Modern Dance and Gender Relations


View Partially Obstructed, choreographed by Gina Gibney

(25-27 February 2010, L’Agora de la dance Studio, Montreal)


Having been raised and educated in a culture that takes feminism for granted, in the sense that there is a general awareness of patriarchal social and cultural constructions, I often can’t help but ask myself how a certain work of art makes me feel in relation to gender representations. When contemplating my own subjectivity vis-a-vis a work of art, especially a provocative work of art, I tend to think of myself as a woman raised and functioning in the feminist discourse, rather than a feminist per se (yet the distinction may only have become semantic now). Specifically, I tend to contemplate whether I can identify with contemporary representations of femininity, and whether there are certain trends of representations that shift over time.

Rarely are there representations of femininity, even in feminist art, that represent what femininity means to me. Mass media is largely constructed around the spectacle principle, ideologically coded with patriarchal hierarchy, domination, and power struggles. Feminist art, to this day, is more concerned with deconstructing, mocking, mimicking, exaggerating and exposing patriarchy for what it is, rather than constructing positive and inspiring visions of femininity. So what then, are accurate representations of femininity and gender relations today to an audience of 20 to 40 year old “third-wave-feminists”?

Girls lifting girls, girls lifting boys, changing dynamics, breaking patterns and reassembling them into new constellations – where else is the gender discourse made more visible and dynamic than in contemporary dance?

Gina Gibney’s latest piece, View Partially Obstructed, premiered at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York in October 2009, and launched the “Danse contre la violence” project by Agora de la Dance in Montreal on February 25, 2010. Accompanied by a state-of-the-art live projection by Joshue Ott, and music by Ryan Lott, the quintet of three female and two male dancers convey a message “about the delicate balance between what we see in one another and what we don’t, and how we handle those realities” (Dante Puleio, Solos and duets are performed in front and behind sheer screens, which towards the climax of the dance are moved along the back wall, opening the space for all five dancers to dance together unobstructed.

The setting and the title beg the question “why partially obstructed?” What is it that we are not supposed to, or cannot, see?

In terms of gender roles, modern dance is often heavily rooted in classical traditions and rules, which it may or may not undermine or try to break out of. The traditional vocabulary of dance dynamics presents men as carriers, enablers, and restrictors of the female movements; while women are the ones being enabled, guided, supported, and restricted. This polarity of agency and passivity was particularly well illustrated in Hélène Blackburn’s Suites Cruelles – passionate and incredibly rhythmic, yet almost painfully traditional, despite the attempted play on gender stereotypes by including a gay couple, and putting men in high heels.  In every encounter between a man and a woman, the man takes on a dominating, overbearing role, flinging, pushing, pulling, and bending his partner to his will. My fascination with the sheer athleticism and the power of rhythmic exchanges (at times the duets resemble a physical fight) went hand in hand with outrage over the male physical domination of the female body. Femininity was represented as something that could be thrown, caught, pushed, pulled, bent, and lifted at will. Masculinity, while at times made ambiguous or mysterious, was presented as domineering and controlling, stripping the feminine of all agency.

Is there no gender equality in dance? Even when breaking up into individual or synchronized dance, the couples reunited into sequences, in which the male body dominates the female. Are gender dynamics in dance biologically determined – the stronger lift or lead the weaker? Not according to Judith Butler, who stresses the fluidity of gender, and states that gender itself is but performance (Butler, Gender Trouble, 1990). The disappearing line between pain and pleasure explored in Suites Cruelles can also be applied to my discontent with the lack of gender equality in movement, and my fascination and excitement with the power and charged rhythmical movements and exchanges. This duality of visual pleasure can perhaps be explained by today’s women focus on and obsession with power (bell hooks, Communion: The Female Search for Love, 2002).

Just as I am about to write another dance performance off as a patriarchal conformation of power struggles, a quarter into Gibney’s choreography of View Partially Obstructed, a breaking point occurs. Courtney Drasner, one of the female dancers, lifts and supports her male partner, Joshua Palmer, in a vertical turn. A trio sequence follows, in which the traditional gender dynamic is equally undermined and disrupted. The following duet cements this reversal of gender roles, as Drasner picks up and spins her other male partner, Michael Novak, in the air. This highpoint is followed by a dance side by side in synchronized equality, after which he leaves the duet, while she continues dancing alone in a simple modern dance vocabulary.

The climax of the performance peaks with the quintet dancing together, falling in and out of patterns, in which two couples are joined and rearranged by the fifth person; order breaking into disorder and vice versa, until they all dance in unison and a new-found equality, which in turn is eventually broken down  into duets and solos.

Gibney’s representation of femininity is that of graceful equality. Without subjugating either of the genders, she moves past modernist domination and hierarchies, and constructs a new, postmodern, post-feminist gender dynamic in dance. Gibney ultimately reminds us that art has the ability to construct new representations which inspire us, rather than merely perpetuate or deconstruct old ones. She allows art to do what it does best: to construct new visions, new possibilities of communication, interaction, and exchanges, unobstructed by ideological frameworks.

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10 Responses to Modern Dance and Gender Relations

  1. Pingback: Gender Performance and The Realities of Dance Television « Post Binary Gender Chores

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  4. Christy says:

    It’s okay I guess!! Not too bad!!!!

  5. Pingback: Symphonie Dramatique – by Cas Public | Suites Culturelles

  6. Grey says:

    I’m a queer dancer and new choreographer almost a decade later who still sees the issues described here. Doing my best to make art that is accountable to these social challenges.

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