michael j. morris


MANCHA PRAVESH: Imani Asha Gaston and Odissi

Image by Clarence Alexander

When I enter the MLK Auditorium in Hale Hall on The Ohio State University campus, several instruments surrounded by microphones are already set out on brightly colored fabric on stage right. Just off the front of the stage, a small pedestal is draped with pink, gold, and orange fabric. On top sits a small statue with fresh flowers at its feet. I look around at the audience gathering for this Mancha Pravesh, the debut solo Odissi dance recital performed by Imani Asha Gaston: it is a much more diverse audience than I usually see at arts events in Columbus, Ohio. There are children and college students, parents and elders; the audience is a mix of African-American, Indian, and white people. This is not merely incidental. It is evidence of some of this event’s importance. As the lights dim, the musicians enter and take their places at their instruments and microphones. The MC introduces the first dance, “Vakratunda,” an invocation that pays homage to the Hindu god Ganesha. The music begins, the droning of the veena—a stringed instrument like a very large guitar that lies across the musician’s lap—punctuated by the rapid percussion of the mardala—a small drum. Imani Asha Gaston comes onto the stage, dressed in folds of red and beige silk, shining silver jewelry, and jangling ankle bells that ring in time with the music.

I have reservations writing about an Odissi performance: Odissi, a form of classical Indian dance that dates back to the second century B.C., is not a style of dance that I have studied or practiced. I already know that anything I write about it will be as an outsider to the form. The same would be just as true for a hip-hop or tap dance performance, or a performance in the style of countless other dance traditions that have not been included in my own dance training, which has focused primarily on ballet, American and European modern and postmodern dance, Japanese Butoh, and an array of improvisational techniques. Very nearly all that I know about Odissi, I learned this afternoon at the Mancha Pravesh, from the detailed program and the introductions given by the MC. Beyond that information, when watching this performance of five dances, I could not tell you which of the gestures or steps are codified within the Odissi tradition and which are inventions or innovations particular to this solo choreography. I could not tell you these ways Odissi differs from the other seven forms of classical Indian dance. I could not identify which movements carry broader cultural significance, in the way that fluttering, undulating arms have become metonymic to Swan Lake and The Dying Swan, perhaps even to ballet and its feminine ideal. I could not tell you how long histories of social structures, gender and racial politics, philosophical and religious perspectives, and globalization have potentially impacted the traditions that shape the performer’s dancing body. In short, to write about this work feels, at least in part, like exposing a particular breadth of what I do not know.

As I consider this, I realize that this situation is probably not so dissimilar from the majority of audience members at any dance performance. While a vast number of people—particularly those socialized as girls when they were children—have grown up taking dance classes, most people in the United States do not have any education or much experience in watching dance and thinking critically about it. Most have not studied the dance forms that they view, let alone the historical, cultural, and political conditions from which those dance forms emerged. In many ways, the extent to which I am not familiar with Odissi resembles the extent to which most American audiences are not familiar with many forms of dance. As a result, for me to write about this performance takes me—an “insider” to much of the concert dance that I encounter, as a dancer, a choreographer, and a scholar—outside of my expertise, pushing me to rely almost entirely on what I perceive about the performance that unfolds in front of me. In this sense, the performance itself will have to be my education in the form. Perhaps this itself can be instructional.
[I do realize that even how I write about what unfolds in front of me with disclose elements of my biases, my dance training, and my education. This will no doubt be simultaneously productive and potentially problematic in ways I do not yet understand.]

As Gaston enters, her hands are pressed together as if in prayer. Her steps are steady then quick, shifting her weight rapidly and often leaving her balanced on one foot. Her feet strike the ground forcefully with her heels or the balls of her feet in the rhythm of the music. Atop these strong, direct steps grounding her movements from their base, her torso is poised vertically—held but not rigid. Although the placement of her body demonstrates constant control, she remains mobile; throughout the dances, her head and shoulders incline and twist, her ribs and her hips circle and roll. Around the careful placement of her torso, Gaston’s arms trace intricate patterns in the air, swinging and gliding and circling gestures that orbit her center like spinning constellations. These gestures fly across a dynamic range of speeds, but even at their fastest, they are not flung out of control. They remain precise, somewhere between shooting stars and needlepoint, always arriving emphatically in clear, distinct postures. There are no details that are not choreographed: Gaston’s eyes cut from side to side, up and down and straight ahead in complex patterns, and even her fingertips dance as her hands shift from mudra to mudra in rapid succession. Intricacy and complexity compound as the dancer’s feet and legs and hips and shoulders and arms and fingers and head and eyes all accentuate the rhythm of the music, sometimes articulating multiple distinct cadences that move across and support each other, and sometimes settling—softly or swiftly—into a single posture, pose, or pulse, bringing disparate parts together into a common unity.

Alongside and yet part of the dancer’s movement, the music crests and falls, accelerating with the beat of the drum, the bright clang of hand cymbals, and text that is spoken in rapid syllables, then dissolving again into ringing drone of the veena and the longer tones of the singing vocalist. None of the text that is spoken or sung is in English, which holds some part of what is happening in mystery, reminding me that my access to what I am experiencing is always partially limited by my own history and situatedness.

There are five dances performed in this program, all choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Each one differs in intent, as described by the program: following the invocation to Ganesha, the second piece unfolds through a series of sculptural poses strung together with steps in varying rhythms in honor of Shiva, the cosmic Lord of Dance. The third piece evolves through accelerating tempos of gestures, postures, steps, and movements of the eyes, demonstrating the dancer’s skill. The fourth piece is part of a narrative, in which the dancer embodies multiple characters in the story of Radha and Krishna. The final piece, entitled “Moksha” which means “spiritual liberation,” represents “a spiritual culmination for the dancer who soars into the realm of pure aesthetic delight.”* Each piece shares a different facet of Odissi as well as the dancer, which is appropriate for the event. This Mancha Pravesh is a debut dance recital, a transformative moment in the life of the dancer as she becomes a professional solo Odissi performer. In a sense, this recital is a ritual, not only marking but also enacting the transition of the dancer from one phase as a student to another phase, as a professional performer. Moving from the opening invocation, through various demonstrations of skill, and culminating in a dance of liberation, each piece embodies a step in the dancer’s journey.

While each piece is clearly within the same style of movement—focusing on idiomatic uses of the eyes, the hands, the subtle control in the torso, the forcefulness of the steps, all closely following the music—each also has subtle characteristic elements that make it unique. The first piece feels very much like an address, performed mostly facing the audience, the palms of Gaston’s hands opening and closing in gestures that feel both sacred and welcoming. There is more turning in the second piece, more acceleration in the third, more looking side to side in the fourth, and a spaciousness and stillness in the final piece that is unlike all of the others. I think the final piece is my favorite. While still threading between intense phrases of rapid, driving steps and gestures, the dancer also moves through passages of pause and sustainment. Her body gradually rises and sinks, and the slower transformations between gestures and mudras almost drift around the soft and steady current of her weight. In the final moments of the piece, Gaston balances in what I would call in my yoga classes Virabhadrasana III—Warrior Pose III—balanced on one leg with her other leg and torso parallel to the floor, first facing stage right, then left, then the audience. She lifts up into what I would call Tadasana—Mountain Pose—her feet flat on the floor and her arms lifted above her head. Slowly, her hands drift downward, shifting through different mudras, and carrying her into a low squatting position. This is where the performance ends.

But this is not the end of my thinking. Between the third and fourth pieces, several people spoke, offering a few words about the performance, including Kaustavi Sarkar—Gaston’s Odissi teacher who is a doctoral student in the Department of Dance at OSU and an accomplished Odissi dancer, choreographer, and educator—and Gaston’s mother, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, the Vice President for Student Life at OSU. Both speakers were moving, but Dr. J—as Adams-Gaston is affectionately known on campus—spoke to something I was feeling since I first arrived. In addition to honoring her daughter’s accomplishments and Sarkar’s important work with Odissi at OSU, she offered that this performance also told the story of the university, what it allows students to do, and what she described as “what we mean by higher education”: bringing out the best in each student by allowing them to see themselves as bigger than their backgrounds or the perceptions and perspectives with which they arrived. She said that the university can be a place where we become global citizens, citizens of the world, and that the dancing we saw today embodies that potential.

I appreciated Dr. J’s discussion of what the university can provide. As an educator working in one university who is starting a new job at a different university in August, at a time when higher education is becoming increasingly privatized as a business of buying and selling and debt, I feel a lot of gratitude for Dr. J giving voice to what higher education can provide not only to its students but to the world in which they live, the world that they are making. I don’t want to diminish the specificity of what happened today, Imani Gaston and Kaustavi Sarkar’s labor and exceptional work. Rather, beyond my descriptions of the dancing and the music, I want to acknowledge that part of what made this work remarkable was seeing an African-American woman becoming an expert in an Indian dance tradition, working with an Indian woman who herself is studying, practicing, and teaching within an American university. One important aspect of this joint project relates to how we share culture: at a time in which I see the words “cultural appropriation” again and again across Facebook, twitter, and blogs that I read, I would like to point to Gaston’s work with Sarkar as one model for responsibly participating in a different culture. Months and months of hard work, hours and hours of dancing, the careful, strenuous training through which a dance tradition from India comes to live within the flesh and fibers of an African-American woman’s body, all participate in a form of rigorously responsible cultural exchange, becoming so embedded in a practice that the practice then becomes undeniably embedded in you. Our world could benefit from more of this kind of exchange.

Finally and also remarkably, in response to the inter-cultural situation of Sarkar and Gaston dancing, teaching, and learning together, an audience of friends, family, community, and academics, a multi-generational audience who was Indian—and potentially Indian-American—African-American, and white, showed up, shared space, and shared an experience of witnessing something that ranged from a deeply treasured cultural tradition for some to an art event in an unfamiliar medium for others. I can’t help but think that in the specific cultural moment in which we find ourselves, in which race and class continue to stratify our society in ways that continue to result in unacceptable violence, today I saw something—was a small part of something—that performed a different socio-cultural paradigm. Many of us had different reasons for attending Gaston’s Mancha Pravesh today, but perhaps—like the different parts of the dancer’s body moving in different rhythms yet somehow finding harmonic resolution as one—by finding focal points that we can share from different perspectives and organizing ourselves around them, something personal can becomes communal and in turn becomes something global. I would like to think that in as much as this performance enacted a transition in Gaston’s career as a dancer, it also marked a potential for transformation at other, larger scales, not only in concept, but in practice: a way we might move towards a more just world in which we want to live.

*Quoted from the program notes.

Additional Program Information:

Musicians:
Vocal: Niranjani Deshpande
Veena: Sumamala Devalpally
Mardala: Vendata Chawla
Manjira: Sukanya Chand
Ukuta / Bol: Kaustavi Sarkar



dispossession, desire, and love
12 July, 2015, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Ontology | Tags: , ,

Today I am thinking about the relationship between what can be considered founding, constitutive relations of dispossession—the ways in which we are all always already given over to a world of others that form both who we are and the very conditions of our being—and the more willful or desiring ways in which one gives oneself to another or others, as in love. [For anyone familiar with my thinking and writing, it will no doubt be obvious that these thoughts are heavily influenced by the work of Judith Butler.]

The former perhaps—or certainly—prefigures the latter; the former conditions the possibility of the latter. Having been given over to a world already, in ways that constitute who one can or will be, to give of oneself to another will always in part be a citation or reference back to that fundamental dispossession. When there is a one to whom I give myself, surrender myself, or to whom I want to give or surrender myself—in which case I give/surrender myself to desire—how is that event different from or the same as the ways in which I am given over to, say, language, to ecological relations, to kinship systems, to gender norms and racial politics, to legal apparatuses and medical institutions and so on? In all of these ways, I enter a world that already exists, that precedes me, a world I did not make or choose, and I am reliant on this world of others and systems and structures and institutions in ways that not only ensure—and constrain—my living, but also come to define my sense of self. Who I am to myself and to others is shaped by the language I inherit, the family to whom I am born, the gender I am assigned and attributed, the race to which I am taken to belong, the rights I am afforded by systems of power, the healthcare to which I have access, and so on. And that sense of self, as it becomes available to me, is made available through those very words, categories, and ideas that originate beyond myself, in a world of others. Likewise, the sense of myself that I receive from others—how I am seen or recognized or misrecognized, and how that is reflected back to me—becomes enfolded into my sense of who I am, because I am always already in and of this world; who I am to the others of which this world is formed will directly and indirectly shape who I am to and for myself.
In short, I am never fully self-sufficient in my own being. The reliances and dependencies that knot me into this world of others are necessary for my existence, for my survival, and as such, “I” am never merely “my” self. I emerge from these necessary social, ecological, familial, political, juridical, cultural relations. This is what I mean when I ask about founding, constitutive relations of dispossession. These various worldly relations form the foundation of who I can be, they constitute who I am, and as such, “I” am dispossessed of “my” self.

So, dispossession or being given over to others is fundamental to what it means to be the subject or person that I am, and this fundamental dispossession is not of my choosing. I am born, never asked, to quote Laurie Anderson.

And then it happens that I encounter another, someone who it seems that I love or might love. And in this nebulous experience we call love, I want to give myself over to this other. I want to give of myself to them, and be taken by them. This is something that I desire and that I will.
But maybe there is a rupture there: in any number of ways, desire is not something that I will. Desire itself is an experience to which I am given over. In the longing of desire, the reaching for that which is thus far out of reach, I am also dispossessed—or perhaps displaced—from myself. When I desire, I am caught up in the swelling of feeling, that sense of need that may or may not be need, in which it seems that you are what I need; you are both necessary and out of reach, and if only I could reach you, have you, hold you, then I would be complete.

[In writing this, years of studying psychoanalysis—directly, and indirectly by way of feminist philosophy and queer theory—loom up, and I think: of course, to desire, perhaps even to love, is first and foremost a reproduction of the primary attachment to a caretaker, the longing of an infant for the one who will feed me, hold me, care for me. Desire is the excess of need, where those infantile patterns—of reaching out to be held, crying to be fed, twisting and turning to be reassured that I am not alone—resurface, no longer necessarily necessary in the same ways, but fixating on an other who will occupy the promise of fulfillment. Perhaps I am writing and thinking about issues that have been well-worn at this point; perhaps I am thinking and writing nothing new.]
But it is not merely the origins of desire that I am trying to think about…or the origins of love, why it is that we love and desire.
It is this question of dispossession, of being given over, first in ways we do not choose, and later in ways that we perhaps also do not choose—when we desire another—but that we nonetheless desire. When we desire to desire, and perhaps even more when we desire to love, we desire our own dispossession.
Perhaps like the primary caretaker attachments of infancy, dispossession can become associated with (or even identical to?) survival?
If being given over to others is necessary to my constitution, to both my survival and my sense of self, doesn’t it follow that I might become attached to the desire to become dispossessed? That I might desire being given over to another or others, or desire being given over to the desire to be given over to another or others, because that sense of being given over is knotted into what it means to survive and to be the me that I know as my self? Do we not come to love our dispossession when (it seems) our survival is at stake?

I think I am too easily transposing desire for another into being given over to another. Certainly, in desire we are given over to desire, which is a form of dispossession or displacement, but isn’t desire for another also, in some way(s), a desire for possession, for having, for belonging? [I’ll suspend for the moment the many layers of “possession,” and its potential relationship to property and capitalism, although those may be necessary layers to explore.] When I desire you, I desire to have your hand in mine, your lips to kiss, to hear your voice, to smell your scent, to taste you, to feel your flesh against mine. So, inasmuch as I am dispossessed by desire, it is also a longing for possession, for having. Why? For reassurance? Is it a power play? I am given over to a world of others in ways that I did not choose or will at the start, and now I desire to have you, as a way of recuperating a sense of my own power? [This is what the phallus is about, after all: having the phallus, being the phallus.]

But it is not enough usually simply to have you.
To desire you is also to desire your desire, to desire being desired by you. And if I am desired by you and I have you, you have me as well. To whatever extent I come to possess you, you possess me as well, and it is thus a(nother) (dis)possession that I desire. [And again, when I use “possess” here, I am meaning it almost entirely as “having,” in order to parallel my use of “dispossession,” not to suggest anything about property or ownership.] While I may not will myself to be given over to my desire, if I come to be possessed by you while also possessing you, it is because I have chosen to surrender. I have willed some part of this dispossession, and perhaps this is also a constitutive event in the formation of myself as a subject/person: if first I am formed by constitutive relations that I did not choose but of and with which I am formed, and this is necessary for my survival and sense of self, I perhaps then later come to will my own dispossession, my giving myself over to your desire, to my desire for your desire, in order to consolidate dispossession within or beneath my own will. Is this a re-writing or recuperation of sorts? I said at the start that the dispossession of desire will always be a citation or reference of those founding dispossessing relations that constitute one’s being. If this is the case, then to cite or reference those dispossessions now as an effect or result of my will is to enact a kind of restaging with/in a different set of conditions: when I was born and never asked, I was given over to relations in any number of ways that I did not choose; now, in choosing to be given over and dispossessed, even at the moment of dispossession, I consolidate some sense of myself as an agential subject, “in control” of even those experiences in which I have had the least control. In giving myself, I produce for myself a sense that I am in such a position to give, a position from which to choose to act, a position that I did not have at those moments that were fundamental to my formation.

Perhaps this is true of love as well. For now, my working definitions of love are something like: to contribute to the flourishing of another, to act as more than one self, to pursue a view of the world from the perspective of more than one. Love is an activity, not a feeling, although it can be fueled by strong feelings—usually desire. It is, by these definitions, fundamentally altruistic, not necessarily to the detriment of oneself, but to the side of oneself, for and towards others or an other. The surrender of “one self” for a self that is more than one. It is a giving of oneself to and for another or others, for their wellbeing. Is that giving also a kind of dispossession, in that what of oneself is given is no longer entirely or exclusively possessed by the self that is giving? Yes, I think so. Following the above, it seems reasonable that even in love, even when I am choosing to act with and for others, for their flourishing, I am perhaps also providing myself with a sense of my own agency. I consolidate myself as a willful subject (this is not a direct reference to Sara Ahmed, just an accidentally similar phrasing), in a sense “in control,” precisely at those times that I choose to be in less control, to surrender some sense of myself to or for another.

These thoughts are more speculative than conclusive. I don’t think I’ve developed a fully cohesive theory of desire, love, and dispossession here. But I think perhaps where it leads me is to ask: what is it that we are giving to ourselves—through the sense of giving, our sense of being able to give—even at our most loving, our most desiring, our most dispossessed?

***

Addendum (a few hours later):

While walking in the park, a few more ideas/implications occurred to me. If our authority over ourselves—our capacity to authorize our own giving of ourselves over to another—is something that we assure or reassure ourselves through the act of giving ourselves, then it seems that this authority is in question or uncertain. This is not surprising given that from the start we are not fully in control of ourselves in that we are acted upon by others in ways that we do not will or choose; it is not surprising then that our sense of our own authority over ourselves would be questionable or uncertain, but it seemed necessary to state. Given this uncertainty, if it is true that one provides oneself with a sense of agency or authority through the act of giving oneself in love or giving oneself over to desire or the desires of another, there is a kind of undoing. If I assure myself of my authority to give of myself through the act of giving, then it is precisely at the moment of providing myself with that reassurance that I am no longer entirely containable within my own authority or will. If the supplement of an other to whom one gives oneself is necessary to the self that gives, then that self is undone by that other just as that self has been done up.



documentation of TOWARD BELONGING

On April 29 and 30, I premiered a new dance work entitled TOWARD BELONGING, featuring performers Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison. Over the last several years, while working on my PhD, my choreographic practice has been almost entirely focused on developing solo queer burlesque pieces, dances that I choreographed for me to perform on burlesque stages in and around Columbus, Ohio. TOWARD BELONGING was a step back into the studio, working with people I care about on making something meaningful and critical together. If you were not able to see the performances, I have finally gotten documentation posted.

April 29 in the Barnett Theatre in Sullivant Hall in the Department of Dance at the Ohio State University, videoed by s lumbert:

April 30 in Studio 290 in Sullivant Hall in the Department of Dance at the Ohio State University:



20 Rue Jacob and Performing Gender

On May 22-23, I was part of an event called 20 Rue Jacob which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Courtney Harris and Charlie Brissey. It was a multi-media event that was simultaneously a live performance, an art exhibit, a dance party, and a contemporary salon, featuring dance, video, installation sculpture, text, and burlesque. You can read more about the event here; in this post, I want to reflect a bit on my own choreography and performance, and share the text that I wrote for the solo that I performed.

Photo from 20 Rue Jacob. This moment came later in the show, after the solo I write about below, but captures something of the context.

Photo from 20 Rue Jacob. This moment came later in the show, after the solo I write about below, but captures something of the context.

Inspired by the work of painter Romaine Brooks and the famous salons hosted by Brooks’ lover, writer Natalie Barney, on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s, 20 Rue Jacob was intended as a contemporary reimagining of a queer past, the communities and spaces in which gender and sexuality, their fluidity and performance, have been explored. Since Courtney and Charli first invited me to be a part of this project, I knew that I wanted to create a piece that referenced the culture of an intellectual salon while also drawing on my own work as both a scholar and a performer. The piece also emerged from a kind of characterization, if not a character: last year I performed in a short film entitled Left of Canvas, also directed by Brissey and Harris and also inspired by the life and work of Romaine Brooks. In that film, my role is intentionally ambiguous. I am an unnamed figure at a kind of historical queer dance party, a femme-androgynous person who moves promiscuously through those in attendance, exuding sensuality and eroticism through glances, touches, brief dances, lingering embraces, roaming hands and tender kisses. In the film, I am all desire and desiring, drawing close and closer, drifting away, and coming back again. For 20 Rue Jacob, I wanted my characterization to retain both the ambiguity and effluence of eroticism that I perform in Left of Canvas—which was projected in a series of video installations throughout the Hoffheimer Building where 20 Rue Jacob was staged—while also embodying the hybrid figure of a genderqueer scholar and burlesque dancer. The foundation for the piece is a spoken text, something between a manifesto and a lecture, the kind of text one might hear from a philosopher at a salon sharing provocative or innovative ideas about society and culture. The text was also an exercise in articulating the fairly complex critical theory of gender and sexuality that I study in a relatively succinct and accessible format. In doing so, I wrote a series of statements, my own words, without quotations or direct citations—while also carrying the undeniable influence of scholars and writers such as Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, and Sandy Stone.

Still from Left of Canvas, the film that was shot a year earlier and was projected throughout the building during 20 Rue Jacob. I am dancing with John Dombroski.

Still from Left of Canvas, the film that was shot a year earlier and was projected throughout the building during 20 Rue Jacob. I am dancing with John Dombroski.

During my delivery of this text, I moved around a central space surround by elegant antique seating within a huge ballroom on the second floor of the Hoffheimer Building. Dressed in a floor length satin gown, black satin evening gloves, black heels, a brocade shawl and strands and strands of pearls, I walked around the space, making eye contact with the audience. My movements accompanying the text were choreographed, simple, demonstratively gendered gestures abstracted from the self-touching and teasing of a burlesque dancer or strip tease. I say “abstracted” because I think, at the beginning, it was potentially not quite clear that this was a strip tease, that I was or would be a burlesque dancer; in a sense, this revelation itself was part of a “reveal.” As the text developed, I began to remove layers of clothing, first the shawl, then a glove, then the other glove, unzipping my dress, slipping the straps off of my shoulders, then eventually letting the dress fall to the ground. The strip tease was intended to supplement the text and also provide it with dimension: these spoken words are not merely “theory.” I am talking about real lives, real bodies, the living flesh of my own body. My presentation of my genderqueer body was there alongside and beneath my words; receiving the gaze of the audience as I undressed, it could also be overwritten, re-dressed by the text that I spoke.

There were also moments of interaction in the piece. During one line, I approached another performer, came up close, pressed my body against his as he wrapped his arms around my waist. During another line, I approached another performer who—at very specific moments—slapped me in the face to punctuate the reality that dissenting from the gender binary risks punishment, even violence. At the end of the piece, the performer who slapped me—John Domborski—retrieved my dress crumpled on the floor, brought it to me, then helped me as I got dressed there in front of the audience as the next performance began, with a text written by Gertrude Stein. These fleeting interactions introduced to the piece that the ideas delivered through the text are not only theoretical and not only liver by real bodies; they are also social, relational, entangled with intimacy and conflict, desire and disdain.

I hope to provide photo and video documentation of the piece at some point, but for now, here is the text that I wrote/spoke, annotated with descriptions of the choreography:

[Entering the space, I pause and pose at the center of the ballroom: elbows back, shoulders down and very slightly twisted to narrow my silhouette, leaning into one hip, my hands lying lightly on my chest. Posture is integral to gender presentation: how I stand, how I move, how I hold my arms and shoulders and hips are all mechanisms that participate in what will or will not be perceived as feminine. When I begin to speak, I move through a series of gestures, stroking the satin and skin of one arm with my fingertip, my arms swiping seductively across my body.]

“Gender is an activity, something we are given to perform and that we continue to perform repeatedly over time.

[I repeat this series of gestures in three directions as I speak, moving with the text and also moving through silence. Each gesture takes all of the time it takes, luxuriating in the air and lingering across my body. The sustained pacing invites anticipation. With each gesture, I allow my shoulders and hips to push and pull in counterpoint to each other, a continuous tilting and twisting to produce postures that seem to sink into repose.]

By performing it constantly, gender appears to be static, stable, or fixed. It is not.

[I face the fourth direction and slide my hands lightly, sensuously down my bosom, my waist, my hips, my groin.]

No one was born a woman or born a man. These are roles we are assigned.

[I spread my arms wide, opening my shawl, letting it drape across my back, and then fall to the floor. I walk towards the audience, each step careful and measured, crossing one foot in front of the other, and my eyes lock with a man I do not know in the crowd.]

Any person who is called a man performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has already failed.

[Peeling off my left glove as I speak, sliding my hand across my chest, I hold his gaze with mine, knowing that while my gesture is potentially seductive, my words are an indictment. As I speak the word “failed,” the glove snaps softly off of the tips of my fingers.]

Any person who is called a woman performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has also already failed.

[Moving around the edge of the audience, my eyes meet those of a manly woman. I peel the glove off of my right hand as I speak and hand the gloves to the woman.]

Gender categories are aggregates of characteristics—behavioral, physical, chemical, sartorial, choreographic.

[I move back towards the center of the space and pose with each word: miming putting on makeup; stroking my hands down the front of my body until I am bent over, fingers at my ankles; sliding my fingertips back up my body; pressing my hands into my hips, my elbows forward, my belly concave, a model in the pages of Vogue; leaning forward slightly, my left hip jutting back, draping my right arm overhead like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose.]

The more characteristics correspond with a given gender, the more successful the approximation of the category. The more the code does not add up, the more the approximation fails.

[I turn and face another direction, repeating the series of poses.]

These gender codes do not stop at the skin. Biological sex is the attribution of a set of meanings to a body. When we say, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” we are saying: we have already decided what your body means, and that set of meanings will constrain and enable what you can do, how you can live, how you can desire, how you can love. Or be loved.

[Here my voice gets louder as I walk in long strides perched precariously atop six-inch heels around the edge of the audience encircling me. On this line, my voice and presence feel rallying, more like a suffragette than a lecturer.]

Yes, gender is also a matter of desire: Who or what would you be if you found yourself desiring someone whose gender is ambiguous or shifting?

[I approach one of the other performers, Nikolai McKenzie. I look into his eyes, our faces almost touching, then turn, press my back against his front as he wraps his arms around my waist. As I say the word “shifting,” I take a few steps forward, and his arms drift open, trailing behind me as I move on. I turn and walk towards another performer, John Dombroski.]

You can fuck with the codes, but do so at your own risk. Those who dissent from the gender binary are usually punished. [When I say the word punished, he hits me, open palm, across my cheek. I stumble under the force for a moment, recover, then stand back up and look him in the eye.] Repeatedly. [He hits me again, this time with even more force, and I have to pause to recover myself. When I speak again, it is now with a near manic brightness, the voice of a person trying desperately to behave as if everything is completely as it should be.]

What if the codes were to break down? What if bodies refused the codes? In a society built on a gender binary, in which bodies are made to live within one of two mutually exclusive categories, all for the benefit and privilege of—let’s not forget—one sex, what would happen if gender and sex were made matters of not one or two but many?

[As I speak, I waltz back into the center of the room, stepping beneath myself, turning, waltzing around myself, to come to face a stranger. I slowly unzip the back of my dress, revealing the flesh beneath and the hint of a black g-string.]

As a body comes into view, remember that what you see is already overwritten with what you have been told it means, how that body, its gestures, its pieces and parts are allowed to signify.

[Slipping my arms out of the straps of my gown, I hold the top of the bodice with my finger tips, leaning forward and shimmying my shoulders as I speak. Finally, I lowering the dress, sliding the satin down my body, and letting it fall in a soft heap on the floor. Standing, wearing only black pasties, a black g-string, strands of pearls and black heels, I lift one fist high into the air, a rallying gesture, as I lean into one hip, cross one knee slightly in front of the other: a feminine posture.]

What if when assigned one of two genders, our collective response was: My Body Does Not Mean What You Say It Means.

[During one performance, a woman in the audience stood up and lifted her fist into the air in solidarity. I felt like we were sharing something, a gathering force,  the seeds of a revolution stirring in this sophisticated salon, amidst the twinkling lights and sparkling wine.
After a moment of stillness and silence, I cross to the edge of the circle. John brings me my dress and I step into it; he zips it up. This is for me the most intimate moment in the piece: stripping is a performance, a show, a spectacle. Redressing is always in the aftermath, after the clothes have come off, after whatever stage show or tryst, perhaps the same night, perhaps the next morning. There’s a kind of exposure in dressing oneself in front of others, and it felt necessary to share that tender moment with the audience as a counterpoint to the density of the text, the confidence of the strip tease.]

[text by Michael J. Morris]



TOWARD BELONGING

toward_belonging_2

On April 29 and 30, I will be premiering a new dance work entitled TOWARD BELONGING, featuring performers Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison. We have been developing this week since the beginning of January, and now we are mere weeks away from sharing our work with you. This new dance moves through the mechanics and formal dimensions of sociality, the physical vocabularies of how bodies are together. It examines how bodies follow one another along paths that are straight or along trajectories that veer queerly, how they fall in line and out of step, how they carry one another along and are moved by what other people do, how they gather and separate.

Here are the details for the performances:
TOWARD BELONGING
choreography: Michael J. Morris
performance: Phil Brown Dupont, Justin Fitch, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison

TWO PERFORMANCES:
-Wednesday, April 29, the Sullivant Hall Barnett Theatre, 8pm
-Thursday, April 30, Sullivant Hall Studio 290, 8pm
Sullivant Hall is located on the OSU campus at 1813 North High Street in Columbus, Ohio.
This event is FREE and open to the public.

Please enter from the front (east) entrance facing N. High Street. Other entrances to the building may be locked after hours.
The Barnett Theatre is on the third floor, just off the rotunda.
Studio 290 is on the second floor, in the north-west corner of the building. Follow the second floor north corridor.

Accessibility:
Sullivant Hall has an elevator to the second and third floors, located just off the rotunda.
The seating in Barnett Theatre is folding chairs on risers, with floor space for additional adjustable seating.
The seating in Studio 290 is folding chairs and floor seating.
Please contact me at morris(dot)787(at)buckeyemail(dot)osu(dot)edu if you have any questions about access or have particular access needs.

You can RSVP on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1411144869192127/

toward_belonging_1



dance, intimacy, mortality, and kinship

I found out last night that someone who was very influential to my dancing life is terminally ill, to the point at which she is no longer pursuing treatment. She taught me modern dance technique, composition, and choreography in my BFA program. I danced in one of her dances and costumed five or six of them. Her dances were some of the most beautiful I had seen when I saw them. Whatever else she was working toward in choreography, it was always about groups of people, community, how bodies move with and alongside one another.

Lately as I’ve been getting back into the studio, making dances and teaching technique classes, as well as thinking about the technique class I will be teaching in the fall, she has been very present for me, both in how I think about movement, but even more in how I move. It is not as simple as “Limón technique” or “Humphrey technique”; these are the techniques that I learned from her body, the techniques that lived in her body and how her body lives in and as mine. I’ve spoken about her more in the last several months, specifically in the context of noticing how I move and the persistence of certain movement patterns in my body. Now hearing about her illness and contemplating mortality, I am overwhelmed by the recognition of something that is very particular to dancers and dancing bodies. Any number of physical practices involve body-to-body transference of information, but as dancers working with choreographers, we learn movement that was generated by another person, movement that they made from their own body. We take that movement into our own bodies, and it becomes a part of how we then move. Their movement is already an amalgamation of any number of influences and experiences, the countless ways other people have moved, how those ways of moving were given to their body and hybridized with others as their moving body. The ways we move are never entirely our own; their origins are always countless, extending from body to body back through any number of traditions and histories and locations. And yet how we move is entirely our own, a particular reformulation/assemblage/bricolage of others’ ways of moving integrated in a particular way that emerges from our bodies, from which our bodies emerge. In this sense, how I move is both entirely myself and also carries the movement of others, who they have been, what they taught me, and how it continues to surface through how I move. When I dance, I see CoCo and Garland, Cynthia, Britta, Stephen, Laura, and Amy. I see Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno. I see Karen Eliot and Shawn Hove, and traces of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A which I learned from Labanotation score. I carry these dancers in and as my body, and when I dance, they are present with me. They are present as me.

I remember the first time my twin brother saw a piece that I choreographed in college. He said that it was eery—maybe he even said spooky—to see dancers up on stage moving the ways I moved. There is a haunting quality to dancing. A transubstantiation that takes place through the movement of bodies.

Very early on in grad school, I started using the term “kinesthetic identity” to describe the particular qualities and attributes that make a moving body that moving body, the kinesthetic characteristics that make us each who we are. This was before I learned anything about Butler’s theory of performativity, how we receive patterns of behavior that we did not invent or choose but through which we are constituted. As dancers, we actively engage this kind of performativity: we choose to learn the movement of another, we take that way of moving into our bodies—a most intimate of acts—and we practice it until it becomes a part of who we are. It is no longer entirely conscious; it is not something we choose each time we do it. It is part of us now, part of how we move, part of who we are.

Thinking in this way, there’s a kind of kinship to dancing, a kinship of chosen families, multiple parents, multiple genealogies: a very queer kinship. In our families of origin, we share genetic material and probably some physical features with those with whom we are related. Sometimes we take on shared behavior patterns as well—tones of voice, ways of inhabiting space, ways of gesturing or walking. In dance, we remake our bodies—reshape and rebuild them—with one another. We take each other in and on ourselves, and we craft our resemblances to those with whom we dance. We build kinship bonds in our dancing, and how we move discloses those to whom we belong. Kinships of movement. Dancing kinships.

Facing the loss of someone with and for whom I’ve danced, someone whose movement lives in my body…
I hardly have words for it.
I feel undone, but of course I was already undone by the intimate act of choreography, of dancing. Any “I” that I am was already inhabited by the bodies of other, composed of their movements and behaviors that I internalized and that then became who I was to be. If I feel undone now, when faced with loss, it is in part because being was becoming undone all along.
And yet now the issue of presence and absence is more acute: faced with loss, the imminent absence of someone, I feel the substance of their presence not with me but as me. We as dancers experience something that few others do: we quite literally embody specific others, and when they are lost and we continue to live, we become what remains of their body. Their body is gone, and yet they take on a body that is mine. I was already emerging from their presence in and as my body, and now that body—my body, along with those others who dance as they danced—becomes the only body that they have left.

Update: Prompted by hearing of my loved one’s health, I initially wrote this piece in order to think generally about the meaningful experience of dancing with others. Yesterday evening I received word that she passed away. This is now part of how I can grieve, how I can re-member her, and how I can honor her memory. Thank you for reading and being part of this re-membering.

In memory of Amy McIntosh.

We who spend our lives dancing and making dances with other people are so very privileged.



The Stories We Tell

11026276_766269070121311_3628358447815973670_n

Tonight I had the pleasure of participating in an event called “Tea Time: A Queer Storytelling Event” at the OSU Multicultural Center. The theme of the event was “Crushin’: Stories of Love, Intimacy, and Missed Connections.” This was the second event in a quarterly series. The first took place back in November; I shared a piece entitled “Fragments: A Cartography of Moments on a Gender Terrain.” I love these events because I think they gives folks—particularly queer folks—the opportunity to practice having and sharing their own voices, and practice listening to the voices of others.

The piece I shared this evening is entitled “The Stories We Tell”:

It’s that feeling you get when you hear yourself telling those same stories again for the how-many-times-has-it-been-now? First, second, third date, or maybe lying in bed after a hookup, talking because maybe this person could be more than only a hookup:
“I’m from Louisiana.”
“I was raised in a really conservative Christian family.”
“My twin brother lives in Chicago.”
“Yes, I’m a twin. Yes, we’re identical. We were actually conjoined; that’s why I have that scar.”
“I’m finishing my PhD in Dance Studies. No, it’s not really like So You Think You Can Dance.”
“I’m writing my dissertation about ecosexuality. Yes, I know you don’t know what that means.”
“I tend to be polyamorous.”
“I actually identify as genderqueer.”
And as I hear myself telling all of this again, I feel a little exhausted: can I do this again? How many more times can I tell these same stories to how many more people?
Here we are trying in some way to get closer to each other, to build a little archive together of who we each have been. And at the same time, there are those other feelings: the feeling that this person is a whole new opportunity. I could be anyone I want to be with them. This is my chance to try different patterns of behavior, to reinvent or rediscover myself through the eyes of this person. And the other feeling of vaguely losing track of myself, because who I am with you is someone new, not entirely who I have been. That feeling of seeing you seeing me and not quite yet recognizing myself in the spaces between telling you who I have been and imagining who I might become.

 

“What do you love to do?” I ask. “No, not necessarily what do you do for a living: what do you love to do?” Not everyone knows how to answer that question, but it’s usually the start to anything I want to know. Sometimes the word “love” gets in the way. Or sometimes we very quickly end up in a conversation about, “How do you define love?” Sometimes I ask, “What are you passionate about?” or “What brings you joy?” I’m always a little surprised when people hesitate or say that they have to think about it. No judgment, but aren’t our joys and passions and loves always right beneath the surface? Aren’t they the things that get us out of bed in the morning and get us through the hours of each day?
I realize I’m asking bigger questions than other people might ask, that hesitation and needing to think about it are not so much symptoms of not having loves, passions, and joys, but probably an effect of rarely if ever having been asked to talk about them. But those are the things I want to know.

 

I’m also getting older. I turned 30 this year, and after a series of significant relationships and five years of therapy, I’m starting to also need to know:
Will you be able to see me beneath your projections? Will I?
Are you critically aware of your own wounds, rather than repressing them to your unconscious where they continue to wreak havoc through your decision making in ways you can’t recognize or comprehend?
Will I be able to approach you as an equal rather than as a patient or broken bird who I’m taking care of?
Have I actually learned how to trust someone fully with who I experience myself to be rather than adjusting myself to meet their expectations in order to secure their love?

May Sarton once wrote: “I hate small talk with a passionate hatred. Why? I suppose because any meeting with another human being is a collision for me now. It is always expensive, and I will not waste my time … it is a waste of time to see people who only have a social surface to show … time wasted is poison.”
So I sit there across the table from you or lying next to you, trying to get beneath surfaces—yours and my own—trying to make the most of this collision that carries so much collateral hope and attention and empathy and care, trying to figure out: what are the basic details that I need you to know, my own social surfaces necessary to orient you as to how we might proceed? Who have you been thus far, who are you now, and who do you want to become? What can each of us see or experience with each other that we couldn’t on our own?
It’s like having a partial map that you’ve used before, but now your navigating a completely different city, discovering whether this old map can take you new places, and sometimes revising the map, making new marks and scribbles to try to track where you’re going now.




Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 69 other followers