“I think they’re creepy,” said Vivienne Pankratova (aged 11), “I never played with Barbies – I had a baby doll called Sestra (sister in Russian) and a soft toy dog.” She’s standing in her David Bowie T-shirt, contemplating my question, “What do you think is the collective noun for Barbies?” She answered immediately, “an army of Barbie.”

Scattered around the Rudolf Nureyev Studio at Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) are around 50 naked, eBay-bought Barbies providing the trampoline for Czech choreographer Denisa Musilova’s exploration of the male gaze. She is in residence as a BAC Open resident artist, interrogating intergenerational wounding in POOL, investigating ways of looking, seeing and being seen – power shifts. 

Mark DeChiazza joined the conversation: “I have two sisters and they had a lot of Barbies when I was growing up in the 70s …there was this kind of blind playing at sex you know… just like bump them on each other…  and their legs bent the wrong way and so they’re sort of adult, but small, and there’s a bunch of things about them that are super weird. There was always a sadism to it because we would put them into these horrible positions, take their heads off and you know, chop their hair off…”

Vivienne: “I don’t like them – too ‘princessy.’”
Mark: “But usually we played dress up and made plays – my parents were both in the theater.”
Vivienne: “I can see you with lipstick.”
Mark: “Oh yes. Our house was completely gender fluid!”

Tomas Rychetsky quietly interjects: “It wasn’t possible to get Barbies during Communism. Not until we were about eleven when the revolution happened.”

“I really wanted them because they were very special… all the dolls that we had were like babies. But Barbies- they were little women, like adults right… which is more exciting than just playing mother. I loved the packaging. Barbie caused a friendship breaker in my house. A friend visited and broke off her hand. I was so upset – I never let her play at my house again,” said Denisa, lost in childhood stuff.

Denisa works in complete silence while creating the piece. She remains the voyeur to her own process – working from the inside and then stepping out.

“I think I’m schizophrenic in this piece,” said Denisa, “because as a choreographer I’m trying to be on the outside – notice if everything is going alright and also trying to be a dancer. It’s a really hard position because you’re always trying to control everything…like a mother over everybody – is it going okay? Is everybody doing what they need to do and it’s not falling apart.” 

Denisa has recently become a mother, it shows in her work. A different pace, a grounded contemplation, a maternal meditation. She moves like she is duetting with herself, listening to her interiority, a sacred well. Allowing the creativity to lead, respecting the muse with closed eyes and willing body. In this post-partum pool, she begins a quiet conversation with her kneecap, with a pendulum swinging arm – seeking the edge of herself. There is a gallop, a run, a jump, a skip – she returns to the game playing motif from previous works like Tetris (2016) and Fitting Room (2018) but now we are in mother/daughter territory (or whatever you choose to project onto the work).  

Vivienne, as the ‘daughter’, has a long, pink, princess train weighted down by beached Barbies – she is dragging her childhood around like a defiant afterbirth, chit chatting to them, shooting the breeze. 

“Inside the piece, I think about the relationships I guess, the connections between us. I don’t think of it as a story, I think of what I’m doing – like what’s happening between me and Denisa and what’s happening between me and the others,” explained Vivienne. 

The floor gets patterned
Daughter makes believe…
Mother intrudes with her domestic dance.
There is a grief line, a fault line.
Circle duet. Womb bound. Escape. Womb clamp. Hold, step in and out.
The ‘mother’ begins the ritual of discipline – a kind of “out damn spot” Shakespearian repetition.
Mom stays trapped, locked in, exhausted, busy – running on empty.
She moves to full body tremoring – shaking off excess adrenaline from the shock of attack, the near-death escape.

Photos by Maria Baranova

The discussion with body parts is as serious as quantum physics as Denisa navigates an angle, a sharp stamp, a rocking on hands and knees. Her right-hand talks across her back, broken doll lines, moving a leg to make space for a growing self. Ah – there is my ankle, ah- that is what this arm does.

“I want it to be mysterious enough, but open enough, but tight for people,” mused Denisa.

Tomas dances in her footsteps, just out of eye shot- looking for movement gifts to give her – an accent, a level shift, a clearer floor pattern. He offers. They improvise in their own spaces, looking, searching for the best way to have the conversation – the constant sound of bodies moving in silence. Soft landings.

Tomas: “We are both choreographers, but we are different in the way we choreograph, she gives me more things to think about – it opens possibilities.”  

Tomas and Mark wield long magnetized poles that can hoist Barbies into the air like they’re pole dancing or angels levitating. Under their control Barbies become fuse balls, hockey pucks, billiard balls, chess pieces. Their phallic extensions transforming into tightrope walking guardrails, fishing poles, fighting sticks. They whistle, they smash, they preen. Men made boys by toys. A battlefield of fallen Barbies evidence of their ‘playtime.’ 

Mark: “My relationship to these Barbies?  They are like effigies of people, we’re hardwired to relate to them, so I look them in the eyes, you know. I check on them in certain ways… there’s a way that a doll makes you act… like you’re semi-dealing with a person.”

The men ‘push up’ competitively, then are drawn to the women singing the Czech children’s rhyme, “When a horse falls in love.” They braid the child’s hair (“look at mine, so good!”), they hold and protect – the macho men from Denisa’s past pieces have morphed into ‘dad jeans and jokes’ guys. 

“I wanted the men ‘macho,’ but it was hard to sustain the stereotype – it became homoerotic -branched off into another story entirely,” said Denisa. 

The male wrestling has been transmuted into still, feminine focused service. There is waiting and patience – no desire to dictate the outcome. This is a new seam in her work. They are like carriage bearers, bodyguards, maybe court jesters – a fool. Male gaze has shifted from sexual objectification to contained, controlled, space framers. There is now a no ‘mans’ land. They clean up, put things in order, in lines, in trenches – a runway of Barbies. Watch for instructions. While mom and daughter do their call and answer, the men piss in corners, mark territory. 

This piece sits in a liminal space, interstitial space, the in-between. Daydreaming next to a pool?

Denisa: “POOL – yes, just like when somebody throws you into something new – you just have to swim you know.” 

Mark: “It’s like being in a water space with that kind of fluidity too. I think it gives an unpredictability – like something strange could happen at any moment…”  

Denisa continued: “a little like a horror, something is going to happen, but you don’t know yet, something is not right, and you know that the rules aren’t the same rules that you know from life – they’re slightly different here…”

We’re wrapping up the session. Czech, Russian, South African, American are represented in the room – a chosen family fostered on artistry. Denisa has crisscrossed the globe, enduring over 10 visa application processes in her relentless pursuit of creative opportunities. Artistic wanderlust.

Vivienne opines: “I know someone who has never left Brooklyn, it’s kind of sad.”

“When I’m traveling, I can be the stranger… what I’m bringing is unique and interesting. Nobody’s watching me because it’s not home. It’s free for me, I’m free to be weird,” laughed Denisa as she packs up the Barbies– stacked in their eternal beach pose, leaning back on their elbows, subservient. 

“What do you think people will get from this piece?” I asked.

“I am searching to explore womanhood and how we see the world,” continued Denisa.

“I feel it strongly through POOL because it’s this relationship of mother daughter and how they navigate the patriarchal world. I feel as a mother and as a middle-aged woman, I can talk from my perspective and from my experience and try to explain to younger generations not to make the same mistakes. It’s super important now to speak up and show that we are not alone -use the current momentum to talk about these things and change things.”

“When will you know you have reached the full stop of the creation of the piece,” I probed.

 “When you can all collectively breathe out,” said Denisa.

Jacquelyn Claire is a South African American theater maker living in New York City. She studied a Bilingual Performer’s Diploma at the University of Cape Town and studied opera under Wendy Fine and Sarita Stern. After 10 years as a professional performer working predominantly in physical theatre, devised productions and original musicals – she moved into directing, playwriting and theatre festival curation. Jacquelyn has worked closely with The Vaclav Havel Library Foundation, Rehearsal for Truth Festival and The Voices International Theater Festival in NYC.