As an artistic medium that uses the human body as its primary tool of creation, dance has the potential to disrupt dominant gender stereotypes. Dancers’ bodies are formed and transformed through intense daily training and can challenge our thinking about what bodies are capable of (and what those bodies are permitted to do). Yet, at the same time, dance may also reinforce gender stereotypes by employing movement, costumes or choreographic formats that continue to frame men and women not only in relation to each other but also as polar opposites.
I spoke with four Montréal-based contemporary dance artists about how questions around gender factor into their work and how they think that current dance practices in Canada might be challenging (or cementing) our ideas surrounding gender identity and expression. Sasha Kleinplatz is a contemporary dance choreographer. In addition to her own work, she and partner Andrew Tay created Wants&Needs Danse, a company that brings contemporary dance to a greater variety of audiences through performance series such as Piss in the Pool, Short&Sweet and Involved. Dana Michel is a choreographer and performer who explores the disorderly multiplicity of identity using intuitive improvisation. George Stamos is an artist and educator. His current research includes creation projects exploring gender representations in contemporary dance and an examination of how his teaching can be adapted to meet the needs of people living with autism. Sarah Williams is a dancer, rehearsal director and choreographer. For more than thirty years she has performed onstage and in film in the works of prominent directors and choreographers both nationally and internationally. Most recently she created Dawns Ysbrydion/Ghost Dance with Welsh performance artist Eddie Ladd.
Note: Due to technical difficulties, Dana Michel was unfortunately only able to participate in the first half of the conversation.
Helen Simard Is gender something you think about when you’re creating or performing work?
George Stamos I consider gender a lot in my work. Because it’s there. Even though it might not be there in my intentions, it’s there in the way people read it. For the audience, it’s in the room. People assign gender to bodies, and that informs how they interpret the bodies and read the choreography. I’ve accepted that, even though I’ve tried to challenge it. I’ve accepted that it’s something that potentially exists when an audience receives a work.
Sarah Williams I don’t think you can’t consider it. I think it’s not considered often, but I don’t understand how people can ignore it, because there’s always a reading.
Sasha Kleinplatz I made this piece with only men called Chorus II. I was interested in exploring a queering of masculinity, male friendship and male touch. Even though I like the work a lot, I was surprised to realize that having a piece with only men in the cast has a monetary cachet that I started to find really problematic. I’m going to put a woman in the work, and I’m going to tell presenters who want to buy it because it’s a ‘man’ piece, ‘Well it’s not a man piece anymore. And if you’re not going to buy it for that reason, well let’s have that discussion.’
Dana Michel The way I address gender in my work has shifted over the years. When I was a kid and a teenager, I thought of myself as a tomboy. I was really sporty and I liked to wear my clothes a certain way. But when I started making dance, I had a kind of obsession with trying to reclaim some sense of hyperfemininity, or trying to explore and poke my fingers into what being a sexual female meant. I wanted to create a sort of alterego, a superhero sexual being who had almost nothing to do with me, going to an extreme opposite of what I thought I was, to try it on. But at a certain point, maybe five years ago or so, I started thinking that maybe the questions I was asking were a little too black and white. There doesn’t need to be this extreme binary that I was functioning in or under the assumption of. It doesn’t need to be that because I like to wear a certain kind of shirt that it means I’m manly, or because I have a certain body morphology that it means I’m not feminine. These things don’t have to mean I’m a woman or I’m a man, or define my sexuality. And having a more non-binary thought process was kind of a release moment for me. And accepting this type of fluidity meant that questioning gender didn’t have to be so present in my work. I mean, it’s still there, but it’s not the principal subject matter. It doesn’t touch the form as much anymore.
HS Something I often think about is how, whether we like it or not, people assign gender to bodies when they see them. In the Western world, there is a history of female bodies being sexualized and of male bodies dominating female bodies. So even though dance can present female bodies as being strong and powerful, or male bodies as graceful and vulnerable, as soon as we put male and female bodies together onstage, dance performances can be read through the dominant gender stereotypes. How can we break these stereotypes in performances if spectators are reading it through the lens of their expectations of gender? Is it possible to disrupt these representations or are we stuck with them?
SW I keep hoping we’re not stuck with them. But in dance performance I do feel like we are not pushing out of this constraint often enough. We need to question this binary thinking, as Dana was saying. Gender is much more fluid than that. But dance seems to often position masculinity against femininity. Of course, this is a generalization; there are people whose work is challenging gender stereotypes. But often the work that gets popular, the work that is economically successful, isn’t going that direction. It’s a bit disheartening.
SK I’m always surprised to see a lot of work being programmed that is hyper-heteronormative, hyper-cisnormative, presenting gender as binary and as it is expected. It’s so weird for me because a lot of the people I’m close to are queer artists whose work is saying fuck gender, like, really fuck with gender and explode it so that it can’t even have a voice like it used to. So there’s this massive disconnect between what the communities I spend time with value in terms of performance of gender and what I see when I look into bigger theatres or festivals that are still presenting work with very stereotypical readings of gender to their public. I think that maybe they think that contemporary dance is already hard for a public to understand and absorb, so they maintain a very hetero bubble around it. So that the work can be artistically challenging but that the audience still has something to hang onto, which is the male/female relationship. It just seems a bit old-fashioned. We know that there is so much diversity in the expression of the self. So why is dance still using gender stereotypes as a sort of security blanket for the public?
GS I think there’s an overly simplistic rationalizing that happens in the packaging of [dance] works, and many presenters and critics don’t know how to address gender fluidity. As artists we need to think carefully about how institutions package our work and how we define ourselves. For example, I made a piece called Situations recently that is about masculinity, but I’m trying to challenge assumptions about masculinity by presenting a number of takes on what it could be. Which isn’t easy, because you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position in relation to the critics who may not know how to write about it, or in relation to presenters who want to ‘get’ the work right away if they are going to book it. They may not want to think or question too much; they just want it to be delivered easily. But maybe we should be encouraging people to embrace challenging work. And maybe ‘getting it’ right away isn’t always the best thing. Maybe seeing work that makes us think, ‘Oh, that confused me’ is okay too. We also need to challenge assumptions about what the public is going to think.
DM I don’t really know how conscious a lot of presenters are about the choices they’re making or not making in regards to the kind of work that gets programmed and how gender is represented or not in the work. I don’t know how far they take that conversation.
SW We need to be encouraging discourse. It seems like we’re so afraid to talk about work other than on a very surface level. We need to develop our thinking with works that are challenging and not easy to understand.
SK I don’t think you can talk about this without talking about economics as well. I feel that we start seeing a lot more super gendered, heteronormative work when the economy is bad. We start hearing presenters talking about getting butts in seats, and there is a lot of stress and worry about the economy of the art. But what is your responsibility to the ecology of your art, as a presenter? Should you not be as responsible towards the ecology of your art as you are to getting butts in seats?
SW We need to take the time to build and nourish spaces that allow for challenging and disruptive work. And it takes time. It might take a few years, but we need presenters willing to do this, to build and nourish artists and audiences. You need to take risks. Look at the festivals that are taking risks: for example, Festival Phénomena here in Montréal. It’s growing every year. People do come out, love the work and are supportive of the festival.
DM I think that I’ve made it such that I’m making work in places that allow me to do whatever I want, making work in spaces where the things [I’m doing] don’t even feel risky. It just feels like I was able to do things in the way I needed to do them, without thinking about things like funding or the butts in seats. These are my favourite places to make work – events and festivals like Rhubarb Festival [in Toronto], Short&Sweet and Piss in the Pool [in Montréal]. These places are where I cultivated my art-making process. So it’s become quite normal for me to do whatever I want to do. And it doesn’t feel like I’m being purposefully disruptive, or as though I’m trying to ruffle the surface of anything.
HS I wonder though, because bodies in dance are often considered to be attractive ones by western beauty standards, and [ones] that fit into our traditional understandings of masculinity and femininity. So do we get to be disruptive in some ways while being expected to conform to other sets of gender codes?
SK Sometimes I see work and the bodies are so beautiful, and there is a consciousness of the bodies being so beautiful. And I ask myself, ‘What does it mean?’ What does it mean that in dance we valorize a certain type of body and that we are all supposed to come see this beautiful body? I mean, I like greatness, physical greatness, but valuing an ‘aesthetic greatness’ of the body, that’s just weird to me. It seems like a weird thing to value. But it definitely means that only some people get to be seen and some people don’t get that chance.
GS Yeah, I can’t take super heteronormative beauty standards seriously either, unless they are being used as satire. It makes sense to use those standards in jokes [laughs]. But I realize the things I find laughable are not intended to be jokes. They were actually being serious.
SK There’s always the exceptions to the norms, but it almost feels sometimes like there is this really narrow passage, and it only lets through one non-normative body at a time, and then people say ‘Look, we supported this one person!’ And that’s awesome, but why can there only be one exception to the rule at a time?
GS There’s a difference between tokenism and diversity. Sometimes I think that people want to claim diversity, but in reality it’s not actually that diverse.
HS Sarah, you’ve had an incredible and long career as a dancer. Do you find that expectations placed on female dancers and their bodies have changed over the years?
SW I don’t think it’s changed a great deal. There’s this selfawareness that has to be present so it can improve and so women can fight for a place and be presented in a way they feel respected. There are so many women who are so incredible, but there is not enough work to support them all. Why are there not more opportunities for them? I’m really impressed by the high standards that women have in dance. I like the fact that women are working so hard to be really good at what they do, that they’re really interested in and committed to what they do. I would like to see more women in the powerful and influential positions in dance. The body image has changed somewhat … but I’ve heard really weird things said in the dance studio like, ‘I don’t think that you’ll look good in that red dress,’ or ‘My work makes you look so feminine,’ or ‘Should we go with masculine costuming?’ What does this even mean? Why should these things be a concern? I know I can do this work; I can dance this work. That’s what should matter.
HS Do you find that how much you can challenge gender norms depends on the context that you are in? Is it different when you are creating your own work or when you are dancing in someone else’s work?
SW I usually try to make choices where I don’t find myself in work situations where I have to compromise my values. But of course I have in my career found myself in places where I wasn’t happy with what was going on. I always speak up when I have found myself in a situation like that. But when you are working on projects, you aren’t always in the driver’s seat, so you don’t always have the power to make changes.
GS As a dancer, after many years of being in heteronormative duets, having to be ‘the guy,’ feeling like I was being asked to represent sexism and that I was participating in upholding gender stereotypes, I stopped taking jobs or even pursuing work with certain choreographers. That is a choice that has affected my livelihood because, of course, it means that I make less money dancing now.
HS When I think about dance that was being made thirty years ago, coming out of the postmodern movement, there was a lot of work that was trying to challenge gender stereotypes. We saw women and men lifting each other, partnering in ways that made us see and think about gender differently. Now, when I come out of shows, I sometimes feel that the kind of physicality that has been presented, or the way that male and female bodies have been interacting, has created images of violence against women. We’re seeing dysfunctional representations of men and women’s relationships, and I wonder why we are valorizing or romanticizing these dysfunctional interactions.
SK These images get used as some kind of sexy shock tactic. But rape or domestic abuse or deeply dysfunctional relationships are not ‘sexy.’ And it’s very strange to have it represented this way in dance shows. It’s like ‘Look at all these terrible things happening,’ but then, at the end, ‘Oh, they’re ok, and they’re crying! You should be so touched!’ And I’m like, what does this have to do with anything?
GS Mmm hmm. Hallelujah to that!
SW And again it’s of course these beautiful bodies being violent towards each other, so that’s adding another layer to the problem.
GS I think we have a fascination with dramatizing trauma and the heroics of that. ‘Look how strong she is! She can take it!’ Or ‘Look how strong he is! He can give it!’ And it’s kind of boring. As a spectator, I check out. And after sitting through a show where three women are murdered on stage, when I try to have conversations about it, what’s even scarier is that some people don’t even see the violence.
SW I think we saw that one together [both laugh].
GS Like actually, actually strangled. They’re dead. The men are killing women onstage.
SW And in the first five minutes!
GS And afterwards, someone asked ‘What did you think?’ And I said, ‘Well I thought there was some violence against women, and I was questioning what that was about.’ And they’re like ‘Oh, really? You saw violence?’ As if I’m really sensitive or something. No, it’s actually happening. And people aren’t seeing it. It’s as if it’s just part of an aesthetic and doesn’t have an impact. And that’s kind of scary. Part of the postmodern movement was theoretically about challenging the classical idealistic view of the body and looking at the reality of life, warts and all, and that still needs to happen, but this idealized dysfunction just feels like empty tricks. When do we get to a point where it’s okay to let romanticizing dysfunction go too?
HS So can we let it go? Where can we go from here? Where would you like to take your work, and how do you think that your work can help challenge our understandings of gender?
SW I’d like it to move forward. I’d like to see diversity not being tokenism, diversity just being there – to get rid of binaries, to let things be fluid.
GS I’d like to continue challenging ideas of what’s ‘marginal’ and what’s ‘normal,’ to argue the normalcy of marginal spaces. I mean, they’re everywhere! I’d like to encourage that more.
SK I’d like to see more queer and trans bodies in Canadian dance shows. I’d like to see a plurality of humans in positions of power for presenting and curating and teaching. I’d like to see a plurality of humans defining contemporaneity, defining the avant-garde, defining what it means to make groundbreaking work. Because I think these things are still mainly being defined by white men. And I’d like the people who are feeling threatened by these discussions, whether it’s conscious or not, to take a breath, and ask themselves: What privilege has maintaining a tradition of deeply hetero/cisnormative images conferred upon me, as an artist or a dancer or presenter? And am I willing to give up some of this privilege so that the [dance] community can become less homogenous? So for me, yes it means discussing what ends up onstage, but it’s also in the administration and in the teaching of dance.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue.