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Moving in time with Mitski

I am in front of the stage, beyond the barriers where the photographers stand for the first three songs, when Mitski shows us just how seriously she takes her performance. She sits and bends on a white chair behind a white table while I try to find a decent shot. Suddenly as the third song ends, Mitski gestures to us from the tabletop she now lies on. She cuts her hand through the air, telling us to stop. We move back incrementally, unsure of whether we’ve overstayed. While still singing full out, she looks straight down at us shaking her head firmly “No!”

This is Mitski’s show, plain and simple. She calls the shots.

The spectacle sits somewhere at the intersection of concert, performance art and avant-garde theater. At times, Mitski acts out lyrics using the movements to highlight strains of violence and ecstasy in her songs. In other moments, she stands on top of the table her hands spread wide singing triumphantly or crawls on her knees using the furniture as cover. Often her dancing is sensual and seductive as if contained within this strange puzzle box of a show is an off-kilter burlesque act as well.

During “I Don’t Smoke” she leans up against the table singing “So if you need to be mean / Be mean to me” in one moment pretending to punch herself while in the next she slides her hand seductively down her thigh. Her pantomime cleverly highlights the deeper sentiments of the song: how the sexy and the violent can brush up against each other more often than is comfortable. The performance is both disturbing and mesmerizing, an overbearing theme throughout, as Mitski dances around stage with all the grace of a ballerina but all the detachment of an automaton trying to project human emotion.

On “Nobody,” a single off Be the Cowboy, she sits with her back to us swaying back and forth as the crowd sings with her. The song, like the rest of the show, ricochets between sad and desirous, sexy and brash. Mitski prances around the table screaming “nobody” and then squats on the chair, her body sinuous as she rises to stand still whispering the word over and over again. It’s like the rain scene from “Flashdance,” but quieter and raw.

Mitski has an auteur-like air that surrounds her. It has something to do with the way her band mates stand around her in a semi circle, all silent and directed towards her one unifying voice and body. She is the attraction and the architect of her performance — one in which the image she puts forth is tightly controlled. Not once does she speak to the audience to engage in casual banter or introduce her band — usually a staple of rock shows. Never does she break with the character she has created through her performance to address us with her speaking voice or use her facial expressions to telegraph true emotion outside the context of the songs she’s singing. Even though at first glance, it seems as if she has bared herself to us on stage, with her legs and arms splayed wide and singing her songs about dead end love and unhappiness. It becomes all the clearer that she is keeping part of herself to herself.

Up on stage in black bike shorts and a cropped plain white tee, an outfit just as carefully and artfully blank as her performance, she looks resolutely at the crowd as she sings “I am stronger than you give me credit for” towards the end of “I Don’t Smoke.” And, it is easy to believe that she is right.

Miranda Jetter writes about all manner of noise in Washington, DC. You can find her at @Mirandajetter on Twitter trying to keep up with the most recent memes.

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