This Is What Society Thinks a 'Normal Woman' Looks Like

Influenced by her grandparents' tragic love story, performance artist Michal Svironi gives us an erotic and funny show about food, sex and women who eat (and love) to fill the emptiness inside.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

At the climax of Michal Svironi's erotic, funny and wordless performance art, the star of the one-woman show eats chocolate onstage.

Yet "eating" doesn't seem like an adequate description of what the Israeli-raised performance artist did at Tel Aviv's HaHanut 31 theater last week. In "The Woman Who Breathes Too Much!" Svironi gorges herself on chocolate. Her mouth turns dark brown as she stuffs one piece of chocolate after another into her mouth. It looks like a huge stain on her face, and she looks like a sad clown (which is not so off-base considering that she studied clowning in France). It's breathtaking to watch this 34-year-old woman attempt to inhale the chocolate all at once, like watching an acrobat trying to hang from her legs on a tightrope, and shocking to watch her cram more and more into her distorted mouth. Will she swallow it all?

Just a minute before, Svironi looked both delicate and sexy in a revealing low-cut slip. In short, she looked to be what society considers a normal woman. The chocolate episode is surprising and makes her look mentally disturbed.

"The Woman Who Breathes Too Much!" involves puppetry, work with clay, and some public intimacy with an audience member, but ultimately, it is about women who use food, sex or both to fill the emptiness inside.

The show won the award for best fringe production at the 2012 Amsterdam Fringe Festival in 2012, as well as the Fringe Review Tea Cup Award, given to outstanding productions that are off the beaten track or "offer something new to the world of theatre."

Svironi did not start out trying to create an award-winning commentary on food, sex and femininity.

The precursor to this show wasn't even about a woman. Called "The Man Who Breathes (Not)," the two-person theatrical dance performance, which was nominated was a "tragic drama," said Svironi, who grew up in Kfar Sava. She performed the earlier show (which also involved puppetry) for the first time in 2006, at a street theater festival in France, and then took it to Belgium for a year-long tour.

In 2009 she was going to perform an updated production of the play in Spain and Belgium, and then move on to Denmark and Poland, but by then the topic had begun to seem too heavy for Svironi and the traveling too arduous. "I wanted to make a lighter version," she said. "I had no intention of doing something erotic and funny. It came from itself."

Svironi, who studied theater at the Yigal Alon High School for the Arts and Sciences in Ramat Hasharon, did her military service in the Air Force Theater, and went to France to study clowning and the art of street theater, was inspired to create both productions by the love her grandparents had for each other.

Svironi grew up knowing that her grandparents died within a month of each other, but found out only later that her grandmother had taken her own life.

"I grew up with a family story of ideal love," she said. "For as long as I can remember they told me about the love at first sight between them, the harmony. When they reached 60, my grandfather died of a disease and my grandmother, who could not live without him, committed suicide. It happened within a month. I was 5, I loved them very much. I remember the atmosphere afterwards. Their death very much influenced the family, but no one talked about it. And only when I was n high school did they reveal to me what really happened. This is good material for an artist. For a long time what my grandmother did seemed to me like the pinnacle of love. I tried to understand what caused her to do it."

In France, Svironi studied at the Marcel Marceau Paris International School of Mimodrama for a year, but it was only when she started studying clowning with actor Eric Blouet that she felt she had finally found her place.

"He is the one who taught me to breathe," said Svironi. "Finally I started to enjoy being on the stage. Before that, I thought I was going to die every time I went up onstage. When you perform and you have no confidence, you do everything faster. It scared me at the beginning to be on stage when it was quiet. I worked on myself so as not to be afraid of the time it takes me to eat the chocolate, for example."

Clowning may seem like fun, but it can be quite scary, she said.

"To be a clown is to be exposed and naked on the stage," said Svironi. "It is very frightening at first. You have nothing, no text, no jokes. No acting technique. A clown must know how to breathe. To listen, to be a presence, and mostly to respond."

Work with materials such as clay and chocolate was appropriate for her to express the story of a woman who was missing something, and who needs more the more she has. "I love materials that are not necessarily related to the theater," she said. "I was turned on by working with chocolate. It reminded me of the cliché in American TV series or chick flicks like 'Bridget Jones,' where every time a man abandons them, the women knock back chocolate ice cream."

Svironi predicts that clowning for adults will become more common in Israel.

"Clowns have a bad name, clowns frighten children. But clowning for adults is something unknown in Israel," she said. "It is just starting now and from the excitement and Facebook groups, I think we will conquer the map soon."

Svironi's renewed presence in Israel can be expected to speed up that process. She has moved back, and her husband of two months will join her soon.

The wedding, which took place in September, was itself a kind of performance art. The two were married by an actor dressed up as a rabbi and wearing a black bra on his head. People blew enormous shofars and the bride and groom, a French Jewish actor, put on a performance of their own with his children from his first marriage, who dressed up as characters from "The Wizard of Oz."

But that doesn't mean there won't be any more traveling on the horizon, especially since the audience in Israel is quite limited.

"Maybe as an antithesis to my childhood in conservative Kfar Sava, I love these trips," said Svironi. "Every time they lead you to another place, to more meetings with professionals. It has turned into a way of life."

At the end of "The Woman Who Breathes Too Much!" Michal Svironi walks out of the breast-shaped tent on the stage and chats with the audience.

"They ask me mostly how I'm so thin, how I clean the dress," she said. They also want to know how all the chocolate doesn't make her break out.

"I see how the eating actually creates a surprise," she said. "People are in shock from it. I didn't go do this with the intention of creating a provocation. It was intuitive, but I see more and more that such things are taboo. Al I do is eat chocolate."

Svironi. To be a clown is to be exposed and naked. Credit: David Bachar

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