Wildskin: A hero’s journey back to her body

Wildskin performer Bianca Mackail. Photo by Darcy Grant Photography

In the opening scene of NORPA’s homegrown production, Wildskin, a phalanx of five women struggle to keep their existential rage to the confines of their yoga mats.

Protagonist Eva tries to keep her awareness on her breath, but her mindful-downward-dog eventually succumbs to her inner-panting-bitch. She is savaged by her four alter-ego co-stars and lies contorted in rigor mortis. The next scene, Eva is reborn with wild conviction — propelled onto a hero’s journey. She leaves her boyfriend and hitchhikes deep into Ivan Milat country, discovering herself along the way.

Her revolution started in her body.

Eva’s struggle to step off of her metaphorical yoga mat uncannily echoed my own internal fight.

I’d recently returned from a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, and while the experience felt life-changing and liberating – a journey every bit as awakening as Eva’s – instinctively I felt stillness and equanimity was only part of my hero’s journey. I needed to rewild, and I wasn’t alone.

Before the show I checked in with a good friend, still smarting from a recent breakup.

“I’ve never wanted to hit the ‘fuck-this-shit’ button so hard,” she revealed.

I nodded with profound empathy and suggested embodiment practices which may better help channel this energy.

Pole dancing? Roller derby? Bikram Yoga? Ecosexual clowning? Soulistic Transformational Breathwork? Kung Fu? Chakradance?

She swiped left to all my suggestions faster than we did our potential Tinder matches, generated by searching men aged 30 to 55 in a 50km radius of Lismore.

The Northern Rivers may be the home of NORPA, top-notch physical theatre, macadamia nuts, and esoteric ovarian massage cults, but it also produces a disproportionate number of underemployed, overthinking single mothers like us, whose arrangements with lovers are as tenuous and disempowering as our rental agreements. If we were in any position to simply take off like Eva in Wildskin, believe me, we would. Instead, we gather together in solidarity, drink too much, cry a lot, and express the desire to repeatedly hit our fuck-this-shit-buttons like exhausted kids playing Hungry Hippos.

Friendships like these are essential to healing, but I also know there is another way — because I have felt it in my body.

The older I get, the more heartbreaks I’ve healed from, the more violence I’ve survived, and the more mean coal-hugging prime ministers I’ve lived under, the more I believe in the power of my own body to overcome. It’s taken me until 40, but I now fully trust in my body’s intelligence to connect me to the wholeness of the present. I know that disconnection with the present is the primary source of stress not just in my personal life, but for the systems of the planet of which I am part.

Eva didn’t decide to ditch the comfort of her relationship because her mind told her it was the best thing for her. It was a decision wholly informed by the present, by receiving the intelligence of her gut-brain. Basically, she followed her instinct.

Wildskin is a story that could only have been told by women’s bodies. While there was plenty of witty dialogue, it was performances from five of Australia’s best female physical performers, dancers, and acrobats, that propelled the bush-thriller journey.

In the week before the Wildskin premiere, I had been inhaling the work of visionary writer, Phillip Shepherd, author of  ‘Radical Wholeness’ and ‘New Self, New World’.

I would normally shirk away from the spiritual instruction of a baby boomer man wearing polar fleece, let alone one who told me how to think with my perineum, but Shepherd’s thesis is profound. Shepherd believes our current state of head-consciousness falsely teaches us to see the body as something we possess. We try to take care of it but never really learn how to inhabit it. He is quoted often by playwright and activist Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.

Like Shepherd, Ensler asserts that the revolution that will bring us out of humanity’s dark night begins in our bodies. Through our bodies, we can surrender to the present, connect to our wounded planet, and rise up against the violence that desecrates all that is sacred.

The threat of male violence is felt throughout Wildskin, which borrows from the bush-horror conventions of films like Wolf Creek and Killing Ground.  Thankfully, the captivating tension conveyed by the performers’ bodies cut through the laughs and gave respectful gravity to the issue of male violence.

I am no trained dancer. I dropped out of jazz ballet class after two years — quitting in shame because my precocious pubes had sprouted outside the high-cut leotard I was made to wear during my performance of Cindi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’.

Still, my amateurish dancing has been a source of connection and healing throughout my life.

Most notably, two years ago, when I was forced to wrestle with my own wild inner-bitch. I was at a frightening impasse in my life — teetering towards a long-overdue breakdown, except that collapsing wasn’t an option. I had two dependants and no safety net. My job had become impossibly stressful and compromising but there were no other jobs in town. I had quite literally run out of moves.

I remember my seven-year-old daughter’s little hand wrapping around mine at the Lismore Shopping Square carpark, instinctively pulling me to the direction of the car because she knew her mum no longer had the capacity to remember where she parked. According to my counselor, after years of living in chronic stress, I was losing the ability to encode memory. My brain had started eating itself.

So, I did the next best thing to taking a long nap. I enrolled in a blindfolded Hawaiian shamanic trance dance class run by The Blisstitute of Living Aloha in the hope of  finding my next move.

At the beginning of my second class, my shaman-trained teacher dedicated the two-hour dance to the Hawaiian concept of ‘Na’au’, which translates to ‘your gut knowing centre’.

I  secured my blindfold, suspended my disbelief, and asked for guidance from my ancestors and from the earth, and began to dance.

About an hour in, I entered what I suppose was a state of flow. I was taken over by something bigger than me — dancing with solid, bent legs and making angles with my body that were sharp and sure, and easy. If I was to take off my blindfold, perhaps it would look a bit like a haka, danced with the regal ferocity of Beyonce during her Lemonade album.

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It was some kind of war dance for which this suburban white girl had no muscle memory. This dance forged new neural pathways which allowed me for the first time to feel joyous rage.

This dance did not employ the coquettish shimmying of a Britney Spears’ backup dancer. And it certainly didn’t require the pelvic thrusts of a pubescent girl dying inside onstage to Cindi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have fun.

This was the dance of a woman who had run out of moves.

Part of me died on the dance floor that evening. I cried for two days before handing in my resignation. This war dance made it possible for me to charge joyously headlong into financial doom, discard my career-ego, and go into battle with Centrelink.

The subsequent year was really tough, but following my ‘Na’au’ turned out to be the best decision of my life.

This mystical embodied experience made me reflect on my own views of indigenous dance. I never fully understood ceremonial dance as a superior form of storytelling. I never really understood how the dancers were in a state of simultaneous giving and receiving from a greater power. That it had taken me reading the work of a white man wearing polar fleece to finally put this into words just reveals my own racism.

In the final scene of Wildskin, Eva shoots down four figures representing her old-selves that were no longer serving her. She needed to do this in order to fully embody a more authentic self.

Eva decides not to return to her boyfriend. There is no great homecoming. Frodo does not return to The Shire having cast the ring into the fiery depths of Mordor.  Harry Potter does not return to Privet Drive with a feeling of belonging.

In this hero’s journey, Eva’s homecoming is a return to her body.

I believe that a revolution is coming, and it will come from the fully-embodied woman who has run out of moves.

It will be easy to recognise her. She’ll be the one surrounded by bros telling her that what she does is insubstantial, weak, dangerous, too-sexy, stupid. Or their favourite, crazy.