This month, TMP will be embarking on a trip to Illinois for the Going Dutch Festival, an event that celebrates women’s voices in not only dance, but in theater and visual art as well. This festival is an important part of the culture of these art forms. Throughout the years, women’s voices have been lost or drowned out by the work that has been designed by men.
This got me thinking about my artform, and how it has been constructed and shaped by women.
Dance, specifically, has a complex history surrounding gender; in fact, entire dance movements have been sparked purely by the limitations and by the liberation of women. I decided, in the spirit of TMP’s trip to Going Dutch, to take a brief look at the history of women and dance, and see how it has shaped the artform today.
Women and Ballet
It is impossible to talk about western dance without mentioning ballet. Ballet has been a staple of dance since its beginning...most people, when thinking of a dancer, first imagine a ballerina on their toes. Ballet has seeped into western culture (and has made a place in other cultures as well), and has a long history of support and patronage.
It has a long history of dance masters as well.
The ballet storyline is riddled with female dancers under the direction of men. Though, generally, women outnumbered their male counterparts in the ballet world, it was common for men to be the ones to run companies, to choreograph, and/or train their dancers.
It is, at its core, a male manipulation of the female body, giving rise to the stereotype of being ‘ethereal’ and ‘spritelike’, because that is the ideal that men held.
This may come off as harsh; ballet is a beautiful artform, full of attention to detail and extreme skill, but it cannot be denied that the structure of ballet is based on a fanciful version of what being a woman means.
Then, one day, there was a shift.
The Rise of Modern Dance
Isadora Duncan, crowned the founder of modern dance, shed the corset, and dedicated herself to a freeing and more liberal form of dance. This new dance was full of expression...and much less clothing than the tights and leotards of ballet. Oftentimes donned in Greco-Romanesque material, this loose clothing was an extension of the freedom women at this time period sought.
The suffragette movement was on the rise. Women wanted more.
As the socio-political climate changed throughout the years, so did the issues women faced; as Martha Graham rose to prominence, women had long since been captive to rigidity and the concept of being ‘pure’. As a result, much of what was on Graham’s mind was sexual freedom, passion, and pain.
Martha Graham is arguably the most famous modern dancer in history; her legacy is everywhere, and her technique is still widely practiced. She wore sexuality on her sleeve, she was powerfully female, and the world was listening.
Eventually, the social climate shifted yet again in the 60’s, and alongside--and somewhat opposed to--the hippie movement ran postmodern dance.
In a strange turn of events, after celebrating women’s sexuality for so long, women began worrying that their worth was becoming too intrinsically linked to their sexuality. They asked themselves why the body had these types of connotations, especially a female one. In an effort to strip the body of all sexuality, they took an entirely new approach.
Their work at this time was abstract, oftentimes detached, and inherently mindful. Due to the lack of theatricality, postmodern dance required inviting in the observer, rather than displaying work to them on a platter.
As with modern dance, postmodern dance was dominated by women; Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Simone Forti are just a few dance giants that rose to prominence during this time. Though the postmodern movement was short-lived in comparison to the longevity of modernism, its effects forever changed the dance scene.
Contemporary Dance and the Now
Dance now is more difficult to define, considering we are living it in the moment. There has been, over the years, more bleeding through disciplines, and many dance forms are blends of different techniques, theories, and practices.
With the blends in discipline, contemporary dance is finding itself less female-dominated than its predecessors. Alongside strong women choreographers and directors, such as Crystal Pite, there are just as many, if not more, strong male ones as well (Wayne Mcgregor, for one). It’s too soon to say what effect this will have on the artform as a whole, and there appears to be a lot of conflicting commentary on whether or not women are being underrepresented in choreographic or directorship roles (see here as well as the highly controversial comments made by Akram Khan here).
Regardless your opinions, we are in an age of change. Not only has there been a tip of the scale as far as male/female goes, there is also a wave of recognition as to gender as a whole; gender fluidity, androgyny, and many other ‘unclassical’ takes on the age-old gender binary is creating new ideas and social constructs this very moment. As an art form, this is sure to be reflected in dance in some way as the years roll on.
My own experiences have been pretty specific; since completion of college, I have been working with The Movement Project. TMP is currently an all-female company, including its founders and artistic directors, Megan Lee Gargano and Rebecca J. Leuszler. Many of the company’s collaborators and guest artists have been female as well.
That is certainly not to say there is no sexism in the dance community; despite the success the company has seen, many of us have had to deal with not being taken as seriously as our male colleagues, especially where choreography, teaching, and running a company is concerned. Luckily, at least for me, these unpleasant encounters are few and far between. Others may not be so lucky.
As for the women, dance, and sexuality aspect of the conversation, I’ve met people with all kinds of opinions. Many think it is impossible for a woman to be put on stage and not be at least vaguely sexualized given our current social climate. Some think it is possible to strip that sexualization given appropriate circumstances.
Others ask, why bother removing sex or sexuality from the female body at all? And then, of course, you have people like me who tend to disregard the thought of sexuality entirely when making work; the result is the result, and how people view the work is up to them.
Being alive in the era of contemporary dance has somewhat re-embraced the more ‘passionate’ aspects of dancing by (mostly) blending with other forms of dance. While work is oftentimes abstract, the drier headiness of postmodernism is less prominent...and as a result, all of us who are active in the community are influenced at least a little by this shift.
Women and Dance
Women have shaped dance into what it is today; female choreographers and movers have shaken up previous dance moulds throughout history, and reflected the obstacles of the times in their work. What we are seeing now is yet another shift; how will the female voice be represented? Does the male voice outweigh women with the rise of contemporary dance?
Women have worked and lived through times of silence and times of liberation; whatever the future holds for us, especially given the current socio-political climate, we need to make sure that we, wherever we are, are heard. Are present.
Are still moving.