Category Archives: art

[…….] No More

While choreographing within an academic institution has its limitations, I have found during the last few years that for preference I tend to make installation works that are about half an hour long. One of my favourites was a piece commissioned by M.I.N.T. Gallery for their queer performance series, called The Aviary. The audience was invited to move around the darkly-lit space observing the behavioral patterns of strange half-bird half-ballerina creatures over the course of a slowly developing improvisational score.

Five minutes into the work a man came up behind me and petted me like a cat. I treated it like a genuine mistake, let him know that this was not an ok audience behaviour, and carried on. He seemed genuinely delighted by the work, and made no further attempts to touch the dancers, but I wondered what would have happened if he had approached one of my cast who didn’t feel they had the authority to step out of character, or decide what kinds of interaction were appropriate? Was there a reason he went to the smallest and youngest looking of the performers? Why did he feel like he could touch us? There was no part of the instructions for the space that suggested touching was welcome. We do not touch animals in zoos, and we do not touch birds in particular. There is no art gallery in the world where you would walk in and touch the works on display without being specifically informed you could do so…

… Unless of course you would.

During my time as a freelancer in London I was hired by a major gallery as part of a cast of live-art performers, supporting an exhibition of international mixed-media work. Our roles included shadowing gallery attendees, activating installations, and displaying ourselves immobile in a series of poses – my favourite was a living sculpture that required me to hang in an impossible position, strapped to an invisible frame.

Eventually the cast had to send a message to the gallery managers threatening to quit because of the harassment we were receiving from members of the public, and from the security guards employed by the gallery. While I was strapped to the frame and unable to move or get away people flashed cameras in my face, did everything they could to make me blink or startle, and talked loudly about forcibly undressing or molesting me. The guard watching laughed and encouraged them, despite this having nothing to do with the work in particular or the exhibition as a whole. The gallery managers, thankfully, were receptive to our concerns, apologized, and tightened up expectations for how we should be treated. This is not always the case.

I have begun this blog post with two examples from my own experience to show some of the difficulties that happen when performers are harassed by audience members: the boundaries of appropriate behaviour are often unclear, performers are often dependent on others to enforce those boundaries, or they risk destroying the work if they speak up for themselves. The physical safety of performers and the sanctity of the audience experience are held up as comparable concerns, and frequently the latter takes priority.

Earlier this year Amber Jamieson wrote about sexual misconduct by the audiences at Sleep No More, and the comparative powerlessness of performers to protect themselves. The article explains that audiences to the show are masked, frequently inebriated, and are not explicitly told that touching performers is forbidden, despite requests from the cast for this addition to the welcome speech (the line has since been added). Audience members ejected for their misconduct have been let back into the show, and known violent “superfans” who aggressively pursue one-on-one opportunities with performers are allowed into the show night after night.

Sometimes the misconduct is all part of the show. In 2011 artist Sarah Wookie spoke out first anonymously, and then in an open letter about conditions at Marina Abramović’s production for the annual gala of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. To quote Wookie: “Of course we were warned that we will not be able to leave to pee, etc. That the diners may try to feed us, give us drinks, fondle us under the table, etc but will be warned not to. Whatever happens, we are to remain in performance mode and unaffected. What the fuck?!” When Wookie asked about safeguarding and signals for performers in distress, and was informed that nothing could be guaranteed. In this case dance icon Yvonne Rainer added her voice to the debate, parsing out the difference between Abramović’s own performance history of using her body to challenge audiences, and her method for conscripting others to do the same:Subjecting her performers to public humiliation at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum’s callousness and greed and Ms Abramovic’s obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing — this is not a critique of Abramovic’s work in general — but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.” 

Collecting these examples, and I am certain there are many more out there, tells us that when performers of all genders are working in close proximity to audience members the boundaries for appropriate interaction need to be carefully delineated in advance. Procedures need to be in place, and followed, for dealing with disruptive audience members and those who try and push the limits of the space. For choreographers concerned about maintaining “performance mode” I will suggest that it is not difficult to include a hand signal, gesture, or even a blink sequence if there is someone watching out for performer safety. It is possible to choreograph outs and exits into a work so that performers can keep themselves safe without breaking character. If an audience member is flagged as disruptive they should not be allowed to continue through the work unattended.

In the examples above we can see the need for a proactive, rather than a reactive approach to audience disruption. The last time that you want to be making a decision about how to handle a poorly behaved audience member is in the moment when that behaviour is happening to you. While it would be wonderful to assume that the kinds of behaviour listed above will not happen, every performer out there knows that it does – as a steward at Sleep No More said: “It wasn’t until I got to a job where I wasn’t afraid I was going to be hit or groped every day, I realized how weird that was, that that was a part of my job, or that I thought it was part of my job.”

If dancers as a community want to assert that our creativity, our work, and our skills are valuable, we need our personhood and our bodies to be valued as well. That means the ability to set and maintain boundaries about what elements of our selves are available to audiences in performance, and which are not. We have moved on from the days when the poorest members of the Corps de Ballet were available for solicitation in the Foyer de la Danse. Our work is art, and art is not for touching without an explicit invitation. Our work is available because of the humans manifesting it; humans who need to eat, sleep, house themselves, feel, and maintain their own bodily autonomy. We need to make art in such a way that those needs can be assumed, met, and defended.

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Boys in Dance – Too Much of a Stretch?

A few months ago a colleague sent me a flyer for a dance conference, and I sat with this post and that flyer for a long time before I decided to write about it. The Male Dancer Conference was advertised as:

…a groundbreaking, educational and social event designed exclusively for male dancers. It features education, connection and conversation all designed to improve the present skills and future lives of male dancers. It stands as one of the only large-group, multidimensional events for male dancers to gather, learn, share, and connect. MDC participants leave as better dancers who feel enriched, empowered and connected to a community.”

Focusing on conversation, connection and education, the conference held supervised discussions, panels, classes and workshops for male dancers and the community around them, there were social activities, and a visit to the pop up shop boysdancetoo [sic]. Testimonials speak to how inspirational and empowering the experience was:

This conference filled a void in the dance world. Instead of summer intensives where our boy is the only male dancer or one of a few, this conference was all about them. It spoke to the emotional and physical demands of being a boy dancer. It was a much needed safe space for them to be their authentic selves. It was a community of friendship and support, for the boys as well as their parents. It was a nurturing and empowering four days and they all left stronger dancers (physically and emotionally) when it was over.”

…. The thing is, I’m not sure there IS a void in the dance world. Or at least, I’m not sure this attempt to address the gender imbalance in the dance world was quite the way I’d have wanted to center the conversation. This conference, and others like it, and the literature advertising boys dance classes (of which there are many) focuses on a problem of numbers:

“The male dancer has been present throughout history, but the significant lack of male dancers in the field has been and continues to be a question and a challenge. From early childhood dance and movement classes through secondary education and beyond, the dance world is faced with the question of how to attract more boys and men to the field. This problem is not limited to one genre of dance, age group, or country; the dilemma is global. This symposium seeks pragmatic solutions to address the dearth of male dancers in our studios, schools, and companies as students, professionals, and educators.” – Men In Dance: Bridging the Gap Conference

The common strategy for addressing the problem seems to be to design events for boys only, and for classes to focus on fitness, flexibility, and dance forms outside of feminine stereotypes. A dance created by men, for men, separate from “girl dance,” where (or so it seems) different skills are being learned in a way that will isolate, intimidate, and otherwise alienate the next generation of Baryshnikovs, Poulins, Wheeldons, and McGregors.

At the same time, the professional dance community is speaking out strongly about the lack of female representation all over the dance world, especially in creative and managerial roles. The appalling lack of female choreographers, and the disparate opportunities and funding offered to those who do try and make a name for themselves in contrast to their male counterparts is striking. The narrative of the oppressed, isolated male dancer who needs to be given resources and a chance might be sweet, but rippling up the field it becomes the same old glass ceiling, the same old grandfathering system, the same old privileging of male authority and creativity.

So what’s to be done?

The first question we HAVE to ask is: do boys need safe, isolated spaces, and is that the best way to make dance equally attractive to dancers of all genders?

Consider a world where dance was more about what you do than who does it. Consider classes that focused on skills like dance story telling; dance making; high energy, athletic dance; or fundamental dance technique, so that students could choose the outcomes, rather than the settings that interested them. Consider a dance class in which you weren’t immediately considered to be unique or different because of your gender – it happens in other clubs and classes all the time. While most codified, examined syllabi continue to differentiate students by gendered dress and vocabulary, other forms of dance are leading the way in terms or normalising mixed groups. In what ways could more codified dance forms address the divides in their teaching, rather than doubling down on the separation?

This ideal doesn’t take into account the cultural reality of homophobic attitudes to men in ballet, and the pervasive attitude that certain parts of dance are only for men and women – but isn’t that a belief we’re supposed to be working against? Alexei Ratmansky went on a particularly vicious screed this week along the lines of “men have the strength to lift and women have lines,” which is worth answering despite how beautifully and completely it was deconstructed by other dancers, because it shows some of the quieter, nastier beliefs at play in this logic: I have met a number of female dancers who could quite easily lift me in a full press, but the effects of that training on their bodies gave them a shape outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic. Are we ok with bodies outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic, and if we are, why can’t we teach them in a way that builds the development of muscle? What about adopting lifts from techniques that aren’t strength dependent, or lifts with more than one base? Why is so important that one man lifts one woman anyway? As to the belief that men don’t have lines… I invite my readers to post their favorite video in the comments that disproves that old chestnut.

Secondly, I’m not flat out opposed to Male Dancer conferences, or Boy’s Dance classes, especially as dance works to change its image in public consciousness. What I find appallingly absent is a discussion of male responsibility in a world where men hold a shockingly high degree of power and privilege, as well as (frequently) control over the physical safety of their partners’ bodies. If we are teaching boys that they hold a different position in the dance world, what are we teaching them to do with that position, and how are we teaching them to view those it’s not offered to?

Here are a few examples of male dancers taking responsibility in my life:

  • Seeing my love of flight, and deliberately going across the floor with me so we could enjoy a mutual challenge of strength and power.
  • Insisting I be allowed into “boys” classes.
  • Offering to teach me “male” repertoire.
  • Creating pieces where the repertoire wasn’t gendered at all.
  • Letting me base them.
  • Showing up to pas de deux classes and learning how to dance both roles.
  • Seeking my advice on how to do both roles better.
  • Inviting me to give my perspective in classes they were teaching.
  • Comparing contracts with me so we could check we were being hired for the same wages.
  • Recognising and speaking openly about their advantages as male dancers.
  • Telling people who reached out to hire them “Actually, Fen has more experience.”

Yes, you read me right, I have had male dancers in my life turn down work because they felt it was being offered to them unfairly over their female colleagues, and in some cases over me. It’s weird, but that behaviour meant that institutions and companies had to take a step back and think about why they were offering that job in the first place. I’m not telling people to turn down jobs they’ve worked hard for, or that they’re bad if they don’t. I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to have one man lifting one woman. But we do have to think about how dance reflects wider patterns of gender discrimination in the professional world, as much as it holds the potential to subvert those patterns.

The dance communities I’m part of work hard to challenge the notion that gender defines our role as dancers, and the kinds of opportunity that are offered to us. There is a massively long way to go. But if we are going to create isolated spaces for boys and men to learn what it is to be a dancer, we ought to be taking a long, hard think about the kinds of dancers, and people, we’re teaching them to be in those spaces, and how they relate to the rest of the world when they come out.

 

 

Events between a place and candy: Two reviews of spring in New York

“Event,” Robert Swinston and Compagnie CNDC Angers

It begins with a ripple of silk. Thirty or so panels in white, brown, pink yellow and red tossed out into the air as if an unseen dancer had suddenly run behind.

Perhaps, in that moment, much of what needs to be said about Merce Cunningham’s work has already been said: elegant, random, playful and vivid – evocation without signification. And the dance is just beginning.

Initially I was wary of Robert Swinston’s Event at the Joyce, a combine of various Cunningham repertory works on the Compagnie CNDC-Angers, or at least I went with my reconstructionist head on and a lot of questions to ask. What was he trying to do? Was this a Merce Cunningham work or a Robert Swinston? To what extent would he play on the (to my mind) very particular performance circumstances implied in the combination of “Cunningham” and “Event” in the same program?

The silk, to some extent, put my mind at rest, as did the sumptuous score emanating from John King and Gelsey Bell, tucked into the bottom left corner of the auditorium. The music existed, a crystalline thing of its own, creating synchronous moments with the movement of the stage and yet never narrating, or making the textual experience overly rich. And still, the dance is just beginning.

The eight dancers slowly form a diagonal line across the stage, rising to demi-point as they join hands to arrive en tableau. The opening of the piece says “duets” perhaps too loudly for my taste – with an emphasis on paired relationships and partnering, and more than a passing focus on centre stage. Several sequences are screamingly slow, while others sneak into virtuosity even as you admire the ease of their flow.

But over time, everything relaxes. Solos and group sections flourish in counterpoint, the technique and the dance settle more softly into each other. This is the repertoire of Cunningham’s I best enjoy: the play within the smaller things, the trio with linked arms who gallop and jump in parallel around the space like children, without at all becoming childish. I am particularly drawn to Flora Rogeboz, whose timing has both a softness and a surety, and who cannot help but smile as she yet again arrives to make the connection to her partner just so.

It is not an uncommon practice to take sections of Cunningham pieces and make of them something other, the wonderful Bride and the Batchelor’s exhibition played on a similar theme in London’s Barbican, but Event succeeds uniquely in being a work, and the works, and the work simultaneously. It is watchable in and of itself; to those in on the joke the individual pieces of repertoire come smiling to the light; the whole reassures you that the project of Cunningham, and Swinston, is out there, alive and well.

The silk panels by Jackie Matisse blow over Anna Chirescu in a delightfully unchoreographed moment of interaction. The dancers fill the space, prehensile feet flicking the floor, grasping it to bounce rhythmically in fourth position, the lights go out… and yet the dance is just beginning?

“between a place and candy: new works in pattern + repetition + motif.” Is a new exhibition at 1285 Avenue of the Americas, curated by Jason Andrew and organized by Norte Maar. The title comes from a poem by Gertrude Stein, who sought in her prose to “articulate a conscious presence where writing recreates itself anew in each successive moment.” …I must confess that for weeks I have been calling the exhibit “between my brain and candy,” so I excited was I by the number of elements in the event description that promised to render the experience absolutely delicious.

I was not disappointed. While individually distinctive, each work deeply explores some facet of pattern, repetition and/or motif, bringing an harmonious sense of curiosity to the collection. Resonant is the impression that pattern is both natural and human, micro and macrocosmic, its investigation fruitful, rich and yet strikingly simple. Mary Judge’s Bacio takes inspiration from decorative architectural motifs to bring us geometric flowers with the aged patina of stone, while Kerry Law’s Empire State Building Series draws back and watches a single building over time, using the stability of architectural repetition to track an ever-changing perception of the New York sky.

Many of the pieces have a vibrant kinetic energy, frequently through the play of optical illusion: the simplest of patterns, such as Joan Witek’s Massai confounding our mind’s attempt to render them static and comprehensible. Meanwhile the work that is most conceptually movement-oriented, Julia Gleich’s Combinatorics: a study of infinite or countable discrete structures becomes a meditative contemplation of atomic space, and the variation in cellular replication: a dancer’s feet tracing pathways like electrons around a nucleus, the gesture at once always the same and yet never duplicated.

I was gratified to see textiles emerging as a theme within the selection of works. While obviously generative, practices of knitting, weaving etc have only recently begun to be deemed creative, and their inclusion in several pieces added another layer of repetition to the overall design. Fiber arts, with their cultural link to the feminine, offer a hint of transgression to fine art practices, a challenge to the hierarchy of the traditional gallery; in this exhibition we do not forget that the canvas itself is an act of pattern.

The public opening of “between a place and candy” was bustling, making it hard to get as up-close and personal with some of the works as I’d have liked. My personal favourite, Libby Hartle’s Untitled #21 (Arrow) requires a close in viewing to truly appreciate the finesse with which graphite shading has been applied to create the concentric diamonds of the collage – I urge the viewer to take the time to find the units of the pattern, and consider them as individuals even as each work is enjoyed as a whole. In my mind the gallery becomes a living dialogue with the artworks: people stepping in and away, moving on to repeat the motif, recreating the experience of the works anew in each moment of changing space, between this place and candy.

Exhibition runs through June 12th 2015 at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery