political statements, and sexual confessions. It succeeds exactly by desiring in abundance and performing to excess.

We, the spectators, also play a vital part in the scenery. Without our peeking in from the outside, freaks would never have been freaks, and without an audience this cabaret would just be masturbatory provocations. We are included in the spectacle as authorization, because without us the show wouldn’t go on. Our freakish gaze, which turns other bodies into othered bodies, is explicitly called upon in the start when the master of ceremony welcomes us with his ‘Stare if you like, but don’t judge’ – a challenge he turns and answers in the end: ‘Did you stare? Did you judge? I bet you did!’. His presumption interpellates the viewer’s normative, freak-invocative presence-as-gaze. We did this. The spectacle is down to our internalized cultural body-sexual constraints.

The show does go on. It dares you to look away. I bet you can’t.