Sex and Sexuality on Stage

A friend recently turned and said to me, Oh, youre a dancer. Thats so great that youre in touch with your feminine side! I replied: “dance is masculine, Woman!” It reminded me that aspects of our life today are embedded with expectations of gender and sexuality. Dance is inherently neither masculine, nor feminine. Dance is also neither straight nor gay.

In performance practice, there are issues of character creation that legitimately come into play. Classical and narrative dance relies on the creation of character, and so of necessity, stereotypes are used. In the use of character within abstract work, however, it seems frequently as though our community is a dog being wagged by its tail. We seem to rely on the same character types that much of the work is seeking to both acknowledge and dissolve.

Artists are the visionaries who create the new world. At least thats what it says in our press packet. And so while we are representatives of communities, we are also leaders, responsible for helping others find the new light, the new way, the truth, and the way away from The Guiding Light. When we pay homage too deeply to existing stereotypes of humanity we lose our ability to express a more complex, holistic humanity.

Art – dance inclusive – has always been a home for the alternative. Artists are different. Today as all members of the society jockey for full participation, artists are unfortunately making our own acceptance more difficult by producing work that fetishizes notions of masculine, feminine, straight, and gay. To the degree that we as artists prepare the audience to see the world in stereotypes, we perpetuate a society that only knows how to know through separation.

Nevertheless – are there essential character traits to being a man? Are there central character traits to being a gay man? It is fine to answer glibly that, yes, being a Man (capital M) means liking beer, sports, and Jessica Simpson, and that being a gay man means liking fashion, wine-coolers and Jake Gylenhall. But that is not only bullshit, it hurts all of us. The fetishization of gay characteristics, the fetishization of female characteristics, pigeon-holes not just the artists but the audience into roles that have nothing to do with their character.

Being a dancer does not imbue one with a character. Being gay does not give one a certain character. Being a woman does not give one a certain character. We still live in a world where smart people – for example Lawrence Summers, recent past president of Harvard University – still actually debate whether men and women have the same intellectual possibility. As long as we – the visionaries of society – project stereotypes of masculine/feminine/gay/straight we give validity to the limits placed on any of those groups. Perpetuation of stereotypes in gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and age may be a part of our past, but they do not have to a part of our present.

Liberalism and Modern Dance

This piece has had various titles, and iterations. At one point it was called, ‘Goooooooo classical!’. At another point, ‘A Refutation of Liberalism in Modern Dance.’

I find some attitudes in the Modern Dance community congruous with many of the least attractive attributes of political Liberalism. Liberalism, politically speaking, is a strain of social theory that emphasizes equality. The causes of death for political liberalism are interesting in critiquing modern dance, which is possibly perishing with some of the same symptoms.

I grew up in Massachusetts at a time when politicians were re-claiming Liberal ideology. Political Liberalism was a stance of hope, inclusiveness and generosity. Liberalism brought us school lunches and affirmative action. And then it was de-flowered – the Randian freemarket go and get it beating the crap out of the Liberal come and get it.

Modern Dance began, like Liberalism, with an individualistic and inclusive streak – from Duncan to Graham, Nikolais to Rainer, Modern Dance was an expression of the embrace of individual experience and personal vocabulary over pre-determined positions and rote facility.

Some argue that Modern Dance is the somatic equivalent of jazz music. When Modern Dance began it was an organic and personal response to times, places, and personal experiences. And perhaps it is like Jazz: the practitioners of today are hard put to find the blood memory that ran through the creators of the form.

I am not trying to lionize even more antique forms – for instance ballet – but simply am trying to offer Modern Dance a little humility. Ballet came before Modern Dance, and will still exist after Modern Dance has disappeared. The majority of professional Modern dancers are heavily trained in ballet. And yet ballet seems to be talked about like a grandfather who has hairy ears and a penchant for pinching cheeks. There seems to be a perception that Modern is today, and ballet the past.

Modern dancers, like Liberals, need to recognize that all solutions rely heavily on craft, and that whether jazz music or dance, one will be taken more seriously in creating new work if one is capable of mastering the craft used by earlier practitioners. In political Liberalism the dismissal of free-market economic principles can be compared to the modern dancers dismissal of ballet.

When artists believe that they can take the craft out of dance, they reduce it to something like pop poetry. If your name begins with e.e., or ends with Ferlinghetti, that is surely a reasonable thing to do. But if you do not happen to be a genius, perhaps having the will to dance within the forms crafted by others would serve you better in reaching an audience (which last time I checked was the reason for performing.) Certainly pronouncing that one is a dance artist will help you in the bars, but in contributing to your community, its deeply ineffective.

All dance is not good dance. All dance is not of value, even if its practitioner says it is. All dance is not of value for the practitioner even if they say it is. In the end, it does not matter if you practice Modern, Ballet, Jazz, Horton, or Rumba. There is no guaranteed way toward good social solutions. But there is a guaranteed means toward bad ones. Reasonable practice of prior forms can assist in the creation of what sculptor Frederic Hart called art that has a role “in the public pursuit of civilization.”