Male dancing body: excerpt from Masters Thesis by Aureliusz Rys
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.