‘It’s very easy, when we know we what we want to say, to fool ourselves into thinking we’re saying it.’
Jonathan Burrows, evoked by Joe Moran.
Body image terror and chauvinism got together for another piss-up last week, when five prominent and male opera critics, from what some would call this country’s most reputable newspapers, all independently (?) neglected to reflect on a mezzo-soprano’s skill, choosing instead to focus on what they thought was an unsuitable body, in a demenpaning, sarky and disgusting fashion. When they decided to equate their narrow-minded perception of one’s body with the entirety of one’s identity, the aesthetically authoritative critics also provided a suitable if aching context from which to approach three pieces on show at The Place.
Jo Fong’s Witness, Deborah Light’s HIDE and Joe Moran’s Arrangement all articulate the topics of gender representation and gender identity – and while contemporary dance is neither opera nor indeed classical ballet, it would appear that explorations of these themes, especially if they account for the specific issues around performance and performing, are still very much urgent.
Witness is perhaps the most direct in broaching the subject of female performers and their relationship to their craft; Fong boils it down to a piece about ‘performers and how they relate to performing, dancing, being seen and their bodies’. She worked with three artists, Ino Riga, Eeva- Maria Mutka and Annabeth Berkeley, each at a different stage of their careers, to produce three video choreographic portraits that are then projected simultaneously to form a large scale dance installation.
Portraiture plays an important part of Witness’ conceptual thinking, the earnestness of each dancer and their piece fighting against the medium of film and all the manipulation it allows. Still, Fong insists that rather than using film to reshape the story, she devoted special attention to preserving its unadorned character: ‘I wanted to capture something that is ordinarily not staged or performed under normal circumstances[…]To really see someone we have to be allowed to observe them. Honesty was an important aspect of how this piece would be revealed and this became increasingly important as with each edit there is a possibility of manipulating or misinterpreting the story’.
Importantly, Fong admits the portrait reflects the portrait-maker as much as its subject: ‘I was drawn to aspects of the performers that relate to me, my own identity, my own questions. In some way there is something of a self portrait going on here, a past, a present and an aspirational future. […] Quite simply, I am a woman and I can relate to this work and the three stories. I have been an artist’s model, I have trodden the line of power and vulnerability in both life and dancing and occasionally questioned who my body belongs to. I can look to my past and see where history and tradition have influenced choices or states of mind, I am learning, I am growing and I think this is reflected in the work.’
Fong also joins Eddie Ladds and Hâf Brooks to form the trio involved in Deborah Light’s HIDE, another piece that sees a choreographer work with female performers in an attempt to ‘construct and deconstruct female identity’ while blurring the lines between autobiography and fiction. Light takes a no nonsense approach to the relationship between body and identity: ‘HIDE is inseparable from the three remarkable women who perform it. Their bodies are their identity and these bodies and the stories they tell are inescapably social, cultural and political. Without aiming to make any particular statement HIDE exposes some of these layers. At times this link between the personal and a broader socio political landscape is explicit, such as in Eddie Ladds narrative about changing her appearance, physicality and name in order to become more masculine. At other times it is more implicit as the performers transform and reform.’
The belief that body and identity are mirror images is perhaps best confirmed through Light’s elaboration on how she chose the collaborators – it was their physicality, rather than social determinants that influenced the decision: ‘I wanted to work with 3 women with strong individual identity expressed through contrasting but complementary physicalities. My choice was driven by instinct: people who I respect personally, artistically and as wonderful performers. It is on reflection, and in the context of the work we have made, that things like difference in body type, age, socio-cultural and professional background come in to play. The differences between the three women and their physical languages allow us to see them as multi layered individuals rather than cloistered and cloned bodies as can sometimes be the case in the dance world.’
While they might have different points of focus – with Fong emphasising the layers of identity revealed or shadowed within performance and Light exploring the identity’s imprint on the body – both these artists are working within the realms of female imagery and bodies: a platform that while not in any way exhausted is familiar in the context of contemporary dance.
In contrast, Joe Moran is taking on masculinity and his latest piece, Arrangement, is a ‘reaction to the alpha male style of dance that has been popular over the last few years’. Where female dancers, especially outside of the classical forms, have long fought for their right to not be identical – a notion that finds its place in both Witness and HIDE – male dancers, Moran insists, still have some way to go: ‘I find intense, dynamic, athletic, explosive dance thrilling; yet, I find dance focused on men and male experience, or dance for and by all male companies, is often limited to this one mode. It often seeks to demonstrate that the dancers are “real” men: they are tough, aggressive, physical, dangerous. Their physical intimacy is framed as competition to assuage anxiety about how men should behave. For me, this does not open up possibilities about whom and what we may be – a distinct skill of dance – but rather conforms to wildly out-dated gender stereotypes. Drawing upon an abiding interest in the individuality of the exceptional dancers with whom I work, I have been interested to foreground the rich differences between men and the nuance of our contrasting and rounded experience; men’s capacity for reflection and tenderness, our negotiation of failure, humour and lightness, as well as skill, power and prowess.’
It’s difficult not to observe the gender divide these three pieces seem to illustrate – the exploration of gender identity and performance remains confined to a single-sex set-up, although Moran insists that ‘a questioning exploration of either, implicates the other; and of course transgender and queer identities’. It also seems necessary to gaze in the other direction and consider whether the stereotypes broken and dismantled in performance influence how femininity, masculinity and gender identity are treated off stage, in devising, teaching and research.
The consensus seems to be that while progress has been made, there’s still more than enough room for improvement. Fong calls the process ‘ongoing’: ‘I would like to think things have changed. In my time I have played every female stereotype and even when making my own early works these were big traps to avoid and wonder well, if it is not this that I have grown up with, what is it? How exactly should I be representing women on stage?’; Light asserts that ‘dance as a discipline in western society is perhaps rooted in a set of aesthetics that are inherently connected to a certain ideal of beauty, the female form, and perceived perfection of that form’, adding there is ‘without doubt a shift away from this’. Moran makes an important distinction between the education and the profession, where ‘there is often a very unthinking and regressive relationship to gender and sexual politics. In terms of masculinity, sometimes it feels to me that DV8 or The Featherstonehaughs never happened’.
All three artists feel a personal responsibility to take action through their work, hoping rather than claiming the elaboration of gender in their pieces is adding constructively to the conversation. Fong, Light and Moran also seem dedicated to putting question marks around their work, interrogating it to the fullest extent. The quote from the start of this text comes from Moran – and perhaps serves as a reminder that with opera critics still roaming free, those on the other side of the debate that may have been thought of as over, still need to be loud and clear.
Photo of HIDE (top) by John Collingswood.