When 19th century journalist Nellie Bly set out to break the fictional record of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, she was told she’d never make it. She would need male protectors, undoubtedly, and the amount of baggage she would be required to carry as a woman would make the journey impossible to complete alone.
Never one to acquiesce to authority, Bly created an all-purpose coat, packed a small suitcase, and made the journey around the world in 72 days and some odd hours.
A number of years ago, Colombian-born and New York-based artist Jessica Mitrani happened upon a photograph of Bly in Giuliana Bruno’s book on the spatio-visual in art, Atlas of Emotion.
“I was attracted to what she represented not by who she was. To me, she represented the idea of a portable femininity.” Mitrani says. “This allure of being mobile while still retaining the essential, this ideal packaged femininity, is something you can still see in the pages of fashion magazines today.”
Mitrani set out to create a "manual" for traveling that contained rules and instructions for movement through the world. On June 1, The Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Soluna Festival will present Traveling Lady, the performance Mitrani developed based on the ideas in her manual, at the Wyly Theatre.
“Traveling Lady conjures the daring spirit of Nellie Bly,” Mitrani says. “Her spark inspired me to map a journey through time and space that mirrors the idiosyncrasies of the so-called femininity of the past with those of the present.”
The work is a hybrid piece, both narrative and experimental, live performance and film. Starring as Nellie Bly is Rossy DePalma, the instantly recognizable Spanish actress Pedro Almodovar made famous in films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Mitrani has presented Traveling Lady throughout the world, in different forms and contexts. What's consistent is the way she illustrates both the physical and psychological journey of her fictional Bly in seven stages. The piece also has dialogue; original music by Andres Levin; and original songs by Michael Friedman, Mitrani and DePalma. Animation, a crucial component of the film, was done by Alex Alexczetwertynski.
“The piece developed in an organic way. Once I decided that the point of departure was to travel inside the house, that led to a venture around the block. After that, to go across borders – psychological and physical,” Mitrani says.
In much of her work, Mitrani explores the complex nature of female identity; through exquisitely crafted fictional worlds, she simultaneously embraces and challenges the trappings of femininity.
“I am interested in the social and aesthetic construction of femininity and how it shapes identity,” Mitrani says.
Fashion is key to much of Mitrani’s work and for Traveling Lady she collaborated with design collective threeasFOUR to create a version of Bly’s signature coat. DePalma wears one version in the piece, and others were created to serve as projection surfaces for the film.
“For me fashion is an essential part of the vocabulary needed to tell a story,” Mitrani says.
In Bly, Mitrani found a female who challenged the social and gender dynamics of her time. By presenting Bly’s story in a highly aestheticized and experimental world of color and design, centered on a performance by the striking DePalma, Mitrani illustrates the ideal of the empowered woman without sacrificing beauty, fashion, and myriad other traits society tells us are feminine; through her art, she’s taking back the language of femininity to tell the story of a woman who refused to be limited by her gender.
Traveling Lady, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 1, Wyly Theater, 2400 Flora St., $19, mydso.com.