A nice throwback post to my first residency with Shen Wei Dance Arts. (unedited)
Cipher XY — Saturday Oct. 31, 2015. 8:00 pm, Barnett Theatre in Sullivant Hall, The Ohio State University Department of Dance
Choreography: Brandon Whited, in partial collaboration with the dancers
Dancers: Quilan Arnold, Tommy Batchelor, Tim Bendernagel, s.lumbert, Calder White
Music: “I am what I am,” by Eminem; “Pause,” by Nils Frahm; “Wonderful Life,” by Black; “Simple Man,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Sound Editing: Cailin Manning
** I do not own the rights to the music in this work. Covered under Educational auspices through the Ohio State University
Lighting: Dave Covey
Sets/Costumes: Brandon Whited
Videography: Mitchell Rose, Kim Wilczak
Cipher XY was made possible by generous funding from the Graduate School of OSU via the Alumni Grants for Graduate Research and Scholarship (AGGRS), and the Coca-Cola Critical Difference for Women (and Gender Studies) through the OSU department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies.
A reflective response to Rachel Sigrid Freeburg’s Bodybodybodybodybodybodybodybodybodybody,
Part of “Off the Wall: Part 1,” OSU Department of Dance,
January 21-23, 2016, Urban Arts Space, Columbus, OH.
Flesh rushes over space like water over ancient river rocks
flooding and pooling and dripping and spilling and gushing and rushing
stagnating with patient virtue in the eddies of a quiet space
rippling and rushing like white-water — splashing to the depths below
Bodies speak their truths in effortless vulnerability apart from evaluation
or overt display
they just are
we just are
who are we?
who is they?
A-melodic harmonies hum the droning pulse of blood
A rush of angles slicing and scalloping in perspective depth, recoiling and draping
i am here for you
you are we is I am they
i see you see me see you, and we remain
A vibrant joining of singularity
celebrating the difference inherent in being together
building to individual discord
And then the quiet.
trailer for my upcoming MFA Project which will be presented by The Ohio State University Department of Dance.
October 29-31 in the Barnett Theatre of Sullivant Hall
A shared MFA concert– “of existence: and ways of being”
Choreography: Brandon Whited
Videography/Editing: Lexi Stilianos
Dancers: Q Arnold, Tommy Batchelor, Tim Bendernagel, s.lumbert, and Calder White
A few tidbits about my MFA thesis Choreography Project.
Cipher XY is a choreographic exploration of masculine identity and representation in dance. In creative process, five dancers will delve into methodologies of self-reflection and peer- discussions regarding varied perspectives on the meanings of masculinity. To choreograph Cipher XY, I will draw on the dancers’ personal reflections on the questions: what is male; what is masculinity; and, in what ways can societal constructs expand to accept variegated notions of maleness and masculinity by considering gender identity as non-binaried? The dance will reference themes of difference through the metaphorical exposure of bodies as they exist in “the spaces between.”
Dancer/Collaborators: Q. Arnold, Tommy Batchelor, Tim Bendernagel, S. Lumbert and Calder White
In 2009, Lady Gaga released what would become a smash hit of that summer; the danceable, mid-tempo track with an infectious melody and subtle latin groove–Alejandro. Released on her third EP, “The Fame Monster,” The lyrics, with only subtle references with any sort of specificity, are sufficiently vague to allow for multiple interpretations. Aside from two short verses, the lyrics use the pop trope of heavy repetition. Meaningful lines such as: “She’s got a halo around her finger; Around You”–which supposes a marriage (halo as wedding ring) interrupted by tragic death (also seen in the opening funeral scene in the video); and “But her boyfriend’s like her dad, Just like a dad”–which suggests a controlling patriarchal romance, are in limited company with the bulk of the writing staying much more superficial. Like the lyrics, the strong imagery, production design, and avant-garde visual spectacle in the song’s accompanying music video leave much room for interpretation. Directed by famous high-fashion photographer Steven Klein, the music video for Alejandro blends the spooky, edgy aesthetics of Gaga with the strong, often homoerotic visual style of the director. A close reading of the eight-minute long video yields layered representations of both masculine and feminine qualities inscribed on a homogenized set of beautiful, well-built male dancers. These layered codes create a bricolage of gender, rather than a display of blended androgyny. Taken outside of heteronormative ideals for depictions of sexuality, Gaga’s corps of male dancers could be seen as a model for a “new man”–an alternative example of a counter-hegemonic model.
Throughout the video, Gaga herself is styled to evoke images of Madonna (referencing the double-breasted suit of her 1989 video for Express Yourself), as well as referring to the spooky masculine femininity of Marlene Dietrich, and a steam-punk dominatrix. These references and visual compositions–utilizing elaborate makeup, costume and hair design–exhibit touches of masculinity dashed into Gaga’s look. None of these masculine elements–the business suit, the leather, the bowl-cut wig–succeed in erasing the sensual, sexy power of her womanly frame. The suit is offset with stiletto heels, the boyish bowl-cut worn with a nude lingerie set and black thigh-high sheers.
Like Lady Gaga, the company of male dancers are depicted with contradictory layers of masculinity and femininity that never quite align to create a true androgynous image. The very first camera shot is a close up on a gorgeous male, seemingly asleep, wearing only fishnets, high heels and a military hat. Perched on the table next to him is a large, black, machine gun. As the camera pans around the space, other men (in what appears to be SS military officer garb) are also asleep/frozen/suspended in time. Cut next to a backlit silhouette of a formation of dancers marching, punching and lunging to a heavy drumbeat. As the video progresses, we see these men are wearing short, tight, black, high-waisted shorts that pointedly frame the musculature of chests and abs, while exposing well-formed arms and legs. They wear heavy combat boots and identical black, bowl-cut wigs. These matching costumes and wigs have a homogenizing effect on the dancers–erasing any trace of identity and individuality. Although certainly a different aesthetic here, this homogenization recalls that of the military (with uniforms and buzz cuts) or sports teams. Later in the video, we see Gaga in her nude lingerie writhing on top of a muscular dancer (face-down) clad only in high-cut black silk panties and stilettos. Gripping a thick black rope, he lunges and snarls like a panther as she manipulates him in implied sexual domination. Although he is shown in such feminine sensual underwear and heels, his overt masculinity is never truly negated. The skimpy panties do nothing to offset a thoroughly masculine torso complete with the tell-tale “V”–contouring from small waist up to broad shoulders, and the stilettos simply accentuate the athleticism of his muscled legs.
It could be argued that the movement vocabulary in Alejandro is more feminine than is typical of male dancers, yet I would argue that layered juxtaposition is at play rather than blended masculine/feminine qualities. Interspersed between masculine, hard-hitting moves–reminiscent of sport, military and fitness activities–the men salsa with soft, willowy arms, and isolate their hips with serpentine sensuality. These movements, easily considered feminine to most, considered through the latin lens of the music negates such feminine readings. For latin dance forms–and the africanist aesthetic from which they come–the poly-centric action of isolated hips and shoulders–often in opposition of one another–is not solely reserved for feminine physical expression.
Alejandro’s fashion styling, photographic sensibility of the cinematography, art direction and stylized dance movement all spring from the lens of director Steven Klein’s signature style. Known for juxtaposition, gender-bending and homoerotic imagery in his high-fashion photography, Klein’s aesthetic, coupled with Gaga’s cutting edge, avant-garde approach to pop/dance music engenders a dark, yet playful image of a “new man.” If we can side step, for a moment, the heteronormative, binary view of gender and sexuality (however idillic a supposition that may be), we can potentially read Gaga’s men as sexy, sensual, idealized men. Men who are unafraid of experimental fashion and modes of expression previously reserved for feminine domains; men who are open to being sexually dominated and enjoy egalitarianism in the bedroom; men who are potentially more sexy, more fun, and more “real” in their connection to authentic animalistic desire. These dancers are perhaps an offering from Gaga and Klein of what could be considered a model for an ideal, counter-hegemonic man.
Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures (1987) is a prime example of the identity politics that emerged within the post-Judson, postmodern dance scene of the ‘80s/‘90s in America. Widely considered Goode’s signature work, the piece is an unapologetic, brazen critique of social constructions of masculinity and the behaviors prescribed for American men. He expounds upon this line of social commentary by framing and exalting the physicality and identity of effeminate men who do not conform to societal rules and constructs of the binary system of gender performance (1).
Goode’s solo attends to notions of the body in quite extreme, oppositional ways. At first the body is carried in the manner of acceptable masculine comportment and operates within the framework of movement potential required for male gender conformity (2). Dressed in quintessentially blue-collar, workman’s coveralls for the first section of the dance, Goode assumes the liner, direct and expressively-limited range of movement socially allocated for men. Brandishing a chainsaw, he violently destroys a wooden chair with broad, unflinching strokes. Here, Goode is embodying a caricature of commonly-accepted displays of masculinity. Following the beginning section–peeling down the coveralls, rolling and tying it around his waist, exposing his muscled arms–he steps into the body of the effeminate male. Now utilizing a wider range of expressive gesture and a more lush, rounded, theatrical physicality, the tall, muscled body of Goode appropriates movements typically assigned to the female gender. Exposing his arms while exacting iconically feminine postures and gestures seems to have a dual purpose. Visibility of the whole arm, uncovered, allows the viewer to potentially observe more nuance and detail than if it remained covered with the thick cotton twill. On the other hand, Goode’s bare arms create a visual juxtaposition when performing soft, fluid gestures executed by strong, muscled limbs. In the 1980s, as a reaction to the taboo and fear surrounding a gay community blindsided by the AIDS epidemic, the emphasis on muscularity and masculine physique became a common aesthetic imperative for gay men as a means of combatting the visual effects of the disease’s body mass wasting. This body ideal remains an aspirational condition of the gay male even within the ‘post-AIDS epidemic’ LGBT community (3). The well-built masculine form often operates in ironic opposition to the expressive, animated, outgoing personality commonly ascribed to many homosexual males–a dichotomy between body and self.
Concerns with body and self are tightly woven in Goode’s solo–owing to its marked focus on performance of identity politics. Discursive considerations of gender identity and sexuality often stem from the understanding that the gendered self might align with social conventions and mandates, or might exist in opposition to expected presentations of one’s perceived gender. The interplay between these oppositional relationships of body-self is the meat of the dance. In Gestures, Goode presents himself in direct opposition to gender constructs for the majority of the piece. Though the solo’s beginning is marked by masculine conformity and the end devolves (from the effeminate gestures) into more typically neutral dance movement, the strength of the middle, gestural section–and its subsequent repetitions and reiterations–ground his identity firmly in the exaltation of feminine expressivity. The discontinuity between body and self here becomes somewhat of a spotlight on the very notion that the self–at once masculine, feminine and all points in between–is always a performance of social norms. The degree of “success” or “failure” in that performance, in relation to societal expectations, then becomes the emphasis. This notion, of “failing” at the “proper” performance of gender, illuminates the narrow criteria with which individuals are judged by society (Butler).
The very nature of a solo performance could seem to place the individual against society or perhaps in no relation to it. Goode’s solo, however, relates to greater notions of society in that his very presence and frictional performance of movements atypical of his sex become a comment on the social rules and codes, and question why/if/how individuals adhere to these constructs. In that respect, though society is not directly represented on stage as a group form (considering the work is a solo), societal concerns are present in the space between audience and performer, and in the viewer’s potential to identify with/against the identity expressed in Goode’s masterful performance. It is then extremely evident that body, self and society are inextricably linked in dance as a medium, and perhaps within all modes of embodied communication as well.
Johnson, Mark. The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, 19-32. Chicago/London: U of Chicago P, 2008.
The social unrest and rebellious youth energy that epitomizes the cultural climate of the 1960’s in America, was a fertile ground for the growth of political, social and cultural reforms in the arts–as well as a catalyst for questioning gender and performance within the field. The unique, egalitarian, un-gendered nature of Contact Improvisation allowed for its significant influence on social and cultural outlooks–then and now–that few other dance forms have ever matched.
The ‘60s were marked by the rise of a bevy of cultural movements such as: racial equality; the pacifist, anti-war movement; women’s equality and the feminist movement; and the earliest rumblings of the LGBT-rights movement. The country was changing, and changing fast. A younger, bolder generation sought to stand up for their political beliefs and make their voices heard. This transformational energy was alive within the arts world as well; experimentation became commonplace in nearly every performing and visual art form. Challenging the status quo, self-critical focus and rule-breaking quickly became the ‘signs of the time.’ Steve Paxton’s Contact Improvisation (CI), emerging at the beginning of the 70’s, carried with it many of the socio-political concerns of the 1960s. Like many other art forms linked to cultural concerns, it could perhaps never have come about in any other time–a true product of the culture and society of the ‘60s/‘70s. In Sharing the Dance, Cynthia J. Novack’s ethnographic study of CI as it relates to American Culture, she writes:
“Contact Improvisation demonstrates how dance is a part of life and culture–as a metaphor for social interaction and values . . . as the direct apprehension of moving with and for a community of people.” (Novack 235)
The very nature of CI dictates that it is a product of the efforts of the whole group, not a creation of one individual. In spite of Paxton’s uncomfortable status as father/guru of CI, he continually emphasized his desire for the form to uphold the values of “egalitarianism and communality” (ibid) characteristic of the members of the Judson Dance Group. The very framework of the contact “jam”–the mode of both practice and performance of CI–creates the open, inclusive environment the dance form is known for. A partnered form, CI can not be danced alone, thus relying on the presence of community to engage in its practice.
Contact Improvisation can also be credited for significant advancements in terms of gender and sex politics–societally, as well as within the field of dance. Novack, drawing from her experiences within the CI community notes the general feeling was “. . . that the movement structure of contact improvisation literally embodied the social ideologies of the early ‘70s which rejected traditional gender roles and social hierarchies (ibid 11).” The sensual nature of the form allowed for any combination of gendered pairs to have a truly intimate, physical interaction, removed from overt sexual intention. Functional concerns of ability relating to a particular gender were also eliminated by the framework of the improvisatory nature of the form. CI is essentially the outcome of a quite simple duet score: fall, spill, press into and ride a maintained point of contact with another dancer. There are, to be sure, various techniques, skills and mechanics that develop out of the practice of CI over many years, but an understanding of its simple score–coupled with an open, willing mind and body–is all that is required to begin practicing. What emerged from the framework created by Paxton’s ideas, and his work with the initial groups that helped to unearth/realize the form, was a dance that had no requirement of a particular degree of strength, stability or power–thus, CI operated outside the concerns of gender for participation. Anyone could/should/would dance with anyone, regardless of biological sex. The outcome of dancing a CI duet with another body was easily framed in relation to the abilities of each dancer. The dance resulting from a particular pairing was as varied–physically and visually–as the participants involved; this was a source of great pride for the dance form’s practitioners. Both technically and philosophically, this egalitarian dynamic upheld the somewhat utopian values of the Contact community, as well as those of the larger postmodern community it emerged from, and operated within.
Novack, Cynthia. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.
“Dance Dynamics” is a class I am currently enrolled in this term (taught by Melanie Bales), which covers the Effort Theories of Rudolf Laban in his LMA (Laban Movement Analysis) work.
For my midterm project I analyzed a section of Shen Wei’s Undivided/Divided (of which I was an original cast member and involved in the many phases of the creation process). A short section within the piece (45 mins in all) is what we refer to as the “Body Systems.” It is an highly specific improvisational structure in four parts that takes movement inspiration from imagining the quality and motion inherent in different body systems: muscles, bones, veins, and nerves. Each system has its own expression, qualities and range of potential movement, and also had a specific set of movement options we were prohibited from including in order to be clear about the way we were thinking about the improv structures as a group.
After learning about Laban’s LMA Effort theories this semester, I realized there are some of Laban’s theories of Motion Factors (Space, Time, Weight and Flow) that related to some of the ways we explored movement qualitatively in Shen Wei’s work. Shen Wei is, of course, operating in a range of movement ideas, theories and explorations that derive from his own imagination, sense of the body, space and time. Most of Shen Wei’s movement is highly influenced by his training in Classical Chinese Opera Dance (as well as modern dance and experimental performance methods), and is inflected with a truly individual movement sensibility, as a result, that sets his work apart form many choreographers with a singular Western lineage of dance training. The movement is executed with a deep awareness and use of Internal Energy as a means of moving the body and fostering the build-up, use and redirection of Chi, which gives the movement a unique and inseparable connection with Laban’s motion-factor Flow.
Breaking down each of the Body system improvisations I located many connections to Laban’s Effort theories. For the purposes of this post I will not get into the specifics of my analysis, but wanted to share a general trend within Shen Wei’s “Body Systems” structure (and also in certain other improvisatory approaches within his Repertory). In each of the four systems/sections, the attention to the Space motion-factor was characterized by indirectness. Laban’s Effort theory describes indirect space (alternately referred to as flexible) in the sense that is open to multiple possibilities, and “manifested as encompassing, multi-focused, with all-around attention. (Maletic 14)”
This indirect space as theorized by Laban relates to a few aspects of Shen Wei’s approach. In a very clear connection, it lines up with Shen Wei’s use of what he calls “open focus,” or expansion of the focus away from one singular point or object in order to see the whole space and remain open to actions of the other dancers and elements in the environment that might inform movement. This “open focus” creates in the dancer what many see as a distinctive presence and clarity of focus that is unique and characteristic of Shen Wei Dance Arts dancers. Another connection I realized was the potential that Shen Wei operates in what Laban labels indirect space as a means of keeping the body open to multiple possibilities while improvising and expanding the range of potential body movement as a means for discovery. It also allows the dancer to attend primarily to his/her internal landscape by focusing on internal, personal sensation and allowing movement to stem from there rather than simply as a product of thought and decision-making. In this way, Shen Wei’s work is related closely to many of the somatic practices which focus on fostering and expanding the Body-Mind connection and developing the body’s own intelligence for movement potential.
Maletic, Vera. Dance Dynamics: Effort & Phrasing. Zip Publishing: 2005.