You’ve spoken about the idea that girls ‘are taught to be restrained and to endeavour to just become an image, while boys are taught to take up space’ in dance. Can you talk a bit about how that plays out?
There has been a big push in the last 10-15 years to get boys engaged with dance from a young age. The dance classes are associated with the notion that boys are to be kept busy, active and entertained. Boys’ only classes polarise gender and deal with ideas of strength and energy. This push continues into the professional world (auditions for dancers are mainly for men, job offers are taken up by men and male choreographers get more support through funding and residencies). In contrast, women in ballet (and many other dance roles) are there to be displayed. Traditionally, they have little autonomy over how their bodies are presented.
Do you think that plays out in everyday life, too?
Definitely – when we ask, what is female embodiment if we resist it as a naturalised condition? Is it about female sexuality or spatial occupation? Is there a form of female embodiment that enables a woman to shut down her capabilities for desire and pleasure? For example, when I walk down the street or when I am on the tube, do I physically make myself small or move out of the way for other people who don’t do the same for me? And if I do, if I were to be offered space, would I be able to take it or am I conditioned in such a way so as not to? All forms of embodiment emerge through this discursive engagement with what it is to be or have a body. What would happen if we taught girls to take up space inside and outside of the dance class?
How has dance and performance art suffered as a result of these attitudes?
Performance has a history of men deciding what to do with female bodies. Male choreographers, directors and artists have decided how to portray our femininity or what ‘femininity’ is. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion in dance circles about the ‘rape duet’. The rape duet is a particular type of interaction between a male and female dancer where the female dancer is essentially trying to escape the male dancer and he keeps grabbing her. Luke Jennings’ review of the Royal Ballet’s recent triple bill, entitled Yet more Sexual Violence talks about this. He writes: ‘None of these works, in which female characters are defined by their passivity and victimhood, was created by a woman’.
How does Woman SRSLY challenge these reductive attitudes toward female performers?
We wanted to know if there was a way to set up a space for the live female body that would not be further implicated, through the work, with a patriarchal notion of what it means to be female. We wanted to establish a space that could acknowledge female desire instead of just dealing with bodies at risk from desire because, of course, some of us want to be looked at. Looked at on our own terms.
How do you explore that tension between wanting to be looked at as a female performer, but not be oppressed by such a gaze?
The danger in these sorts of discussions is the precarity of desire vs oppression. On the one hand you have radical feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin who argued that Female sexuality is grounded in the idea of rape; that it exists as a counterpart to it, as a defence against it. This lead to their ideas being monopolised to further suppress female sexuality. At the same time, many older women have told me that the sexual liberation of the 60's was also difficult for women. It was not so much about sexual liberation but the perception of a ‘granted access’ – a green light for men. There is a new wave of feminism, which Woman SRSLY is riding, that seems to reconcile these two opposing attitudes. I think it is important to try and acknowledge female desire whilst, at the same time, acknowledging the idea that what you put out might not be perceived in the way that you want it to be.
We all understand that being human is to be vulnerable to each other but, in our socio-political context, the distribution of vulnerability and power is uneven. Woman SRSLY are saying that women should also have the right to set the power dynamic between viewer and subject. That is not to say that men should never touch or look at women, or that men are not vulnerable to violence. Rather, we want to ask what systems are in place that permit power to be distributed so unevenly? It’s about feeling safe and able to invite touch, want to be seen and even, perhaps, invite disembodiment. This is why it is important to think about the context and intention of a work (where a work is being performed, for who and why) and where the power lies.
How do dance and performance help to shake the foundations of wider power structures that perpetuate gender inequality?
I believe that all forms of radical art are, and have always been, at the root of political and cultural movements seeking to bring about change. Art is a place. A place that encourages self-expression, and a heightened, often risk-taking, communication between the artist and society.
You’ve spoken about the importance of ‘celebration’ in these spaces rather than aggression – why is it important?
We want to celebrate female-identified and socialised artists and we want to celebrate the people who support this movement through collaborating as audience members. We want female artists to be happy about presenting their work in a lively environment that values their form of self-expression whether it be serious in concept or not.
Lastly, what do you love about dance and performance?
I love the sense of community that can come from it. There’s something about moving together in a space that provokes this. Or simply the presence of bodies within a space all joined by some sort of common goal. I also love that making work allows you to communicate in a more creative way.
Interview by Madeleine Dunnigan
Opening photography by Henry Gorse
Photography by Sam Rubinstein
Grace Nicol’s piece, ‘Balloons’, will be performed by Valerie Ebuwa at the Ladybeard’s Beauty Issue Launch on 28 April at Hackney Showroom. Tickets available here.