By Julia de Rosenwerth
When an animal enters an unfamiliar space for the first time, or encounters another animal that is larger or more threatening than itself, it becomes very alert and cautious. When a woman enters the public space, something very similar often occurs. For many women, a walk down a busy street is often accompanied by a sense of tension. The possibility of being sexualised, policed and assessed is constantly two steps ahead or just around the corner. Catcalls and whistles or requests to cheer up and smile are common. Of course, this is not always the case. Many women are able to capture a sense of freedom when in public, but it is always a choice, always at a stretch and always when in the right mind-set.
Why women constantly find themselves in misogynistic environments is due to a number of things (which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into here), that all relate to the patriarchal system we operate in and the ways in which that affects how women are imagined, conceptualised and regarded. Shallow and misguided stereotypes are woven into public consciousness and affect our daily experiences.
Yet, resistance and challenge come in many forms and can be attained through different strategies. Time and time again, art has been used as a subversive tool to destabilise problematic societal norms. In performance especially because the ‘world’ you create for your work to exist in is constructed; you can add and subtract, abstract and mystify as you please.
Presenting subversive images of women (alternative to how we are viewed in normative society) becomes a form of resistance. I would like to discuss this more with an example. In 2015 I was privileged to be able to work as an understudy on a production called Run! by South African choreographer and artist Nicola Elliott.
Run! was originally performed in 2013; the same year that Elliott received the Standard Bank Artist of the Year award for dance. The cast of talented performers include Jori Snell, Thalia Laric, Adriana Jamisse, Joy Millar (2013), Ciara Barron (2015) and Mareli Stolp (pianist). A prominent aspect of the production explores and subverts how women are perceived and exist within society, by presenting their experience as fragmented, complex and layered.
Run! begins by presenting the metaphor of the cautious, suspicious animal. As the four female performers enter the performance area, they direct their attention toward each other and then to the audience. Through the performers’ visible tension, the audience is collectively presented as a potential threat. In the context of the work, this threat is related to that of women’s public experience.
Elliot interrogates the notion of a woman by referencing the sexualised female body. Elements relating to the virgin / mother / whore complex surface. She simultaneously plays into stereotypes and deviates from them – a push and pull. The four performers wear white tennis-style gear: takkies, shirts and very short skirts. The costume is both innocent and seductive. This concept is developed by the movement language. Athletic movements such as tennis stances, running and lifts are interspersed with moments of childlike play: follow the leader, catch and playing with the back curtain. Through these elements, images of youth, athleticism, innocence and purity are created. However, this is contrasted by provocative aspects of the work. For example, the short skirts and visible red underwear.
In Run! the vagina is both sexualised and de-sexualised by an emphasis on seduction and functionality, childbirth and menstruation. For example, there is a moment when the dancers enter the stage very matter-of-factly, stand with their backs to the audience and, with their hands through their upper thighs, bend forward whilst opening their hands
Humorously, they trick the audience by teasing them provocatively and then surprising them with the strange, slightly grotesque image created by their hands. Playing with audience expectation, these provocative poses quickly become images relating to childbirth. This action places emphasis on the functionality of the vagina, as a connection is drawn between the opening of the dancers’ hands and the capacity that most women’s bodies have for being able to birth a child. In Run!, the initial sense of purity conveyed by the costumes and movements, is messily imbued with sexual and maternal nuances.
Elliott constantly subverts the notion of women being exclusively soft and fragile by using the metaphor of the cautious animal at the beginning of the production. This is developed through the athletic movements and costumes. These women are clearly strong, defiant and able. That being said, Elliott also tries to engage the performers’ more subtle qualities which help create fuller, more sensitive female subjects. Moments of group inter-connectivity, intuitive, improvised moments between the dancers and points of absolute stillness provide a counterpoint to the otherwise over-stipulated strength of the performers.
This softness is bolstered by the tentative, ebbing and flowing piano solo performed by Mareli Stolp and the gracious “bowing” section in which the performers slowly shift and turn in a tight square, creating fluid, geometric forms. These moments reveal something of the private space of women and create interesting dialogues with the hardness of the women in other sections.
In Run! the performers are given the space to be strong, defiant and unapologetic, yet also fragile, vulnerable and soft. In this context, neither state has negative connotations. The performers have a certain freedom: they play into the expectations placed upon them, but also actively defy them – implying that they know what is expected of them, but choose to go against it. This complex, autonomous female experience becomes a primary site of resistance.
Run! is a dance performance that subverts and attempts to destabilise problematic societal norms affecting women. This happens in a performative context, which I have suggested is a constructed environment that is slightly removed and able to be controlled. Such an environment provides the space (otherwise almost wholly denied to women) to explore and present alternative empowering images of women. Thus, Run! is a good example of how art exists in relation to society and reveals its ability to make change, inspire and subvert. This both validates art and highlights its potential role to create social change.
Images: Michelle Morgan (cuepics)