“I Want to Unearth How This Queer Woman Influenced Freud.”
LABA fellow Dmitri Barcomi describes his work-in-progress, Necrophoresis, a collaboration with writer-choreographer Seth Majnoon, as “a cross-medium dance-theater piece exploring the death rituals of ants and the life of Anna Freud.” LABA Contributing Editor Amy Handelsman discussed the work with Barcomi.
You can see the theater piece at LABAlive III: LIFE + DEATH at the Theater at the 14th Street Y — this Thursday, May 23rd, 7.30pm. Click here for tickets.
Editor’s note: Barcomi refers to Sigmund Freud as the more gender-neutral “S.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. There is a lot of ant imagery in this piece. How did you connect Anna Freud and ants?
A. I was interested in the life of Anna Freud, and Seth and I were having a picnic [and ants appeared], and we said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we made a theater piece using that vocabulary?” The two ideas happened simultaneously—Freud and the process of necrophoresis, which is when social insects like ants remove their dead from the colony or hive.
Q. How do you explain the ant dance sequence?
A. The term is “nuptial flight,” when the ants hatch and mature. The queen ant grows wings and flies elsewhere to make her own nest. The male ants follow her, and the one who is fastest mates with her and then dies. When the queen lands, she tears off her wings and then starts her own colony.
The analogy is the Freuds’ flight from Vienna to London during the Holocaust. Their journey was fraught. There was serious life-and-death jeopardy. S. was very sick. He died a year later.
Q. What is your process of writing the text?
A. We have an epic system with Google Docs. I will outline stuff, find text about Anna, S. Freud, Sophocles, and the Talmud and throw the sexiest stuff at Seth. Seth is more of a playwright.
Q. Tell me about the “my, your” section, the debate between Anna and S.
A. Seth wrote the text for it. It gets into the letter S. wrote for Anna, what he wanted for her. She was the mischievous, smart child. He loved that she was impish. But she grew up to be the good, responsible child.
We’re unpacking part of the relationship that was fucked up. She was his patient—she was the test case, testing the boundary of ethics and female autonomy. Their relationship was nuanced. They were so close. We are exploring that bond and using the dream sequence to explore that.
It is interesting how similar S. and Anna were. She was his patient at ground zero. She was the youngest, the “smart” child and the only one who followed him into psychotherapy.
Q. How did you use Sophocles?
A. Antigone is the faithful daughter. S. called Anna his “Anna Antigone.” In Antigone, the grave of Polynices was messed up, and Antigone goes back to do a proper burial. We tied Freud into the ants who have a certain practice of removing the dead. The dead must be attended to in a special way.
Q. Who was Anna Freud’s lover Dorothy?
A. Dorothy was a Tiffany & Co. heiress. Her father was “Tiffany” and she was “& Co.” She was married, had four kids, met Anna, and stayed.
Q. How do gender themes figure into your piece?
A. S. was interested in how sexual trauma impacted women’s sexuality. But the presence of the patriarchy is so strong. These forces influenced him, but he influenced those forces by having a queer daughter.
We said, “Let’s fuck it up.” We’re outsiders and we have a unique relationship to the material. I want to push back. I identify with Anna’s engagement with his work. I do see the value in it and see serious flaws.
Q. How does being a queer artist affect your grappling with this material?
A. What interests me is uncovering what is taboo and hidden. I didn’t know Anna existed or was queer. As an artist, I’m engaging with this as legacy. It’s part of queer history. I want to unearth how this queer woman influenced Freud. His thoughts must have been informed by his relationship with this queer woman. Was he disappointed? Angry? To say that homosexuality was a flaw, and yet he was influenced by queer people? It’s fascinating ground, historically and socially; there’s so much to react to.