Rich Mix, London
May 13, 2022
A man gazes out into the audience. Dressed in an iridescent white leotard, his chest is puffed and his chin cocked. One leg is forward, as if he is poised to step towards or away from us. He stares calmly and defiantly, and seems to invite us to stare back.
Dam Van Huynh’s new solo, In Realness, is an exploration of resistance, queer sexuality, and gender politics performed with impressive range and energy by Tommaso Petrolo. Sampling radical thinkers ranging from Walt Whitman to Pussy Riot, Van Huynh and his collaborators employ a collage of spoken text, sound and movement, resulting in a work that is confrontational, sometimes exhausting to watch, but ultimately exhilarating.
“Resist much, obey little,” the man commands us. He repeats the words until they break apart and seem to take him over. Petrolo’s vocal flexibility is superb. He plays with and tastes the text, building to a crescendo of flashing lights and music which take us into headbanging rock star territory.
Several moments seem to explore growth against resistance. Petrolo swings a tyre like a whirling dervish, leaning luxuriously into the freedom afforded by the central force of its weight. At another moment, he crawls suggestively through it, at another, raises it aloft as a halo. There are sequences of repetition to the point of discomfort, such as when he spends a long time slapping his own bottom. And it wasn’t always clear what state he was in: angry, aroused, tortured, or something else. This may have been the point, as the work reads like a fertile site of exploration, and struggle with, sexual identity.
At one point the lighting transports us to a sweaty, hedonistic disco club, a venue that carries strong associations with self-expression, radical culture, and gay activism. Petrolo’s glitching vocals and relentless pumping fist create a combination of euphoria and discomfort, pleasure and pain. Then the quality switches and he flops and flails his limbs like an exhausted, ineffective protester. There are several sections like this, with intense, disordered movement conveying huge agitation and anger.
Van Huynh says the solo is partly about him challenging notions of what is and isn’t acceptable for a man to be. It was challenging to witness, but never alienating. A playful moment comes when Petrolo executes a perfect headstand and smacks his lips impishly, reminding us that the male body can be surprising and humorous.
The ending has Petrolo firmly on his feet, skipping and strutting on the spot, raising his arms aloft and pointing his fingers ecstatically. We are transported back to the euphoric disco as he counts down from ten to one, the counts interspersed with punchy exclamations: ‘yes!’ ‘c’mon!’ His rhythmic movements and vocals build the atmosphere to orgasmic intensity. At ‘one’ the stage goes to black. It is a defiant, empowering finish to a raw and fearless journey towards realness.