Questions on Obedient Art: Visible images and compliant bodies in twenty-first century Ireland

Christmas Day is prime time for television programmers. In the midst of an unchallenging collection of soap opera specials and popular action movies, Christmas Day 2002 was the day chosen by RTÉ, Ireland’s state broadcaster, to screen Hit and Run, a dance film by Coiscéim Dance Theatre that they co-financed along with Bord Scannán na h-Éireann (The Irish Film Board) and An Chomhairle Ealaíon (The Arts Council). This is either an indication of dance’s increased visibility and importance in Irish society or a very unusual decision by television programmers.

The artistic pedigree of the film is without question: it won the Paula Citron Award for Choreography for the Camera at the Moving Pictures Festival 2002 in Toronto and best film at Dance in Camera 2003 in New York. But RTÉ’s programmers usually tend not to use artistic pedigree as a factor in programming Christmas Day viewing, and so for many this was a symbol of dance’s relevance in popular culture in twenty-first century Ireland. The film’s characters are readily identifiable in today’s society. In the synopsis they are “young, urban and ready for action. They live by night. No limits but rules. They dress well – they must, it’s one of the rules. And so they groom themselves for business. As they gather they evaluate one another.” Through the eyes of the Christmas Day audience the young, good-looking dancers probably seem like white-collar professionals and although they may be said to be out for “a dangerous nights fun”, the film rarely get sinister. Instead we see the confident bodies inhabiting a dilapidated space and this, along with the resonance of the setting within the post-industrial Celtic Tiger era, suggests the young affluent Celtic Cubs are playing in their playground, a derelict factory. There is limpid symbolism in a desolate and abandoned blue-collar working environment conquered and inhabited with joy by the affluent. In some ways this reading is reflected in Coiscéim itself, which has emerged as Ireland’s highest funded dance company.[1] Oozing entrepreneurial chic it may be seen as dance’s success story and its appearance on prime time television a victory for visibility and acceptability.

There are two issues that emerge through this reading of Hit and Run. Firstly, it is a reading that would not be possible from viewing the original theatre version, which is a far more sinister piece. First performed in 1995 at Project@The Mint (where the Project Arts Centre temporarily relocated while its Essex Street space was being rebuilt) it had a real sense of danger and the underworld about it. The space was seedy and run-down, situated beside a snooker hall and tattoo parlour and the choreographer chose to strip the stage back to its bare essentials. While the veneer of John Comiskey’s highly cinematic direction may have diluted the almost visceral danger of the original, the economic and social changes in the intervening five years between theatre production and film have also contributed substantially to the context in which the work is viewed. In 1997 Fintan O’Toole, watching the same dance company, was “struck by how unusual a vibrant, self confident, joyous dance company still seems in contemporary Irish culture”.[2] Yet in the intervening five years a buoyant, but over-inflated, economy quickly suffocated notions of community and “boom-time” thinking valued financial success above all else. This change in society is as potent in affecting our viewing as the change in location from run-down theatre to television screen.

The second and more important issue concerns that very issue of visibility. To celebrate visibility (through exposure on prime time television) is also to celebrate acceptability. Even as a notion “visibility” is vague, un-measurable and anecdotal, and “acceptability” indicates compliance with the zeitgeist. Visibility is granted by advertising and media industries and is rarely acquired by those who might question those industries and their values. If the general economic and social climate can change the reading of one particular work then it also questions, at a deeper level, dance and its engagement with society and values. Of particular concern is the portrayal of bodies. Dance’s “acceptance” would suggest compliance with these values, which within the acknowledged social freefall are real issues of concern for those working with the body.

 

Three bodies

ONE

A man sleeping in a doorway of a city centre shop had his legs set on fire. He suffered third degree burns to his feet and legs after two young men poured lighter fuel over his lower body and set him alight.

The man, who is in his forties and with an address in Co. Meath, is believed to have been on a night out in Dublin and fell asleep after a few drinks. The man, who is being treated in St James Hospital, would have been more seriously injured but for the actions of three quick-thinking milkmen. Brian Power and teenagers John Kinsella and Conor Beacom used milk to put out the flames.[3]

 

TWO

Eva from Estonia wants a man standing at the bar to buy her a drink. He brushes her off but she smiles and insists. The man is middle-aged and overweight. He is wearing a suit and tie and is the worse for wear for drink in the most obnoxious way possible. Eva is in her 20s. She is tall, slim and strikingly good-looking. She is wearing, well, not very much. Eva is a lap dancer. It’s 1.30am on Friday morning in one of Dublin’s “gentlemen’s clubs…Up until the mid-1990s there were no lap-dancing clubs in Ireland. But since one opened in Dublin six years ago the industry has grown exponentially. Almost every city in Ireland now has at least one, and in Dublin there are half a dozen in the city centre.[4]

 

THREE

The High Court has awarded a County Louth woman, whose womb was removed shortly after the birth of her son, over €250,000 in damages. Alison Gough, from Ardee, sued Consultant Gynaecologist Dr. Michael Neary, who performed the hysterectomy, and his employer, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Mrs Gough was 27 at the time and it was her first pregnancy…In the High Court, Mr Justice Richard Johnson found that Dr. Neary was negligent. He said that had he carried out certain procedures at the time and that on the balance of probability, Mrs Gough’s bleeding could have been stopped and the operation would not have been necessary…Sixty women who claim their wombs were removed without their consent or knowledge by Dr Neary are pursuing legal action.[5] [Statistics were produced in court to show that Dr Neary performed one hysterectomy for every 20 caesarean sections carried out between 1992 and 1998. The rate is one for every 441 at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin.]

 

These three bodies are extremes within Irish society. Yet all three are indicative of increased devaluation and isolation from the body, a by-product of the increasingly hedonistic and consumption-driven society that has emerged in twenty-first century Ireland. Crime against the body has increased steadily in recent years. In contrast to a small increase of 4% in the number of murders and manslaughters in 2001, the increase of crime against the body soared. The number of assault causing harm offences recorded in 2001 increased by 83%, sexual assault increased by 91% while aggravated sexual assault increased by 50% and rape by 38%.”[6]  With the above case the concept of “crime against the body” reached a new level. This was not a crime against a person, since the youths didn’t even know who the person was. Nor was it a crime against a social group, since the man was clearly not homeless, but asleep in his clothes without blankets or any possessions. The perpetrators had no interest in the outcome of their act (they fled immediately) or in its significance. It was simply a crime (or act of vandalism) against a random object; in this case an inert body.

While prostitution is still taboo there is self-delusion around lap-dancing as a harmless activity. The fact that there is no physical contact sterilises the event and most objections to clubs concern drunken anti-social activity outside its doors rather than what goes on inside. As an act it echoes Colin Campbell’s description of the modern hedonist: “wanting rather than having is the main focus of pleasure-seeking. Desire is redefined in terms of pleasure…[and] the object and the realisation are distanced into the future (or otherness), creating a state of enjoyable discomfort.”[7] Organisations, such as the Ruhama women’s project, maintain the clubs can foster prostitution and has nothing to do with sexuality but is about men using money to exploit women and their bodies for exploitation’s sake.

The body is less obviously objectified within an overstretched health service that is failing to meet its demands towards the individual. One area of particular concern is the rate of caesarean sections, which is above the 10% recommended by the World Health Organisation (and anecdotal evidence suggests it is climbing and may begin to follow the trend in the United Kingdom where the rate increased almost 1% per year since the mid 1990’s). By extension the pregnant woman is frequently thought of as a ‘medical problem’ and ‘medical’ terms such as ‘incompetent cervix’ reflect the ‘anti-body’ attitudes. Anne Cranny-Francis claims that “a pregnant woman is often treated as a receptacle, a ‘walking womb’, and an object rather than a subject of her own needs and desires. She is reduced, via her physicality, her body, to the status of object which can then be treated in whatever way the medical profession deems fit – even if that means scheduling a caesarean delivery to fit in with the proverbial golf game.” [8]

 

Asserting the Body

There are many obvious dance solutions to assert the body within wider society. Engagement with different levels of society away from performance practice through dance therapy, dance with children and community dance is possible. There are already initiatives in Cork and Galway with dance and the elderly, increasing youth dance work and community projects. But what about the act of performance itself? In challenging the position of the body within an increasingly computerised society Sue Ellen Case writes: “On the one hand, the body seems to lose its importance, relegated to the cyber-category of “meat”; on the other, gender and sexuality are central categories in the formation of new transnational spaces and in the interface with the internet. ‘Performance’ has become a key term in understanding how these forces work in our time.”[9]

Broadening this premise beyond gender and sexuality it would seem that celebrating the “live” body in dance works is an important antidote to readdressing society’s devaluation of the “live” body. The Secret Project by half/angel is a work that uses technology with the live body but avoids the aesthetic pitfalls in working with computers. It features interactive technology and motion sensors, not as a restriction to movement, but as a way of amplifying the live body. Director Richard Povall says, “We are trying to sense not just the precise movement of the dancer but the sense of the movement – the inner meaning and impulse behind a movement.”[10] In some ways The Secret Project answers the reservations of Sue Ellen Case, not specifically with regard to gender and sexuality, but in how it sites the live body within a technological environment. In the performance the technology is invisible and so, unlike many performances involving computers, the technology is not fetishised or celebrated, but rather serves the body and its interior impulses.

Breath defines “live” and is an important element in The Secret Project. The performers have contact microphones to amplify their speech and guttural sounds, but we can also hear their breath, whether as a slow anacrusis to speech or as a gasping counterpoint to movement sequences. It is also plays an important part in the interaction with technology. Again Richard Povall: “For the opening we recorded a sequence of breathing sounds from Jools [Gilson Ellis, co-director of half/angel] as a performer – from the quietest, calmest breathing to the almost hysterical gasps. From this source, I pulled out around 150 separate breath sounds, and classified them into 5 layers, again from the quietest to the most troubled or loudest. In the final piece, the way Jools moves determines what level of sound we are listening to. It begins with Jools’ breathing (live) alone, as she moves up from a bent position. The piece is stationary – it doesn’t travel at all – and almost all the movement is in the hands and the upper body. As she becomes more upright, the breath sounds triggered by her movement are added into the sonic mix. If she is moving gently, we hear the gentler layers, if she is moving (at the other extreme) in an almost hysterical way, then we are hearing the most agitated layers. And everything in between. In this way, it is the impulse and the emotional content of the movement that is controlling the sound.”[11]

Sensitising the viewer to the live body, its breath, impulses, organs and weight is an act of affirmation. In Julie Lockett’s Tank, which premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2002, the audience of twenty were brought into a small-enclosed space, lit pale blue and shrouded by a soundscape, where they observe a slowly evolving duet. Standing inches from the performers they can notice small details like the soft padding feet on the cold concrete floor or arms that seem to softly float out from the torso yet still direct energy out through the fingers. There are rare moments of interaction. Sometimes one dancer’s hand rests on the other’s head or a head sinks onto the other’s back, and these moments give a sudden surge of humanity to the ongoing movements. But promoting the live body does not necessarily necessitate eschewing theatricality and presenting the body within such a blank canvas. In Senses, a Rex Levitates/Maiden Voyage co-production in 2001, a set of red pergolas, a chaise longue, hanging apples all cohabit the space with the dancers and artist Sabine Dargent who paints live on stage. Amidst this clutter choreographer Liz Roche is still able to sensitise the audience to observe tiny sensory nuances through her movement. The very first gesture sets this up: the dancers slowly shrug a shoulder that unbalances their bodies and propels them sideways into a movement sequence and at once we are made keenly aware of weight and balance.

Asserting the body is a democratising act. It is not about upholding the slim-toned body of the dancer; indeed it is about subverting that very expectation. An essay by Myriam Perregaux on issues around race is apposite: “Power is exercised in many ways. Language, for example is not neutral. On the contrary, it is one of the most important instances in which power is exercised because it can include – using ‘we’ for instance – or exclude – using ‘you’. ‘We’ and ‘you’ however don’t mean anything without an understanding of their referents, which are part of the situation – or context – of communication”.[12] Within a dance context the ‘we’ and ‘you’ is articulated not just through the choreographer’s language but also through the choice and portrayal of bodies that speak that language. Choreographer John Scott frequently casts older dancer Joanna Banks, formerly with Ballet Rambert and Irish National Ballet, in his works. She is an equal on stage, never portrayed as “special” and this simple act subverts many preconceptions about the dancer’s body. In Jérôme Bel’s performance of Jérôme Bel during the International Dance Festival Ireland in 2002 four naked people, including one woman in her sixties are all comfortable within their bodies. Two of the performers explore their bodies in an almost child-like way, pinching and folding flesh and drawing on their skin with lipstick. Nothing is ever coy or crude but just reflects the body, and any unease with the performance says more about us and our bodies than them and theirs.

 

Conclusion

Dance is only a small part of a highly visual culture and cannot on its own turn the tide of constant devaluation of the body. But neither can it allow itself to take on those predominant values and the case of Hit and Run shows that it may do so even inadvertently. While the film does not justify the triumph of the white collar over the blue collar, such a reading is possible within the economic and social zeitgeist. Of course different interpretations of any work are possible: The Sleeping Beauty is not about heroin addiction yet in the hands of Mats Ek it can be. The difference in the case of Hit and Run is that the creators did not set out to create a different interpretation; one just emerged. Equally, visibility and acceptability create their own demands and although an increased profile for dance is welcome it must not come at all costs. If dance is to act as a truly interrogative (and ultimately subversive) force in our society then it needs to assume acceptability while resisting conformity. Continuing to promote the live, sensing body, it must also constantly refute the predominant belief that young, slim, white, able bodies are the most valued. David Linge’s opinion that “it is precisely in confronting the otherness of the text – in hearing its challenging viewpoint…that the reader’s own prejudices are thrown into relief and thus come to critical self-consciousness”[13] equally applies to our dance-making, dance-writing and dance-viewing.



[1] Its 2003 revenue grant (excluding capital grants) from An Chomhairle Ealaíon was almost 45% more than any other dance company

[2] The Irish Times – Aug. 19th 1997

[3] Irish Examiner – October 18, 2002

[4] The Irish Times – March 8th 2003

[5] RTE News, November 15, 2002

[6] Garda Síochána Annual Report 2001 P14

[7] The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford, 1987

[8] The Body in the Text, Melbourne University Press, 1995

[9] Abstract from Unnatural Acts Conference 1999 (http://ideasandsociety.ucr.edu/acts/abstracts.htm#Case)

[10] The Irish Times, April 11th 1999

[11] op. cit.

[12] Looking in the Mirror, What Do I See: Visibility, and Denaturalising Whiteness, Irish Journal of Feminist Studies Vol. 4 No. 3, Cork University Press p.54

[13] Linge, David E. ed. Introduction to Gadamer, Hans-George. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

 

published in Choreographic Encounters Volume 1, Institute for Choreography and Dance.