I’ve still got some fight, though, still have control of my limbs. My movements morph from frantic to graceful as I bend my torso, extending one hand above my head and one across my body, like the hero of a 1980s karate movie.
“Beautiful,” I hear. “That looks so cool!” I contract my muscles and hold the pose for as long as my body allows, then relax and shake out my wrists and ankles.
I am not a kidnap victim or a champion potato sack racer. I am a living statue. Or, at least, I’m trying to be.
I’m getting a lesson in being a living statue from Nancy Gold, an accomplished mime and performer and the author of Finding Your Funny Bone! The Actor’s Guide to Physical Comedy and Characters. Nancy and her husband, Lol Levy, have created countless living statue concepts for events produced by their company, LiveArts Productions, including a “statue in a bag” character that essentially involves climbing into an oblong cloth bag and moving fluidly between poses, creating distorted geometric shapes with your body.
The fabric stretched across my body is supposed to resemble a shape-shifting canvas. From inside the bag, I can’t tell if I’m pulling it off. I feel more like an old fart than living art, and I’m fighting my body’s natural urge to slouch into couch potato mode.
I’ve been captivated by living statues ever since seeing my first one in Barcelona 10 years ago. That man was clad in a yellow suit and bowler hat, his body spray-painted to match both his clothes and the old-fashioned telephone he clutched in one hand. As he stood magically frozen, his stillness seemed effortless.
This type of art, historically known as tableau vivant (“living picture”), dates back several centuries. Costumed performers would silently strike poses from well-known pieces of art or scenes from popular theater, or impersonate important political figures.
Surely you’ve seen the modern versions of these creatures around town. Perhaps the most famous are the poppin’ and lockin’ “Silver Men” at Fisherman’s Wharf. While not exactly paragons of photographic stillness, they get in the spirit of tableau vivant by dressing in a single hue and painting their faces to match. Gawkers gather in droves to watch the Silver Men do the robot on top of milk crates and gesture for tips to the beat of old-school hip-hop.
I went trolling for the Silver Men along the wharf recently, and was about to give up when I spotted a thick knot of people gathered in a telltale circle. Sure enough, they were watching a shiny dude in a crinkled nickel-colored jacket, applauding when he broke out of a pose to shake the hand of a kid who offered him a dollar. The actor didn’t have to do anything but stand there on his milk crate as more people clustered around to watch.
It’s nice to know that I’m not the only voyeur in town.
There are plenty of fellow lookie-loos at the Folsom Street Fair, which is the last place one would expect to find a living statue, much less a pristine beauty queen. That party is drrrrty, y’all, teeming with the kinkiest underbelly creeps that SF has to offer. This year, though, half a block from the onstage orgy of licky licky, whippy whippy, and sucky sucky, stands a stunning blonde glamour goddess, her slinky black dress accessorized with glittering rhinestones and bright blue harvest-moon eyes.
It’s Barbie, bitch. A living statue of Barbie, to be exact — “played” by Suzanne Ramsey, aka cabaret singer/songwriter Kitten on the Keys —planted smack-dab in the middle of Folsom and Ninth Street.
This Barbie is an artistic statement, meant to juxtapose conventional beauty ideals and raw, unbridled sexuality, explains Gregangelo Herrera, one of the artists behind the living statue.
Gregangelo is also the founder and director of circus company Velocity Arts and Entertainment. A few years ago, he worked with makeup artists, costumers, and wigmakers to create a life-sized version of toyland’s sweetheart, which he calls “American Icon.” In 2007, “American Icon” took first place at the World Statues Festival in Arnhem, Netherlands, and she remains an important element of Velocity’s arsenal. She is being reprised today at the Folsom Street Fair, an experiment in clashing contexts.
Earlier this morning, Barbie was “dressed” by makeup artist Joanne “Gigi” Evangelista, who created the original makeup concept, and hairstylist/wigmaker Emmanuel Noel, who owns the Atelier Emmanuel salon. A few hours before the fair officially began, they gathered in Gregangelo’s kitchen to transform Suzanne, a pretty brunette, into the world’s most potent and popular blonde.
When the American Icon arrives at Folsom Street Fair, she attracts the attention of the leather-harnessed, nipple-clamped onlookers. Never mind the full-on three-way action that’s happening 50 yards away, it’s Barbie who’s drawing a crowd. People are shockingly reverent and hands-off, not what you’d expect at a bacchanalia of kink.
Some purple latex pony girls trot up to Suzanne, remove the bits from their mouths, and ask for a hug and a photo. Meanwhile a few kitties with leather tails giggle, awed, then purr, “We love you, Barbie!”
Barbie loves them back. “Just think how many years I’ve been restrained in a box on a shelf!” she cries. “Folsom Street is where I can be free!”
It’s a sentiment embraced by most Folsom Street attendees, who are expressing themselves freely here as well.
“I’m a dragon!” a woman calls out. Okay.
Throughout the fair, Suzanne is poised and calm, shifting positions occasionally, but for the most part frozen in timeless grace.
“I feel completely aware,” Suzanne tells me. “It’s a rush. I feel like the cougar Barbie.”
I, for one, feel like the love child of the fat lady and Marcel Marceau.
I’m stuffed like a sausage into the tightest clothes I could find — a pair of black leggings I shoplifted from Target in the late ’90s, and a T-shirt from the great carb-free debacle of 2006. I’m dressed this way because, after watching Barbie at the Folsom Street Fair, I wanted to try being a living statue myself.
Nancy agrees to meet me at A.C.T. (she teaches physical character and acting classes there) to give me my living statue lesson, and we’re in an airy studio on the ninth floor. Per her instructions, I practiced standing still in my bedroom before we met, but, like everything else that happens in there, I couldn’t manage to do it for longer than two minutes.
She warms me up by having me stretch and shake, then instructs me to imagine that a string is coming out of the top of my head, pulling me upward. “If you connect a string to an imaginary puppeteer in the sky, it will allow you to stand still,” Nancy tells me. “Living statue is almost like a meditation. You have to be in touch with your breathing, but you also have to be in touch with what’s around you.”
Part of being a successful living statue, Nancy says, is the ability to shoot energy out of your body as you pose. I can’t help but think of Beauty and the Beast, when the Beast transforms into a hot piece of cartoon prince.
I keep the Beast in mind as Nancy helps me climb into a long, skinny purple bag. She fastens it over my head and lets me kind of do my thing — floundering around like a bear cub with its head stuck in a plastic bucket. I try to think of interesting poses, and then try to hold them without quivering. My thighs burn. My neck tingles.
I remember what Nancy said, though, about puppet strings and shooting energy, and I focus every fiber of my being on releasing invisible lasers from my fingertips.
“Great job,” Nancy says. “You’ve been in there for over three minutes!”
I resist the urge to giggle That’s what she said! and instead try to stay completely still for another 10 seconds. I make it, barely, and then rip open the Velcro fastening and emerge from the material womb. I’m not a new person, but I do have a new understanding of the physical and mental challenges of transforming your body into an artistic monolith.
“People think this is easy,” Nancy tells me. “But it’s an art form. It’s magic.”
Watch Sara Faith Alterman's performance as a "living statue in a bag."
As tempting as it may be to spray-paint yourself, hold still, and call it a day, becoming a living statue is harder than it looks. Check out the movement workshops at AcroSpots or A.C.T. or, if you’re a long-term-commitment kind of cat, apply for the full-time clowning program at the Circus Center’s Clown Conservatory to learn some of the physical theater skills needed to perform as a living statue. More of a looker than a doer? Both LiveArts and Velocity Arts and Entertainment can provide living statues for private events. And, of course, you can ogle the Silver Men while you eat things in a sourdough bread bowl all along Fisherman's Wharf.