Joni Mitchell says ‘It's cloud's illusions I recall, I really don't know clouds at all’ and I’m reminded of how we understand our material bodies. As illusions, as remnants, as memories in affectual relation. Of being a dancing body, seen from the outside, felt from ‘within’ thinking through both the movement made and how it is seen. I think about Mia Mingus’ desire to move towards the ugly; to create a politic beyond desirability. Mingus says ‘There is only the illusion of solace in beauty’. And I find myself wondering what would a childhood raised without pressure to be beautiful would have looked like. Especially in the context of this talk, which is about dancing, which is about bodies, whose bodies are allowed to dance and why. I wonder what I would look like, how would I perform, if part of how I was taught to move wasn’t to be an object of desire; an illusion.
This paper is going to be series of disparate thoughts that relate to the work behind me; Volition. As a way to think through how dance creates subjects and objects; especially in classical dance training where heteronormative structures of gender binaries are violently enforced. I’ll be thinking through queer ways to escape being a subject and/or being objectified; to find strategies to become a thing instead. Bob Brown writes in his seminal text "Thing Theory", "We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the window gets filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.”
That’s my aim. To become a moving, thinking, evolving thing that’s movements find ways to unlearn or deviate from the gestures it was taught and expected to perform.
A few weeks ago I was at a dance performance. I was watching a group of teenage girls performing a contemporary mix of jazz and ballet with a particular sexualised bent. I noticed how these bodies were oriented toward a very specific type of performative gender. These girls performed a hyper femininity. Producing shapes with their bodies, creating an exaggerated feminine ideal. With spines curved in the middle back to broaden the chest, with grins from ear to ear, all of their movements were oriented toward the audience. They whipped there heads around with a military like precision, moving always in relation to the front of the stage, oriented towards a particular kind of objectification. A body performed to be seen by someone else.
We teach our children to perform as objects of desire.
Sarah Ahmed describes happiness objects as things we strive towards. As objects they have a timely pull that seeks the conclusion of a happy affect. They draw us in under the promise they will (eventually) make us happy. They are constructs; thoughts, ideas as well as physical manifestations that see no distinction between concepts and physical objects but treat both as the same intertwined ‘thing’. An example of a happiness object could be the engagement ring. A ring made of silver and diamonds, and also made of the conceptual promise it offers of happiness, of marriage, or an adherence to a predefined notion of a heterosexual family. The construct and the physical object are one in the same. The thing itself, the idea of the thing and the idea the thing represents are one object.
But the promise of these objects is often more wieldy than the objects they deliver. They can be a way of forging structures in our lives that attract us initially but cause us eventual pain. Lauren Berlant talks about this promise of happiness as a cruel optimism. Saying happiness objects (or optimistic relations as she calls them) are not inherently cruel. They become cruel when the object that you become attached to, impedes the aim you brought to it initially. Thinking through Brown’s original concept of when object become things; when they no longer serve the purpose for which there were made. And I think about gesture and how nearly all the movements we make carry a particular orientation. They literally move towards something. What happens when the orientation of the gestures we perform aren’t our own but pull us towards something we are unaware of? Berlant would call this cruelty. Maybe this is what Butler’s calls performativity, a way of performing that is an active process of worlding- even when the creation of a world isn’t anticipated as the product of the action.
What happens when the gestures we are taught to perform produce bodies, especially dancing bodies, created to be looked at and not our own making?
This is what I saw as implicit in the orientation of those teenage bodies towards their audience. That there hyperactive performance of a particular kind of gender rendered them passive and less than. And maybe I’m projecting. But this was my experience. Of being told there were certain kinds of bodies that can dance, of standing on two opposite walls of a room divided by gender in dance class, of being told there were certain ways of moving that were acceptable and not. If the happiness object in dance is to become an illusion that represents an ideal how does the real fit in? How can you have a real body? How can my body move and not produce the ideal it was taught but one of my own creation?
In Ways of Seeing John Berger talks about women being taught to survey their bodies since childhood. Actively taught to see their own bodies as objects from the outside. Imagining what they look like to the viewer. The material and immaterial body are the same. The one that exists internally as an imagined image of the outside; and the outside itself. The actualise eachother. Neither part inside nor outside of the body is separate to one another. The body rather exists in a self-reliant system of seen and unseen forming each other. In terms of choreography this means the social construct of my body can never be separated from its organisation and performance of movement. The physical and the idea are the same, but choreography seeks to focus its attention to the physical. Dance limits and trains a physical body, often forgetting to ask why? And toward what.
Create a queer ballet she said, if you find something missing in the world then fix it by making it happen.
In talking about her work Touch Sanitationartist Mierle Laderman Ukeles shook over 8500 sanitation worker’s hands in New York as a durational performance. She said “My working will be the work”. And I think about this performance Volition and it’s particular gestural orientation. Where are the gestures oriented towards? How can I create work that doesn’t produce certain kinds of bodies implicit in ballet? How can I privilege different kinds of bodies. I wanted to make a work that although it was performed it was not performed in relation to an audience. It’s orientation and its logic looked inward. The structure of the choreography is difficult to perform, it takes concentration, it evolves. You just get to watch a body working something out. Thinking through the materiality of that space within a structure of choreography that isn’t disclosed. To reorient these bodies with a subverted navigation system is to deviate from the history of bodies moving in space. I ask, what can my happiness objects be? What can we strive towards instead?
I think about structure here, Berlant says “Things are always changing. And the relation between what’s changing and what’s hoarded in regimes of power, value and norm is a matter of analysis. Structure is what manages those relations as well as their mediations in the world; which is to say their forms.”. The structure here is quite simple. It’s a set of five instructions that repeat. But every instruction doesn’t produce a form. It is a suggestion that from the point at which you are, you have to find a way to navigate through. The structure evolves with the body over time. Deviating from expectations, both of the dancer and the audience, nothing is repeated. This structure allows a process of unlearning in the dancer who can’t go back to familiar movements. Who constantly has to keep moving through the physical restriction of the work.
Gordon Hall riffing off Judith Butler says there are not bodies first and then ideas about bodies. Bodies are always ideas about bodies. They are enmeshed in a conundrum of thinking and becoming, material and unapproachable as we move around, everyday. Karen Barad writes: “’We’ are not outside observers of the world. Nor are we simply located at particular places in the world; rather, we are part of the world in its ongoing intra-activity” (2003, p. 828). Dance then, is not the process of a body moving in space, but the combined forces of that body’s materiality meeting and responding to the world. The bricks and I are always touching. The body is of the world, not separate to it’s materiality. I’m interested in what’s here, not reproducing a ballet that started before me. The thing brick and the thing me make this work together, in relation and consideration of each other. We are always moving, dance just puts brackets around how we move for a certain amount of time.
I’m going to leave this with a proposition. As the subject/ object divide in ontology enforces gendered binaries of traditional dance training, creating a subject male to watch and an object female to perform. To become a thing is to escape this logic. A thing is the referent for an object when it no longer performs the function it was made for. With this in mind, if a body becomes a thing, can it transform beyond the objectification it was taught to produce to perform a different function? Hopefully one with less of Berlant’s structures that inhibit transformation but allow for radical change. For a new kind of moving outside of arbitrary normativity. For a deviancy. For a blankness. For a queer ballet.
This paper was written and presented for Queer(y)ing Creative Practice; “it’s a thing” panel convened by Dr Alison Bennet at the 2018 AAANZ Annual Conference ‘Aesthtics, Politics and Histories; the Social Context of Art. It was written and presented as a speech and is intended to be read aloud.