Shaking the Dancer’s Toolkit

At the Athens is Dancing CORD conference I watched a presentation by Julia Gleich on her Counterpointe project – a series of performance platforms in London and New York for female choreographers making work on pointe. It attracts a delightfully mixed bag: experienced dancers, new choreographers, medium-mixers and bunheads. It also attracts questions: why ARE so few women making work on pointe? What does pointe work mean anyway? And, deliciously, from an attendee who shall remain nameless unless they tell me otherwise: “Why can’t we just scrap the whole “classical” term, just call it ballet and be done with it?” …I had a lot of fun at CORD.

But what DOES pointe work mean anyway? Pain? Sylph-hood? The female, the fragile, the unobtainable? I KNOW that we’ve got past that place… but just in case you haven’t…

There is no good reason for pointe work to hurt if you’re doing it right. With the shoes they make now and the options for padding, combined with a sensible rehearsal schedule your feet should be just fine. If you are dancing all day every day, no matter what kind of dance you’re doing, you’ll acquire foot injuries: blisters, floor burn, ripping off callous… and that’s just for those who dance barefoot! It’s a matter of good technique and sensible protection.

Next.

If you’ve been through a dance degree, and maybe even if you haven’t, you’ve heard about ballet being a thing that women do for the eyes of men. “The Dancer’s Phallic Pointe” is a real article, which probably needed writing, but we have guys on pointe now. We have ballets about more than girl-meets-boy-meets-god/fate/magic/wizard/chickens. We have this, and much more like it.

Ok. Back to the question. What does pointe work mean?

Gleich suggested that we look at the pointe shoe as just a tool – a way of altering the gravitational/frictional relationship of the body to the floor – and this, finally, is where I come to my point(e). The pointe shoe is one fundamental tool of the art form known as dance, just as the caribina is ONE fundamental tool of the art form known as climbing. There are plenty of people who climb without caribinas, and you would look pretty silly if you walked up to a wall with only a caribina as your kit, but if you were putting together a toolbox for the concept of climbing you would expect to see on in there somewhere.

But if the pointe shoe is a tool of dance, specifically associated with ballet, what are the tools specifically associated with postmodern dance? We don’t have fancy shoes or clothes, we don’t have a technique that unites us, or necessarily a technique at all. If you were doing one of those children’s’ puzzles where you match tools to professionals you’d give the doctor a scalpel, the builder a digger, the magician a top hat… and then you’d have to take them back and put all of them, or none of them, on the contemporary dancer.

So my suggestion… the tool of postmodern dance is philosophy. Like the pointe shoe, it is both openly present and subconsciously feeding the art we make. Like the pointe shoe, philosophy changes the relationship of our bodies to the world. Like the pointe shoe, it can blur the edges of what we know to be real.

But also, like the pointe shoe, it can get tired, trite, repetitive. Like the pointe shoe it can lead to doing the same thing over and over, or falling into a habit that becomes a norm that becomes a power structure. Barefoot Martha Graham was rejected as graceless, and now postmodern dance without philosophical content (I put socio-political content under this label as philosophically derived) is citicised as bland and superficial.

Yes, yes, I hear you. All dance has philosophical content because all dance stems from some kind of belief or philosophy about what that dance should look like and how meaning can be represented. You’re very clever. But I’m talking about named philosophers, their tenets passed down from teacher to student until they’re distorted by time and tradition. We don’t remember that pointe work used to be a burlesque act on the seedy stages of Paris because we’ve been told for so long that it’s for white swans and princesses. We don’t remember that contact improvisation grew from the crash and fall of aikido because we’re too busy enjoying the slow smoosh of breathing bodies. And there’s nothing wrong with swans or smoosh. But it confuses the product of the tool with the tool itself, the planks with the saw, the program with the computer.

So we need to be careful. We need to create a counter-point. We need to see where else our tools can take us, otherwise we’ll end up skipping off merrily down a one-way street into the sunset, with Foucault on one foot and Derrida on the other, dragging us down.

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