Can we talk about dance not talking about the body1? Are we able to separate them? Each attempt to describe dance refers to the body. The description of dance is at the same time the description of the body in dance. If we talk about dance, we usually talk about body to some extent. In that way the history of dance would become the history of body. A record of meanings which body had (and still has) in dance in particular historical moments. It would be an attempt to read the functions of the body and its place in the society.
Nowadays the human body has its own history but it has not always been that way. Johannes Odenthal claims that the beginnings of creation of the evolution theory around 1800 AD are the beginnings of historical thinking about the body. Modern ideas about the body could develop because the Church’s authority declined. Until the nineteenth century the body was understood only as an act of God’s creation, thus it could not be historical and changeable. Only since then is the human being able to imagine the changes and development of his/her own body in the perspective of ages. Only then did the human being gain new self-awareness.
Each dance can be perceived as an image of the body concept, “Because the body is the primary means of expression in dance, and because gender is an attribute of the body, dance is a key area through which gendered identities are revealed2”. The dance history proves that the body, dance and society are strongly intertwined factors and they influence each other in all possible directions: dance influences the body as much as society does; the body expression influences society, which in turn can influence the dance and so on. Moreover, “gender representations in cultural forms, including theatre dance, do not merely reflect changing social definitions of femininity and masculinity, but are actively involved in the processes through which gender is constructed and norms reinforced3”.
This point of view explains, at least partially, why the position of male dancing body was so crucial for the society (which for a long period of time was a patriarchal society) and why dancing men used to be as much adored as they were despised. Men always wanted to maintain dominance in the society. Therefore in the reality of changing social circumstances they were continuously redefining attributes of sexual difference. These changes had also an impact on the masculine representations in dance.
Dancing men were the source of anxiety, especially by the men who tried to keep the social status quo of gender roles in society. But masculinity is not a constant idea,
“Masculinity as socially constructed identity is not a stable entity, but one made up of conflictual and contradictory aspects. Representations of masculinity in theatre dance over the last 150 years (more so in some ways than other cultural forms) have threatened to disrupt and destabilize masculine identities4”.
In other words, the performance of a dancing man is able to expose some of the contradictions or problems within the dominant norms of masculinity.
Perception of male performance
Each spectator brings to the performance their own expectations which depend on their experience, knowledge, culture, religion, ethnicity, etc. These factors are decisive during interpretation and perception of masculinity embodied by dancers on stage. But this masculinity does not necessarily have to look like the masculinity observed in everyday life. Very often the masculinity represented through dancing is not accessible in the context of daily life and thus it gets important cultural significance, which will be shown on several examples later in this work. It is then that the dominant norms of masculine behaviour are questioned and subverted.
Some dance scholars (i.e. Michael Fried, Susan Foster) suggest two kinds of dance perception: it is “absorption” and “theatrical” spectatorship. The first term refers to the performances characterised by inward focus and absorbed attention of dancers. The attention of the onlooker is drawn predominantly by the aesthetical and formal qualities of choreography, not so much by his/her identification with the dancers. As Foster argues,“Dances operating in this mode elaborate their own world of references by focusing on their own movement5”. These dances are usually more abstract and without a story, and that requires from the audience an activity in the form of searching and creating meanings for the dance. The “theatrical” way of perception is based on the spectator’s identification with a dancer. It can be the result of the dancers’ intensive dominant performance, interactions or narrative situations between them.
When analysing dance pieces it is important to acknowledge that whichever attention the performance will get, there is always a danger that dancers can be perceived simply as objects of an erotic gaze. Stripped from the whole performative context (such as costume, choreography, narrative, interpretation, etc.) the dancer risks becoming a sexually desired body. Some dance scholars indicate that strong physical presence of dancers like Isadora Duncan or Yvonne Rainer was able to challenge the viewer to see a dancer more as an expressive subject than an erotic object6. Burt applies this theory to dancing men with a restriction, “Where a male dancer creates a powerful physical presence he dominates and masters the audience in a way that, I have argued, may escape an eroticising gaze but does so by conforming to conservative norms of masculine behaviour7”. Burt argues that in order to encourage the audience to perceive masculinity (or femininity) differently the viewer has to be aware of his/her activity as an observer and this does not necessarily require the strong presence of the performer.
Different kinds of performances are able to draw the spectator’s attention in different ways. It is important to acknowledge that the communication between the dancer and the spectator is only a part of the whole communication process which happens during a live performance. The dancer is an intermedium between the choreographer and the spectator (his/her body being a message at the same time). Although it is the choreographer who sends the message, its meaning can change upon the interaction between the dancer and the spectator.
As Susan Foster writes, “The dance itself rather than the choreographer suggests an interpretative itinerary for the viewer8”. In other words, it suggests how much the meaning of a given choreography can be changed prior to the identity of the audience. It is especially important whenever someone decides to reconstruct a performance years after its premiere because the dominant norms of gender and masculinity will influence the spectatorship and suggest a particular way of understanding and interpreting the choreography. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1For the sake of focusing on the problem of male body I write about dance in the meaning of the body art, leaving behind new theories of dance and choreography connected with the appearance of the New Media.
2R. Burt, The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle and Sexuality, Routledge (London 2007), p.12.
Day 2 begins relatively early, at 8:30 am in the studio. We have Leonie with us, another wonderful dancer from Carinthia, who presently lives and works in Vienna. Maria leads us through a rigorous 1.5 hour long warm up, and then I get to watch Andrea in action with her dancers.
Before I get to that, here is a short description of the space. The performance space is divided into 2 rooms. 1. An airy spacious “white room” with white flooring and translucent drapes falling from the ceiling, almost giving the feeling of a king’s court. 2. A dark room, fashioned after a Greek “Adytos”, designed like a labyrinth at the centre of which is the sanctum sanctorum. Here Roman, the digital master of the modern Adytos, would be stationed. The audiences are invited to freely move from one space to another, as will the performers. In the dark room, one can find digital projections of images compiled by Andrea and Roman. In the white room, the “real dance” shall take place.
Coming back to the rehearsal process, there’s so much one can tell from the way a choreographer works with her dancers. Both my blogposts invariably keep coming back to the awe I experienced acquainting myself with Andrea and her works. Such has been her impression on me and I wonder if that will actually ever change. Andrea works with a clear understanding of what she wants while being very observant of her dancer’s strengths and weaknesses. After the initial warm up, Andrea leads her dancers into a very specific mood and body state through a meticulous set of tasks. To someone as obsessed with details as me, it is a pleasure to watch her at work. She leads a voice-guided movement session, wherein the dancers are getting into a certain state of lightness and open-attention, acutely tuned into the needs of the body. The focus is soft but not dull, for it is hard to be dull for anyone that works with Andrea, it seems to me. As I watch her wildly dart across the space, blurting out her instructions, I see a woman with fire inside, turned outward and yet contemplative. A lot of what she has spoken about to me the previous day begins to make sense as I watch the rehearsal session – how she visualizes her art and how she brings it to life.
The dancers are extremely conducive. They are attentive to the tasks at hand, are as precise as AKS in tuning themselves in. They eventually begin rehearsing the movement material that they have been researching upon. Maria moves languidly across the white floor with her wine glass and her crown, as Leonie swaps her glasses and watches her move, trying to imitate. “You must watch her intently, as if trying to make sense of the strange world she is in,” explains Andrea to Leonie, speaking of the physical intention of Leonie’s dance. “When you take that turn, it must be deliberate. Not a smooth flowing move but a planned, artificial turn.” AKS’s directions and objectives are exact. A mystical soundtrack plays on. “Is this the finalized track?” I ask Andrea, “It is so mystical!” I am hypnotized. “I hope so,” she says emphatically, “but the music is still a mystery to me.” She means she is yet to decide. After an hour of rigorous work, the team takes a 10-minute break, while I lurk around the office to get some more insights about the “dark room”.
Brigitte is the creator of the dark space, and has extensively worked with Andrea to bring her idea into reality. “I have known Andrea for 30 years now. We had crossed our paths in work earlier, and tried to be in each other’s worlds; tried to understand the rules of each other’s worlds sometimes successfully but mostly sometimes in vain. It took me 30 years to be able to simply follow her,” jokes Brigitte. “I admire her way of working with people, it is touching. I would really like to support and it doesn’t matter how,” says Brigitte, when asked about her collaboration with Andrea. “What does the darkness mean to you?” I ask. “I created that world. It was bright before!” replies Brigitte, this time laughing hard. She goes on to explain, “In there, one can smell the plastic. It is dominant, and gives a taste of the darkness. Even though it feels like a cave, the smell reminds you that it is not. “
Roman, the digital artiste that works on the image compilation brings in his perspective about his role. “In today’s world of excessive images, we don’t really see many images anymore. What information value do images have when there are simply so many of them?” ponders Roman, while speaking about how they are working with images in the project. As I ask him about the dark room, he raises an interesting and a valid point. “Darkness fascinates me. I am looking for darkness in the world (literally), where real darkness has vanished. So when I am in a dark room, it is disturbing to me as I am not used to it! Darkness has an impact on our perception,” he observes.
Maria, who has worked the longest with Andrea on this project, has an entirely different perspective to bring. Being a dancer, she works a lot in relation with the space. To her darkness means sensation, something fluid, a possibility. “Moving in the darkness forces me to feel the space around me. It is a feeling of being unprotected, of fragility. The body is affected by the temperature, by the people walking around,” she feels.
It is like the pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle are slowly fitting in. I am quite overwhelmed with all the angles of the story. I wind up for the day and slowly prepare myself for a welcome dinner at Andrea’s home for the newest team member from South Korea.
As we dine together, I realize to my surprise that I have lost all inhibitions with the team. I am making jokes, being loud and enjoying inspite of myself. How long has it been since I know them, I wonder. That was probably the fastest I have ever warmed up to any group I have ever worked with! The sun goes down in Millstätter See, and we are laughing and chatting away about various topics.
I wake up to a pleasant, rainy morning the next day. A kind Brigitte drives me to the train station. I am flowing, and in thought. I was cast away for 2 days in an island, it seems to me, where there are zillions of ideas floating and a fierce current called Andrea, and a space that holds it all together. I cannot wait to come back two weeks later to watch the premiere, and witness how these ideas look embodied.
„The nature of a work of art is to be not a part, nor yet a copy of the real world (as we commonly understand that phrase), but a world in itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it fully you must enter that world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims and particular conditions which belong to you in the other world of reality,“ said professor Bradley in 1901 in Oxford lectures on poetry, which writer Jeanette Winterson quotes in her book „Art and Lies“.
It took me more than an hour to find back this quote that I had read somewhere three years ago. But I couldn’t get on with this article until I found it, only because nothing else could so aptly describe the production-in-process of Andrea K Schlehwein. I have been part of this project for a ridiculously short period of time, and yet, I notice the huge pile of motifs that are at work here.
I have been part of this complex-structured project for a mere two days. Two whole days. Too less to learn the language of this alien world, but long enough to feel like I belong here. The first day as I arrived at Andrea‘s office cum studio cum museum cum performance space cum church, I found a bunch of people hanging around gawking at their computer screens, writing, discussing, moving about, having coffee and cigarette breaks. After the brief but warm pleasantries, Andrea got down to business right away, without much explanation. „Before we breakfast together, I want you to go around and take a look the work-space. Jot down the first set of questions that come to your mind, and come back,“ said she. Compelling but not regardless. Clear but not curt. Atleast, not the most commonly seen approach in my last 10 years of dancing around. This is going to be interesting, I thought to myself. And it was.
The team consists of artistes from different places, as Netzwerk AKS usually operates – Austria, Germany, Greece, South Korea and Belgium. As I ran my interviews with each of them, it was striking to see how each one of them had something in common with the other, thus finding mutually common grounds at work, while contributing their individual values.
The project is motivated by various topics , as is its maker. Andrea is fiercely political. During the interview, she vehenmently speaks about how the virtual world of mass-media is run and viewed by people that compulsively consume news, where human beings are reduced to numbers, without stopping a second to contemplate or process. “We are like a boat without a captain,” she professes, “that does not have a clear direction in which to go.” She is of course also alluding to the blue boat sculpture that she will be using in the performance as a symbolic reference to this subject. I don’t just yet have an exact idea as to how the production would look like, but a direction seems to open itself to me.
Eventually, as I speak to Roman, the digital artiste, Maria – the dancer, Brigitte – theallinone-coordinator-coffeemaker-collaborator-younameit, I get a clearer understanding of what each one of them is doing there, and why are they there in the first place. They are not working with Andrea for the first time, unlike me, and seem to share a certain history together and comprehend each other’s working ways as well as goals quite well.
Every day a new performer seems to join the team. I happen to meet the youngest performer of the team, a gleeful 8-year old boy who has beautiful long hair like a golden waterfall. My extremely short-term participation in the project unfortunately doesn’t allow me to witness this young delight in action.
Before I know, day 1 is at an end, and I am still whirling from the impact.