Dancing Bo(d)ys: Masculinity in VDT’s "SHUT DOWN"
Politics is heavily woven within the fabric of dance theatre. Several things can make a piece political, be it the mode of expression used, the artist’s political views/influences, or the fact that the "person" is at the forefront of any piece. Choosing one mode of expression in a piece over another, such as the use of physical theatre over classical ballet, can root it in a rich history that contextualizes the piece’s intention. The politics of a piece can also be heavily influenced by a choreographer's or company’s views, making dance theatre a complex domain that encompasses various voices, attitudes, and experiences. It is the use of the body that makes dance theatre inherently political. Dance is performed by the body, or is embodied, and this brings forward politics of identity, race, class, and gender.
Individually, dance and theatre are socially constructed domains. Dance theatre, being a combination of both, makes it a socio-cultural tool that engages with and reflects the society in which it is constructed. Originally recognized as Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater, it is a mode of expression that takes the body and explores its physical and metaphysical experiences (Price, 1990). This is primarily the reason that social issues are at the forefront of many artists’ and companies’ productions. The body, being central to dance theatre, has a history of representations, and using the body can either stand as a transcendent or acceptant of these representations. Coined as "body history" by Laurence Goldstein, a prolific editor and writer on representations of male and female bodies in literature and popular media, in his 1994 work: The Male Body: Features, Destinies, Exposures. It is the refocusing of attention away from leaders, policies, and organizations, toward the daily physical life of ordinary people (Goldstein, 1994). This in itself is a transcendence of institutional influences on the body. The body being central to performance, or performance being central to it, is due to its performative nature of gender, race, and class. Subsequently, the body is a reflection of the personal, and the personal is political. Therefore, engaging with dance theatre and its many forms is representative of new and other ways of knowing that will always challenge the status quo.
Thus, dance theatre’s forms of movement and expression, and its use of the body are two elements that are inherently important in considering a piece’s political claims. Interdependent to them, and not to be overlooked, is intention. As suggested earlier, the influence of an artist or collective of creatives can heighten the political capacity of a piece. This tripartite nature of dance theatre offers rich material across the board, which can often be difficult to dissect or access. Its subjectivity is both inviting and exclusive for audiences, suggesting how the nuance of dance theatre is in its political capacity. It continuously aims to push the boundaries of society and its various constructions.
Artists such as Charlotte Vincent are a prime example of this, creating work that communicates and investigates social-political issues from new and forward epistemological viewpoints. Vincent’s feminist perspective influences her company’s production of works, where Vincent Dance Theatre (VDT) becomes a collective body of her political view points, and that of her performers’ political influences as well. VDT’s works have explored various social issues, ranging from sexuality and gender performativity to issues of parenthood, power, ability, and disability. The body of works in VDT’s collection illustrates a critical engagement with issues surrounding identity, current events, and different modes of expression, giving their pieces a rich political nature.
SHUT DOWN (VDT, 2017), for instance, is acclaimed for forward and eclectic explorations of masculinity, a focus point of feminist and academic discourses at the turn of the century (Goldstein, 1994). Made of a full male cast, issues of masculinity permeate it from the onset. VDT’s SHUT DOWN explores masculinity in the contemporary world, presenting the performer’s relations to topics of fatherhood, sexuality, power, expression, and mental health, among others. It sets out to explore embodied masculine behavior and performativity from a feminist lens through "metaphor and literality" (Vincent, 2017). Vincent, being a female, feminist director, engages with the material from a feminist point of view. This permits the exploration of masculinity across the different dimensions, intersecting age and sexuality, among other elements. The material, although generated from a male perspective, is framed through a feminist one, which allows the work to be holistic as it uses "diversity in experience (as an) archetypal metaphor for the internal and external struggle" of socially constructed masculinity and gendered experiences (Vincent, 2017).
SHUT DOWN is materialized from personal experience and encompasses literal references to institutional influences that affect the person. This is due to the multidisciplinary nature of the piece, which adopts the use of music, voice, words, and dance. All of these elements frame the exploration of masculinity into topics of fatherhood, sex and sexuality, power and leadership, aggression and expression, physical culture/physicality (sports), and anxiety and mental health. This exploration occurs through the use of space and body. A significant quality of VDT’s SHUT DOWN is it's being a dance theatre piece. The characteristics of dance theatre position the "player as a performer, rather than being aligned to the position of an actor within the physical theatre" (Grogan, 2016).
Such detail contributes interdisciplinary demands to VDT’s work, making their work versatile and accessible, beyond the representations of physical theatre. One primary example is their use of the body. Movement isn’t restricted to physical movement, as it is in physical theatre, and there is engagement with movement through voice as well. This versatility is evident in SHUT DOWN, as there is a combination of utterances, speech through spoken word and rap, alongside physical movement. Such a combination offers a versatile exploration of masculinity, as both explicit and implicit references can be made through the body, stretching the conversation on masculinity beyond physical behavioral codes to a more emotional and cognitive exploration of conditioning on the male identity.
The use of space is also influenced by the mode of expression. In SHUT DOWN, space is used by the performers as part of their performance, or embodied experiences, to construct actuality into the piece. This "playspace" is a space that contributes to the narrative as it places the performance within the "here and now"(Grogan, 2016). This leaves no room for passivity and emphasizes the exploration of masculinity as a current, unavoidable topic. Furthermore, the performers’ abilities to shape and reshape the space offers this sense of meta-actuality, where the "actual or embodied/lived real space, simultaneously functions as theatricalized thematic or metaphor" (Grogan, 2016). This quality is what charges VDT’s piece with a sense of literality, based on metaphor. The blank, white space serves to reflect a blank canvas that continuously evolves as the performers interact with it. This metaphor, when combined with the literal meanings from the performers’ written words, drawn images, or the meaning from the spoken word and rap, takes their experiences to another level of understanding. This accessibility, based on the use of space and body, creates a political commentary on the confusion around masculinity caused by varying precepts of masculine identity. With a variety of topics, the playspace in SHUT DOWN offers the audience a corporeal and holistic exploration of masculinity that demands their attention with its sense of immediacy. The space develops, much like a body does, filled with various influences. The evolving space characterizes the movement between intersections of masculinity such as age and sexuality, and symbolizes the chaos and confusion of contemporary masculinity by creating a physical and tangible representation of the layers of influence on the development of the masculine identity.
VDT’s use of street and contemporary dance heightens the political capacity of the piece as well. Street dance is utilized by a majority male population, and in this context can be recognized as a motif of gender expression. Dance can offer an insight into the lived experience of masculinity through gender expression, be it by contradicting the male body and questioning stereotypes, or by allowing the male body to heighten its certain qualities. Street dance in this case "allows them to conform to a more traditionally masculine identity" (Glegg, Owton, & Allen-Collinson, 2016). This choice works within the confines of traditional masculine expression, to explore how the boundaries and limitations of masculinity change according to the topic, and personal perspectives, be it related to age, sexuality, or physical culture. References to so-called male physical culture are seamlessly intersected with issues of age and sexuality, for instance by including the act of rugby playing with dance. The messaging that comes from the play between the intersections of masculinity and its limitations in expression is made accessible because of the use of street dance, which provides a framework for a thorough exploration of the complexities of the "shape" of the contemporary male identity. In moments like this, striking questions are brought forward about the shape of masculinity, as influenced by social institutions, versus the personal shaping of masculinity through lived experience.
With further and equally striking examples of political practice within this piece, VDT’s interdisciplinary piece is an exemplar of political work in contemporary dance theatre, as SHUT DOWN operates outside of binary systems and engages within diversity to "challenge conventional values in dance and gender politics" (SHUT DOWN Explained, 2017). Based on dance theatre expression, it intends to reference reality (Norbert, 1998). This art form liberates and provides agency to and for those that participate, be it the performers or audience members. As in its intention, it will scrutinize, challenge, and push at the boundaries on which reality is based. The discipline of dance theatre and the essence of the body are critical in emphasizing personal and attainable agency, which will always be political as that message can influence radical change in humankind (Norbert, 1998).
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Figure 1: Beveridge, & Stefanoff, K. S. (2022). The Rite of Spring. Adelaide Festival Review. Image. Retrieved from: https://glamadelaide.com.au/adelaide-festival-review-the-rite-of-spring-common-grounds/
Figure 2: Charlotte, V. (2017c). SHUT DOWN. Vincent Dance Theatre: Productions. Image. Retrieved from: https://www.vincentdt.com/project/shut-down/
Figure 3: Charlotte, V. (2017b). SHUT DOWN. Vincent Dance Theatre: Articles and Writing. Image. Retrieved from: https://www.vincentdt.com/press/articles-writing/
Figure 4: Charlotte, V. (2017). SHUT DOWN. Vincent Dance Theatre: The Company. Image. Retrieved from: https://www.vincentdt.com/about-us/the-company/