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Photograph by David Whitman
SIZING UP: Jennylin Duany (left) and Elizabeth Doud call to mind weighty issues in 'Cabaret Unkempt.'

Thinking Big

Miami duo Jennylin Duany and Elizabeth Doud embody body-image issues in 'Cabaret Unkempt' at MACLA

By Marianne Messina


IN THE show Cabaret Unkempt, plus-sized Jennylin Duany and her partner, Elizabeth Doud, don tutus and leather, fashion Slinkies and virtual projection screens to create a two-person, multimedia performance about body image. The project is the culmination of the duo's long dance history together, which began when contemporary choreographer Giovanni Luquini continued to pair the pale and wiry Doud with black and voluminous Duany in his dances.

"There's definitely an exterior visual impact of seeing the two of us next to one another because of our biotypes," Doud admits. But in years of working together and gaining awareness through movement, the pair has mined, as Doud would say, untold "existential" (also Doud's word) questions beneath this exterior.

"Working with Elizabeth really put a lot of things into question," explains Duany, who often felt herself holding back, feeling her weight might overpower her partner. But as Doud would say things like, "Girl, give me your weight!" Duany started asking herself, "Why should I have to protect Elizabeth when she is perfectly capable?"

One piece, the lynchpin of these discoveries, is a kind of slow-motion rough and tumble, with two bodies fitting and folding together. This visual dialectic is both freeing and eye-opening. "It's a lot of weight sharing, and for me it's a fun scene," Duany says. "To be lifted, to be carried, is so wonderful."

Duany conceived Cabaret Unkempt, which comes to MACLA this weekend, during what she calls a "surreal time." While her friends were considering plastic surgery—"because they feel uncomfortable with their body, and they want to create a new story line"—her mom was undergoing a mastectomy. Duany began to wonder, "Am I able to rid a part of my body? If I were to do that, what's there?" And that questioning led her to ask, "What are the story lines that are fixated in my fat?"

Over time, Duany realized that a lot of those story lines were not pretty, and she has sought to rewrite them through working on the show. It was through dance that Duany had her first awakening, in a solo performance under Luquini: "We were in the middle of creating a new work, and I said to him, 'I love the idea of what you're talking about. ... Feel free to give me more stuff, because I'm going to drop another 30 pounds.' And he said to me, 'What? I don't want you to drop weight to do the production, I want you.' The minute he said that me, it was just so liberating."

In two years of touring and tweaking Cabaret Unkempt, Duany has continued to uncover the hidden voices of negative body image. "A lot of awareness I learned from our costume designer," Duany relates. "There was a time where I wouldn't even expose my arms, because I thought they needed to be a certain size, you know. Where did I get that from?"

But Duany brought Doud into the show because, as she says, "I didn't want this to be a fat girl's pity party. I wanted it to be a show about women in general." For her part, Doud appreciates the opportunity to perform outside "a situation where the perfect dancer body is the guiding aesthetic." Working with Duany, Doud has learned "it's not enough to have a certain shape; it's about being able to inhabit your body on every level."

While the show is in town at MACLA, the performers will conduct a workshop for youth at the Billy DeFrank Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center, exploring body image, public faces (masks) and internal voices. The workshop encourages young people to investigate their mannerisms for protective barriers and to ponder how "we see ourselves projecting out into the world," according to Doud. "You can't talk about that and not have to consider how your body is supporting that."

Duany, recalling her own teenage years when body image "ruled her life," looks forward to the workshop as a chance revisit those years. "I think I'm going to learn a lot from these teenagers."

 CABARET UNKEMPT plays Friday–Saturday at 8pm at MACLA's Castellano Playhouse, 510 S. First St., San Jose; $7–$10. (408.998.ARTE)

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