Beyond the taboo. The reality of a dancing body | Alicja Müller

Podcast / 10 min / e-Scena

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A series of podcasts edited by Julia Hoczyk. Invited authors reflect on C/U Festival from the perspective of time and personal interests. Witold Mrozek talks about the changing role of the festival. Alicja Müller – about breaking taboos. Katarzyna Słoboda – about the reception of dance on a kinetic level. Magdalena Przybysz – about performances with political and social themes. Anna Królica – about the performances which deal with the heritage of dance. Finally, Julia Hoczyk recalls the events that were important for her as an “accompanying critic”.

Alicja Müller

Beyond the taboo. The reality of a dancing body

One of the first editions of Ciało/Umysł Festival, and the first under its present name (2001), was attended by Jérôme Bel, a French (anti)choreographer, who had been shocking Western audience and critics alike already for six years with his radical non-dances and nihilistic experiments with (non)movement. The spectacle Jérôme Bel, presented on the stage in Warsaw, was created in 1995. There, the artist alternately dressed four naked bodies – depersonalized and reduced to the role of theatrical objects – in various meanings and stripped them of them, ironically blowing the culture-nature opposition apart. The duo performers Claire Haenni and Frédéric Seguette puffed their bellies out, pulled their skin, drooled, bit their nails, fondled each other passionately, and tapped each other’s bodies. They also created grotesque-obscene hybrids and mosaics. In one of the scenes, the female performer’s long hair emerged from between the legs of the man standing in front of her and enveloped his phallus in the way that the petals of a flower crown entwine the stamens and pistils. In another one, the male performer was urinating, and the dancer dipped her hands in the urine to erase most of the letters from the words “Stravinsky Igor” written in chalk on the wall, and left the artistic pseudonym of Gordon Sumner – Sting there.

The modern and postmodern history of the dancing body can be told as the story of its successive exposures. What I mean here, however, is not so much the stage nudity as its deconstruction, i.e. choreographies that reveal what’s ugly and abominable, and that are contained in the biological and physiological cracks of existence. In the traditional cultural order, the body, associated with drives and desires, remained on the periphery of the public space which favoured the story of the rational mind. Although modernity has rehabilitated soma and departed from the Cartesian mind-body dualism, our physiological reality remains taboo. The visual peripheries also include people who do not fit the “healthy” norm: the old, sick, dying, androgynous, disabled, non-heteronormative, non-white, or those refusing to participate in the neoliberal spectacle of productivity and innovation. This is one of the reasons why “misfits” are harder to control by normative power – they are just as unpredictable as bodies that cannot be completely subdued.

What’s undesirable in patriarchal societies, who are obsessively guarding their boundaries and cultivating the ideology of norm, had a similar status in classical dance. To simplify, it can be said that ballet, with its proper cult of surreal and extremely disciplined bodies, is a collective, aesthetic fantasy about reality from which otherness has been erased, and that subsequent aesthetic upheavals in choreographic art should be treated as a democratization of its field. The works of the guests of the Ciało/Umysł Festival also expand the boundaries of what can be presented in dance. By analyzing some of them, I’m going to show the enormous emancipatory potential of non-taboo choreographies.

At this point, it is worth paying attention to the changes in Bel’s theatrical activity. The artist gradually abandoned the radically deconstructivist aesthetics of his first non-dances but has remained an unruly anti-virtuoso who keeps on exploring the unclear boundaries between natural bodies and those that can be characterized by certain theatrical qualities. It is clearly visible in such performances as Disabled Theater (2012) and Gala (2015), presented in 2013 and 2017, respectively, which featured people with non-normative psychophysicality, as well as amateur performers.

Bel produced the first of these performances in collaboration with the professional Swiss theater HORA, which employs dancers with disabilities. In this project, the tension between natural and stylized movement, so characteristic of Below’s dramaturgy, has been incorporated into the ironic project of dismantling stereotypes about disability, often understood as the main element that defines the person experiencing it. Disabled Theater was conceived as a casting – people entering the stage one by one say a few words about themselves and then present their greatest talents. The narrative is led in such a way that we believe we are watching real people, not professional artists, and their “truth”. When the director selects the best among them, we feel sorry for the losers, sympathize with the poor cripples who have failed again, and fall into the trap of internalized pity. In reality, however, we are dealing with actresses and actors playing out fictitious successes and failures. Just as the boundary between the theatrical and authentic movement is blurred here, the thesis that every entry of a disabled person on the stage is either an act of exhibitionism or, more or less unconscious, consent to participate in a freak show objectifying the otherness, becomes invalid.

A grotesque body, namely a body that is strange, distorted, overflowing, crippled, marked with a lack or excess, or simply open, i.e. revealing its holes and cracks, has become an obscene symbol of the carnival understood as a subversive alternative to official culture. However, disclosure of what’s abject in a non-normative body can trigger a pathologizing view that objectifies otherness. So how to avoid this trap and release the emancipatory potential of the grotesque body? Raimund Hoghe (1949-2021), found a way to do it in his performance Boléro Variations (2007, presented at the festival in 2011). In this choreography, oscillating between the materialization of emptiness and the celebration of life straight from the tragicomic tales of Almodóvar, the artist played the role of the master of ceremonies. A tiny, very short man in a black suit would emerge from the backstage and then disappear, walk between dancers, or stroll the stage as a lonely demiurge, the charismatic Prospero who is just about to throw off his magic cloak. In the end, the majestic creator turned away from the audience, exposing his naked, deformed back, which he set in a minimalist, ascetic movement. The climax, however, was the scene of casting his hump, as restrained as the entire choreography. By combining the aesthetics of an intimate story with the effects of unfamiliarity, Hoghe eluded easy categorizations, and most of all – he broke the clichés of thinking about the theatricalization of disability as a heroic act of overcoming the limitations of the body-prison.

As the first performances with the participation of disabled people were created in the 1980s, it is difficult to talk about similar projects in terms of shock or transgression. And yet the choreographies about the desire for a non-normative body are still considered particularly obscene. In 2010, Alessandro Sciarroni visited Warsaw with his spectacle titled Young Girl (2007), inspired by the tragic story of Madame Bovary and her forbidden desires. In one of the scenes, Matteo Ramponi, a dancer with a body close to the Apollonian ideal, and Chiara Bersani, a person with dwarfism, simply stood side by side. Undressed, smiling. She cuddled up against his leg, he had to bend a little unnaturally to embrace her arm. A kind of typical picture of shameless lovers, which is, however, detabooing the sexuality of a woman with unusual corporeality, who, unlike figments of porn fantasies of the normals, is not just a passive Other.

The theater stage often becomes a vehicle for emancipation; a space where the Others somehow intercept taboos and transform them into a positive attribute of identity. Prostheses, trolleys, and crutches are also subject to such modifications. The creators transform purely functional objects into aesthetic objects, not so much conditioning their survival as enabling the body to develop a new language of movement, which will not only be a modification of the normative canon but an embodied celebration of otherness. A perfect example of this practice are the hip-hop choreographies by Bill Shannon (born 1970), a dancer on crutches and a… skateboard, who performed at the 2010 edition of the festival. In his dance, as in other performances discussed here, the body with a disability regains control over its own spectacularity – it determines the conditions under which it will be watched, it exposes the conventionality of strict divisions into norm and anomaly, and above all – the deviant nature of the normative system which, fearing the otherness, constantly incapacitates it.