Category Archives: identity

Tilting Fabulous – Jokes, Dance and LGBTQ History

This week, dear readers, I heard something in a classroom that I’ve never heard in a classroom before: I heard a professor make an in-joke about Merce Cunningham being a gay man.

…. Ok, context: Merce Cunningham is probably the most important abstract choreographer of the 20th century, in part because of the incredible collaborations he produced with his partner, John Cage. Here’s a link to a solo from Split Sides, which is not one of their collaborations (instead it’s Cunningham and Radiohead/Sigur Ros), but is a really great bit of dancing if you’ve not seen his work before. The music and choreography is based in chance procedures, and the movement itself is put together from smaller elements (curves, extensions, turns, tilts etc.) in the same way that you might put together Legos to make abstract sculpture.

Cunningham and Cage lived and worked in an era when homosexuality was just not something you could do and have it be ok with the American government. Their relationship vanished from the public view of their work, to the point that as a student in the 21st century, at a university with Cunningham technique and Cunningham on the academic curriculum, I never head John Cage referred to as anything other than an artistic collaborator. Even today I hear people trying to smooth out the edges between the man and the art: Cunningham and Cage had an “intimate relationship,” they were “very close.”

In part I understand why that happens. The really big deal about Cunningham and Cage’s work is how abstract it is: their entire philosophy was grounded in removing obvious referential information from what the audience could see, and so there’s an instinct by educators to avoid personal information that isn’t ideologically relevant to the choreography (… or at least that’s the official statement). Contrast that with someone like Martha Graham, who’s choreography is all about her personal self, or look at a dance world where people desperately try to look for the story, and you can see why you might try to teach Cunningham without the romantic sub-plot.

But.

Dance as a field is famously accepting of LGBTQ life styles; in fact I am frequently the subject of some envy from my friends in university departments that have not yet embraced trans identities, or “they” as a singular pronoun. That said, the dominant narrative of LGBTQ people in dance tends to fall into two stereotypes: gay men doing ballet, and super-queers making postmodern work about queerness. Those stereotypes fall down in practice, but it is very difficult to find, for example, famous lesbian ballerinas whose sexual identity is “out” in the same way that Nijinsky’s is.

Is that a problem? Well I certainly won’t insist that anyone has an obligation to out themselves for any reason, even my blogging. The stereotype that all male dancers are homosexuals is another nasty hangover from the 1900s that we’ve had to deal with, and I can understand totally the response of: “We’re all just dancers, ok?” …just because your job is to get up on a stage and perform does not eliminate your right to privacy, or mean that your sexuality has to be a public part of how you do your identity.

On the other hand, if we are all “just dancers,” who can make work about whatever we like regardless of gender or sexual identity, then isn’t one way of making that clear to acknowledge and normalise the diverse range of dancers and choreography out there? To demonstrate that your sexual identity has absolutely no bearing on how you dance or the kinds of dancing you can do? When I finally found out about Merce and John it didn’t change how I felt about their work, but it did make me frustrated with a system of books and teachers that had – by omission – implied that their relationship did not exist: that had known, and yet allowed me not to know.

The reason I spotted, remembered, and blogged about a throw-away joke in the middle of a technique class was precisely because it indicated a normalacy to Cunningham’s sexual identity – and the expectation that everyone else in the room would share that understanding. To joke about Cunningham not being interested in female dancers, you have to believe that the majority of people listening a) know about Cunningham’s sexual preference and b) don’t think it’s that much of a big deal (either in general, or in relationship to his artistic work). Note: this is a different thing to making a joke criticising Cunningham’s identity, where you assume that most people know, and that they share your (incorrect) opinion of gay-ness as a bad thing.

So… thank you, anonymous professor*, for providing a social model in which Cunningham can be an abstract artist, and a gay man, without any conflict between those two identities. And of course thank you to Cunningham, and Cage, for making awesome art, one of my favourite dance techniques, and just in general – for being tilting fabulous.

*who shall remain anonymous unless they ask to be identified.

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.

A Dance By Any Other Name… The Multiple Modernisms of George Balanchine

I never knew that being a dance PhD had so much to do with picking the right labels: are you doing dance research or dance studies? Gender theory or queer theory? Post-colonial or pop culture? Throw out any kind of equality-minded project and someone will call it feminist – because intersectionality, and of course you could just throw in the towel and say it’s all post-structuralism, but somehow that just feels like cheating, and what does post-structuralism even mean anyway?

Dance has a serious label problem.

Not, of course that I don’t understand the purpose of these labels in general. Citing yourself in relationship to the field? Great. Contextualising your work in relationship to previous scholarship? Fabulous. Having to spend the first chunk of your article slotting yourself in amidst the labels and explaining exactly how it is you’re defining both the label and your field in general? ….I’m working on it, I promise, I promise.

Why am I starting this debate when I promised you I was writing about Balanchine? You came here for the ballet, right? The wondrous legs, the fabulous choreography! Well you can have it!

But first you have to put a label on Balanchine.

Was he a classicist? A modernist? A romantic? How about the patriarchy incarnate? A man who had a post-colonial project before the term was even floated?

For the last few years I’ve lectured at the TrinityLaban Conservatoire on Modernism. We look at (among others) Baudelaire, Woolf, Mondrian, Manet and Greenberg. Then I ask my poor students to name for me a modern choreographer. Some name Graham, some Cunningham. I offer a counter-argument.

They say “But FFEEENNN, what IS modernism???” And I reply “….exactly my point.” There was an identifiable modernist project, but then there were also several. Medium specificity, expressionism, a reaction to industrialisation, a search for the “really real,” to name just a few.

As a regular visitor and sometime contributor to the feminist blogosphere, I am familiar with the exhortation to NAME YOUR FEMINISM. I posit that Balanchine was a modernist choreographer, who gleefully and delightedly refused to name his modernism – and made his his success the greater for choosing not to do so.

Example:

Look at the final, Choleric, movement of The Four Temperaments, and you will see a laughing commentary on classical, Petipa-esque convention.

Example:

Look at the second section of Liebeslieder Waltzer and you’ll find a heart-achingly beautiful portrayal of the social dancing soul.

Example:

Shades of Ausdruckstanz writhe in the Siren’s dance of The Prodigal Son.

Example:

….

From using his ballet company to reflect the jazz beat of the new New York City, his coolly, intellectual restructuring of the danse d’ecole to the mystery of the final exit of Serenade, Balanchine embraces all the modernisms, and none of them. He took the pulse of his time and made dance, without doing us the courtesy of letting us know what kind or why – unless the dance itself is the message, and why-ever should it not be? He was a choreographer first after all. Perhaps what I like best is that his commentary isn’t spiteful: he cites a huge range of influences from both popular and social dance, and – as far as I can tell – his reason for citation is: “isn’t this cool!” He puts a Sleeping Beauty reference and a Charleston right next to each other, in an Ancient Greek narrative, sandwiching a transition that is absolutely his own… and it works! He builds a bricolage of..

Oh no… bricolage… doesn’t that make him…. POST-STRUCTURALIST!!!

Ok, wait, back track and bear with me a minute, I promise that my point is coming. Balanchine cited himself in relationship to the world of dance. He contextualised himself in relationship to the culture, art and social thinking of his time. What he didn’t do was attach himself to a particular theoretical or political project. His agenda was first and foremost to make dances, and comment on the field second, if at all. He didn’t have a label problem, and I’m not sure I’m motivated to make one for him now.

What does the dance tell you? What do you see? What does it make you think of?

How much story you want?

… it’s STILL not what you think…

A while ago I put up a post about a video from SF Globe that you can find here, which is useful to read before continuing this post.  Half an hour after putting up I received this comment:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 6.19.49 PM

and this is from one of MY favourite dance teachers/partners/friends.

My initial thought was “Oh dear god I’ve been horribly arrogant.” After all – I’d criticised SFG for failing to understand what was going on in the video by claiming ownership of a particular community… and here I was totally failing to recognise one of that community’s major figures.

For those interested, Jean Veloz is a living legend who was a star of  swing dance on the silver screen and a fabulous live exhibition dancer between the 1940s-80s, who then came out of retirement in the 90’s to continue being kickass at community events worldwide.  Admittedly I had to go and learn all of that after watching the two linked videos – particularly recommend the one from Groovy Movie.  You can learn more about Jean through her own website.

So… are they going to take my swing dancer card away?  Should I be embarrassed about not knowing the history of my practice?  I mean, I do for other dance forms don’t I?  But how much of that is being specifically a dance scholar in those styles?  I sat for a while after receiving that comment alternating between mortification and a ton of questions, some of which I think I have answers for, and some I’ll be posing to you.

At the end of the day, my social dancing is… umm… social!  It’s a practice that links me to a community, and one which I very much love.  But is my practical participation enough to identify me as a member of that community?  I mean, I know some of the historical/contextual information, but clearly I also have some very large holes – do they matter?  I’m sure that for some members of that community the answer would be “Yes.”  But would they be right?

So what defines this particular community’s membership?  Practice?  Knowledge?  Skill?  Contribution?  Investment in the values of the community?  Self-identification?  A mix of all of the above?

My hypothesis is that all communities have different rules, worked out from a combination of the social norms of participating members.  I’m going to show my linguistic side here when I say that there is a difference between community participation and community membership – but going to admit that I’m lost about where to draw the line.

Also, where are the boundaries of the community?  Swing dance has local, national and global chapters, as I’m sure do many practice-based social groups.  I’ve participated at all those levels, but where am I actually a member?  Given that I’ve just moved countries, do I have to be accepted by the Columbus community in some way before I can identify as belonging there?  What constitutes acceptance?

My ties are strongest to skill practice and to values: dance as a method of positive community building; dance that can be shared with everyone; dance that seeks communication with others.  I call myself a social dancer because I’m always somewhat carrying those values with me wherever I go, and because I can identify others who share those community values around the world.  So perhaps I can hold on to my swing dancer card for now…

…and I’m glad I got the chance to discover Jean Veloz and work towards not getting it wrong.

The evolution of exotic birds

I am a dancer.  I am also an academic.  I am a curious wanna-be polymath who does quadratic equations in her spare time and helps run a podcast on aerospace medicine.  I’ve spent the last seven years working in disability provison, and the last two teaching in primary schools.  I swim, I bike, I go and look at beautiful things and I am a human being who defines themselves both in and outside of their professional sphere – just like all of you!

And yet…

I’m proud of being a dancer and I would’t do anything else.  In fact that’s how I decided to go to dance school in the first place: I looked at all my options and all my interests; where I seemed to get high marks; what might get me a decent job at the end of it all, and at the end of the day I stuck with the one thing I couldn’t NOT do.  Whatever else I might be doing, I never stop being a dancer.

And yet…

I know I am guilty of covering my dancing self.  To cover, as beautifully explained by Kenji Yoshino (http://www.kenjiyoshino.com/covering.htm) – is to downplay a disfavoured trait in order to blend itnto the mainstream.  Not that I believe dancing is disfavoured as such, but rather that it places you in a very specific box in the mind of non-dancers.  A fellow grad student put it perfectly when she refered to it as “exotic bird syndrome.” “Either you’re the Dancer, which means you have all kinds of special artistic/somatic insights, or you’re a dancer, which means you’re vulnerable, you can’t think, and you don’t know what to do in the real world.”  Usually I find it’s somewhat a combination of the two, and sometimes I downplay the dancer side of me just so I don’t have to explain my way out of that box.  That yes, I can go to grad school.  That yes, I do write, and read, and think.  That yes, it’s a career, and it’s just like your career except that I happen to like mine better.

Because if I tell them I’m a dancer then two questions down the line comes “So what IS contemporary dance? ….what does it look like?” And I just don’t know yet whether I’m invested enough in this stranger to get into that discussion.  (Readers, how do you deal with this?  Anyone got a great two-sentence definition you can hand out to the curious new aquaintance?)

And yet…

I’m so happy with the gifts that persuing dance has brought into my life.  I attend one of the best dance graduate programs in the united states, and it kind of appalls me when students from other programs don’t even know that we’re here!  Dancing has taken me to a plethora of countries that any gap year student would go green over, and has put me in touch with some of the most smart, generous, open-hearted, talented and beautiful individuals I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.  Dancing has given me the skills I’ve needed to organise projects, to communicate where no language existed, to do all kinds of generic jobs to bring the rent in month by month, to be a better friend to my friend and to greet each new day from a deep wellspring of joy.

And so…

New academic year, new leaf.  Here’s to throwing off the covers and dancing in the streets.  If I’m an exotic bird, then I need to adapt and evolve until I’m one of the more brilliant native species.  Here’s my pledge to be a better advocate for myself and the things in my life that truly matter – the things that I can’t not do.

And yet….