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Dancer Mirenka Cechova explores transgender life in ‘S/He is Nancy Joe’

Mirenka Cechova’s “S/He Is Nancy Joe” was inspired by her sister, who used to be her brother. (Martin Marak)

It’s a paradox that artists in any medium struggle with: The best art comes from personal excavation that unearths what we least want others to see.

In other words, what we hide from the world is what audiences will respond to most. So it is that Mirenka Cechova’s solo docu-dance, “S/He Is Nancy Joe,” strikes a particularly powerful chord as it takes us deep into the confusion, shame and isolation of the transgender experience. (Scissors loom large. Just warning you.)

That Cechova, 30, a native of the Czech Republic, delivers this roller coaster of the soul through comic-book projections and a mashed-up dance language that borrows from hip-hop, ballet and the ooze of melted wax speaks to her theatrical talent. As does her ability to perform so freely within the confines of Flashpoint’s tiny black-box space. Her fractured, loopy narrative feels authentic, and she achieves this through wholly unrealistic means. Every one of her movements is stylized. The visuals that accompany her performance are rough-drawn, often-crude sketches (by fellow Czech artist Milos Mazal, with animation by Tomas Tomsa Legierski). Matous Hekela’s sound composition of warbles and groans is an indistinct landscape of turbulence.

This hour-long fantasy, presented here in its only U.S. stop, hits so hard because it springs from honest origins. Cechova has a transgender sister who used to be her brother. This piece, as she told me in a phone interview, arose from efforts to reconcile herself to that. In the process, she spent two years speaking with other transgender people, who shared with her their diaries and private pain.

As a result, what Cechova may have initially longed to bury, she embraces in a most intimate way. In “S/He,” she embodies the mirror image of her sister’s experience, showing us a man imprisoned in a female body.

As she interacts with a cartoon alter ego projected behind her, we see flashes of childhood teasing and bathroom awkwardness. Puberty engulfs her in an especially visceral way: A sea of red bleeds across the screen, we hear what sounds like explosions and Cechova, staring bewildered at the betrayal of her crotch, twists herself into a picture of tragicomic humiliation that the middle-schooler in everyone can surely recognize.

As much as she immerses us in a world of anxiety, Cechova also has a light touch. “S/He” is poignant but also terrific fun. And I’m not just referring to all the winged genitalia that flutter merrily on-screen as her character contemplates the physical equipment she longs to possess. Some of Cechova’s contortions reminded me of Pina Bausch’s corporal exaggerations; other moments brought to mind Gene Kelly’s responsive wit in “Anchors Aweigh,” in which he dances with a cartoon mouse.

You want dramatic? When confronting the surgical fork in the road, so to speak, Cechova’s character is convulsed by what could be pages out of a graphic horror novel. Drawings of organs and incision marks flash by too quickly for the details to register, but we get the idea. Giant scissors blink across the screen to an ominous beat that recalls “Psycho’s” shower scene.

But most impressive of all is simply Cechova’s body, which she turns into a battleground of self-identity and societal censure. Amid all the imaginatively used technology of this show, that body is an element of surpassing wonder. Cechova’s spidery limbs can turn her into a stick figure; a moonwalker; a rough, rubbery street dancer; or a fragile sylph. Masculine and feminine, two dimensions and three, play out on that magical canvas with schizophrenic velocity. There’s a message in that, about the universal beauty of the human form — its nonconforming breadth included.

Cechova is no stranger to this area. A Fulbright scholar who heads two physical theater groups in Prague, she has taught at American University and in 2011 performed in Synetic Theatre’s “King Lear.” Here’s hoping she returns, and soon.

S/He Is Nancy Joe

by Mirenka Cechova. Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St., NW. $20 general admission, $10 students.

Miřenka Čechová author and performer of "S/He is Nancy Joe" (Credit: Vilém Žák) (Vilém Žák)

Sarah L. Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is the author of THE ART OF GRACE: On Moving Well Through Life. She has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996, and what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. Learn more at and Facebook SarahLKaufmanWriter



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