The Place’s innovative dance festival, Resolution 2020, offers three works which explore the construction and performativity of gender, as well as the mental health issues facing young people today.
The Place’s dance festival, Resolution 2020, offers the most-cutting edge choreography to date, so it was unsurprising that tonight’s triple bill delved into the realm of post-modernism by deconstructing performance itself. What united these diverse pieces was the question of what it means to perform in society. Our actions, appearances, how we are treated by others – all are dictated and shaped by social expectations, making the interpretative and often abstract style of dance the ideal space for exploring tensions between inner and outer identities.
The topic of gender construction was explored in the first two pieces, Gender Creative by Non-binary and The Land of Her by Natasha Sturgis. In the Gender Creative, gender was represented on stage, perhaps a little literally, by a large, beige gazebo. The dancers defied traditional gender presentation and therefore refused to stay within the gazebo’s confines. They weaved through it, spun it around, tore down its walls, and entirely collapsed the gazebo at the conclusion of the dance. This prominent structure was deftly contrasted by the choreography of precise, particular movements that focused the audience on the features of these (un/hyper-)gendered bodies. At one point, standing directly beneath the canopy of the gazebo, they danced with their faces by contorting the mouth and eyes in the style of choreographer Lea Anderson. Later, one dancer placed in their mouth the legs of a camera tripod and lights to create a surreal, hyper-focus on areas of their body. The exact implication of these movements were occasionally elusive, but it did successfully queer the dancers’ physical form and challenge traditional expectations of dance.
Sturgis’ The Land of Her also drew attention to the construction of the body. In an evocative miming scene, dancer Satoko Fukuda built an invisible version of herself, one who was a little taller and stronger. Though this secondary body was inspired by her own, the scene raised questions about the othering of women – how they are placed outside of the “natural”, “normal” male body to become something of a concept (re: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex). Yet despite the theme of false or manufactured construction in both these pieces, there was still the presence of the natural. Gender Creative did not have music, only the sound of splashing underwater, and The Land of Her began with the sound of wind over the music. These sound effects served as a reminder that within the construction of gender, there is still a natural essence: just because it is constructed, does not mean it is not real. As proposed by Judith Butler, the pioneer of gender performativity, “the misapprehension about gender performativity is this: that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on” (Bodies That Matter). There is a complex interplay of what is natural and what is performative in gender.
In The Land of Her, the women mimed struggling against the blowing wind – were they buffeted and constrained by what is considered a “natural” or “biological” woman? This was an intriguing implication as The Land of Her aimed to examine “feminist ideas of taking up space by imagining a world where only women exist.” The result was, mostly, a safe social space. The women sought strength in each other, enjoying their freedom across the stage with seamless choreography. As well as the dynamic travelling sequences there was also a significant number of small hand or head movements which communicated the intimacy of female friendships. This was emphasised by the substantial amount of floor work in the duets, which made the choreography feel grounded and supported. What was powerful in this piece was the use of unison, without compromising the dancers’ individualism. In this, The Land of Her looks back to the unity and uniqueness of many imagined women-only worlds, such as that found in Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland – the latter of which may have provided inspiration for the title.
However, the apparent freedom of this world of women was questioned in the aforementioned mimed construction scene; over the course of creating a second self, Fukuda descended into madness or pain. In this supposed safe space, why was she trying to build herself into something else anyway? Why did it hurt her, rather than free her, to imagine another, stronger reality? Once again, how is biology or nature interplaying with this construction or performance of gender? The scene posed a lot of questions, perhaps intentionally, but the uncertainty limited its emotional reach. Nevertheless, the piece featured joyfully beautiful choreography, even if its meaning was not always clearly conveyed. It is also worth noting the piece’s assumed solidarity between all women – feminist discourse often relies upon the category of woman as a universal status and cultural experience, which limits sensitive explorations of gender roles. I would have liked to see Sturgis further explore ideas of intersectionality within this women-only world.
By comparison, Non-binary deconstructed “society’s traditional norm on gender assumptions based on one’s physical attributes,” thus weakening the significance of the biological. The piece opened with what appeared to be a pregnant woman sitting within the aforementioned gazebo. She began to shuffle across the stage with her legs open wide like she was giving birth. It was soon revealed there was another person sat directly behind her, and that it was actually this second person’s hair which was carefully placed as if it belonged to the pregnant figure. The pregnant person was, in fact, a man. Once this illusion was broken they teased the audience; the long hair was dropped over his face, the dancers carried each other whilst crawling like babies, the baby bump was alternately emphasised and hidden. It felt as if they were laughing at the audience’s assumption that such signifiers meant it was a woman. In the following scene, the pregnant person sat with a light shining on their belly, whilst an image of another person was projected onto the gazebo. With the image alternating between pink and blue, the piece satirised the social inclination to define a baby’s gender before it is born. Unfortunately, nothing else happened with the pregnant figure, which was a shame; Non-Binary missed an opportunity here for exploring Lee Edelman’s ideas about essential queerness being anti-futurity/anti-children.
Non-binary also used the character of the “tomboy” to play with gender signifiers through a presentation of androgyny. This character appeared to be the in-between of the pregnant man and feminine lady. The dancer, Haowen Shi, first appeared by emerging from the audience – quite literally defiant of performative boundaries. When the walls of the gazebo/gender were ripped off, they were dumped unceremoniously upon Shi, until they emerged from this pile evoking imagery of a cocoon rebirth. Now their androgynous performance was revealed; their suit was removed to show their binder and baggy boxers, the classic hallmarks of AFAB (assigned female at birth) non-binary presentation. They then partially shaved their head on stage, thus removing yet another key gender signifier. Given the shaving was real, it felt a particularly defiant act, though the clothes and hairstyle somewhat reinforced the idea that non-binary identities are synonymous with androgyny.
Overall Gender Creative felt a little tentative in its exploration of queerness, as it was not as daringly queer as the works of, for example, Fraser Buchanan or Es Morgan, who push the performance of gender and sexuality to the point of utter alienation. This is a divisive style, but personally I enjoyed the queer antagonism in the experimental use of props in Gender Creative, and would have liked to see it pushed even further in the choreography itself.
The final piece of the evening, Sick, by HINGED Dance Co did not look at the performance of gender so much as the performance of wellness, and followed “one man’s struggle against depression in the shape of a sinister character ‘Joe’.” The most powerful moments of this piece were the quieter scenes between the main characters – the man, Joe/Depression, and a woman in yellow. The dance uncovered the pain behind closed doors. If the woman in yellow represented the man’s final spark for life, there were interesting moments where she interacted with Joe, thus contemplating the close interaction of inner sadness and performed happiness. Joe was a deeply sinister, if a little caricatured, character – Alex Murray is an evocative performer who succeeded in making me genuinely hate him. It was, however, a simple yet effective method to present depression as an almost external force.
And yet there were several problems with Sick that prevented these subjects from being fruitfully explored. The woman in yellow was unclear – was she the man’s girlfriend? A manifestation of his happiness? A figment of his jealous imagination? The uncertainty meant it was difficult to ascertain her exact significance. Similarly, the ensemble served little purpose, flipping between being people and a representation of the man’s dark thoughts. Either way the scenes felt too choreographically busy and unintentionally overwhelming, and also featured some rather unsubtle, stereotypical imagery.
These problems could easily have been forgiven if it weren’t for the last scene. The man committed suicide, which was represented by tying himself up in black elastic rope; close enough to the reality that the piece was dangerously lacking a content warning. This was then followed by a very basic depiction of a funeral – black umbrella and all. It was there for the mere shock factor and marred the whole piece as a result. To add insult to injury, mental health information was projected onto the back wall after the curtain call and the content was frankly patronising. The “just talk to someone” rhetoric is over-emphasised in the face of mental health services being consistently cut, and its address of “them” (people with depression) versus “us” (their unsympathetic friends) was insensitive to the fact there were undoubtedly people in the audience with depression. Finally, the information didn’t correspond to the storyline of the piece – or if it did, then the presentation of the storyline failed. Although I would struggle to fault the choreography of Sick and the dancers unceasing explosive energy, I found its presentation of mental health distasteful.
Despite these faults, the evening offered a fairly clear conclusion to its question – performing what is expected of us by society is confusing, laughable and, at times, painful. As society continues to deconstruct binaries of gender and health, the dance world is responding with explorations that break through genre, performative boundaries, and the conception of bodies.
Non-binary / Natasha Sturgis / HINGED Dance Co performed at The Place as part of Resolution 2020 on 11 February. Click the links above for more information about each dance company.
Feature image of Natasha Sturgis’ The Land of Her is by Abril Felman.