This International Women’s Day, make like your mothas from Pose and rob all the fucking museums.
I was thinking of calling this post, “I earned my ‘F’, the fuck did you do?”
There was one teacher I used to fight with, back when I was a dance student. She was also the only teacher to push me, to take me seriously as a dancer from the very beginning. I think her modality was that if a student worked hard, pushed themselves, tried to improve, then her role was to be there. This was, and remains a rare experience in more than 20 years of having teachers. The default — in academic and athletic training — is the teacher who only has eyes for beauty, for the good ones, the ones who both look the part (at that moment in time and place) and who are already accomplished. The stars. They shine bright because the teacher holds the spotlight. This teacher though, we shouted at each other in class, which I think was shocking to at least some other students, who’d maybe never even considered pushing back against abusive demands.
I don’t want to say she was abusive though; she did as she’d learned perhaps, and simply wanted to help me improve. When her pedagogy coincided with me neatly, the memory remains for me a good experience: being pushed hard, exceeding one’s self, being rewarded with a “Good!” from the hardest teacher around. I remember her holding me back between classes, those precious 15 minutes when we’d all rush to grab a snack, get changed, catch ourselves from the previous 90 minutes of ballet before the next 90 of contemporary, and making me do the same steps over and over in the vast and empty unlit studio until I got it, or at least began to get it. Giving a shit on her own time. When it didn’t coincide though, it was nasty shit that still unsettles me. I remember why we shouted at each other in front of more than 30 of my year, me at the barre, sweating, in a unitard, nowhere to hide myself, pushing back hard ’cos there was nowhere else to go. Same person. Same people.
The why occurred to me today while I was wobbling and sliding on a half-log of wood, the lower half a semicircle rolling back and forth, and me on top breathing in and raising my arms, breathing out and lowering them, working my voice, back there again, learning, being taught. Before I had to stand on that unstable log, we’d been doing the same exercises, knees ever so slightly bent, and after a year of solid cycling with almost no problems, my knee did that so familiar twinge. This shit’s supposed to be behind me. And we start standing on one leg, waggling the other, a movement I’ve done so, so many times in dance classes back to the beginning, and there’s me, fucking crying.
Yesterday, I read that Dr. Rachel McKinnon won at the 2018 UCI Masters in the track sprint. First on Helen Wyman’s Instagram, then all up in my cycling news. Then I read the pile-on. Because Rachel is a trans woman. I’m holding on to women like Wyman, and Amanda Batty, professional cyclists who stood the fuck up in the moment, and sucked up a torrent of abuse (which is why I bailed from Twitter) to defend Rachel. We’re still so close to the shit I grew up in, which Laverne Cox, when talking about those ‘bathroom bills’ said (paraphrasing here) the purpose of this is to exclude trans women from public life, to erase us.
I described myself as an ex-dancer today, in voice therapy. The why of regarding myself as that currently is to do with this exclusion; the why of my preference for training alone and solitary physicality entirely bound with this. I describe it as ‘potential bullshit’, as in minimising, or reduction of. What bullshit will I have in a dance class? From the teacher, from other students? How do I deal with the changing rooms? How do I balance my need to dance, to be physical, and my selfhood, with a ballet teacher whose life experience has been built on achieving a kind of perfect heteronormativity? I’m just here to dance, but have to drag around a sack of shit in case ‘potential bullshit’ has to be dealt with.
I started serious cycling a few years ago to improve my aerobic endurance, and to deal with those unhappy knees. Which grew immediately into a love of shredding in forests because I am a) a high-speed, high-risk bogan, and b) fucking love forests. Which grew into my currently primary ‘dance’ training, and so much more. And I do it alone because, well, see how Rachel got treated for daring to not fuck off and die. In all this, I did find new things which, you know, cloud, silver lining, etc, like Amanda Batty describing herself as an “insanely competitive, capable and angry racer”, and fuck me do I ever see myself in that, and it’s aspirational.
But there I am, wobbling on half a log, saying to my coach, “Yeah, this is really fucking with my head.” Because of shit I had to swallow, compromises I had to make, in order to both stay with dance (’cos it literally saved my life), and stay with myself, and 20 years later, that still has to be dealt with. I think there’s something in how trans, non-binary, intersex people negotiate physical training, be it dance, sport, singing, playing an instrument — all of which is highly gendered and rigorously enforced — that becomes a sort of chronic abuse and trauma. I want to differentiate this from the default abuse and trauma that pretty much every cis woman, female or feminine-identified dancer or athlete I know of has personally lived through — and all have witnessed and had to work within — which in its mildest from manifests as a bitterness and cynicism towards those early training years, those teachers, and to the practice itself, even while both abuses are indisputably part of the same situation. And another qualification: When I talked about the stars, those accomplished young dancers, I’m not criticising them as dancers or people, or the work they put in: even the ‘natural’ ones worked themselves raw and gave up so much just to be there. I’m criticising the narrative which is addicted to the success story of the naturals, or conversely that of the one who everyone said was talentless but who persevered and made it. There’s still the rest of those 30–something dancers in the studio, and all of us, including those two have their lives and training defined by these fairytale narratives.
So back to the chronic abuse and trauma then. My thinking lately is that for trans, non-binary, intersex people, living one’s selfhood is incessantly hit against by the culture, history, and methodology of training. Training often slides uneasily close to abusive, or not so healthy or good — and all those words are loaded in themselves and weapons as well as descriptors simply because of the terrain they operate in, the implicit meaning and value they are given. Me doing intervals or committing to a long session is agreeing to physical discomfort, suffering, a lot of mental and emotional anguish (of the“Please stop, this isn’t really fun” type), yet I know also it’s part of the process and I enjoy it. This is utterly different from being clad in skin-tight lycra and the associated cultural judgement (of bodies in general but specifically here female or feminine bodies, or those perceived as such) from which there is nowhere to hide, which I had in those years of dance training and potentially every time I go out on my bike. And that is different again from doing the same as a trans or non-binary or intersex person. However I might have lived the last twenty years, every time I step into a training environment, part of the process will be receiving hits for having the body I do, for living my selfhood. I walked away from dance because of this. I train alone because of this.
We went and saw Mission Impossible: Fallout and laughed for 2½ hours at the brilliant kinetic absurdity: Tom Cruise, part of the Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton lineage of getting audiences to pay stacks to watch them do mad stunts. We ate chocolate and ice cream and nachos – cinema nachos! – and drunk Sekt. In the Kino. This is Germany and everywhere is drinking erlaubt. Ten years today, ago Dasniya and I met in her Fabrik studio in Uferstraße.
I just stare at this photo ’cos I almost can’t believe it. Look at my beautiful sisters.
If you’re not watching Pose, child, I can not help you.
Dear friends and colleagues,
We would like to invite you to the reprise of the pieces Fugen and Solo for Lea by Isabelle Schad.
Both pieces are part of a series of works that Isabelle Schad subtitles as portraits and will be shown as Double Bill on the same weekend in HAU Hebbel am Ufer and Sophiensaele Berlin.
We would be very happy to see you here or there.
Thursday, 05.04.2018, 19:00
Friday, 06.04.2018, 19:00
HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin (HAU3)
Solo for Lea
Saturday, 07.04.2018, 19:30
Sunday, 08.04.2018, 19:30
Fugen “… is a complex work that challenges both the choreographer Isabelle Schad and her audience in previously unseen ways. And thus creates opportunities to go beyond borders.” (Katharina Schmidt)
With Fugen, Berlin choreographer and dancer Isabelle Schad continues her work between musical concepts and their expression in movement. Coming from a music background and a lifelong interest in the polyphonic work of J.S. Bach, she attempts to look at her own (hi)story and the origins of (her) movement between discipline and pleasure. Fugen is an autobiographical work in which the performer’s body serves as an example for the construction of the individual within disciplines and systems one cannot escape from.
Solo for Lea, “A study in minimalism, a physical portrait and a sculpture in motion … a sublime draft.” (Elena Philipp)
Solo for Lea is a meeting between Isabelle Schad and Lea Moro. The work attempts to draw a very personal portrait of Lea Moro, dealing with the specificities of her body, its rhythms, its contours, colours and energies, playing with form-aspects of cubism and Picasso’s drawings in one dash. Together Schad and Moro engage in constellations of forming and disfiguring, in which the body itself becomes the stage: the space, place and matter that is the subject of observation.
Showcase Beat Le Mot — Super Collider
HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin (HAU2)
- Sun 10.12.2017, 19:00
- Mon 11.12.2017, 19:00
- Tue 12.12.2017, 19:00
- Wed 13.12.2017, 19:00
Laser pointers write “Game Over” in the sky. The performers of Showcase Beat Le Mot do not want to waste any electricity on apocalyptic resignation but instead to expand the frame of discourse to include outer space. That’s why in their new performance they’re sending danced messages and mumbled formulas into the outskirts of the universe. “True, beautiful and good were sought, skewed, quirky and helpful were found.” The antennas for the extra-terrestrial messages are switched from receiving to sending. This is not documentary theatre about the powerlessness to act in a surging reality but an experiment that works like a utopian slingshot. The stage setting is the message, the audience the amplifier. Space acts instead of fake facts. Always alongside trouble. Welcome to the half-truth about everything.
Concept, Space, Text, Realisation: Showcase Beat Le Mot
Shibari: Dasniya Sommer
Sound/Music: Sebastian Meissner
Costumes: Clemens Leander
Video: Alexej Tschernij
Light: Klaus Dust
Movements: Nina Kronjäger
Stage construction: Jörg Fischer
Production: Olaf Nachtwey & Johanna J. Thomas
Thanks to: Alexander Djuric and Etel Adnan
A month after I was in Wuppertal, I finally finish editing all the images from the Von der Heydt-Museum, which I sprinted through on a Friday morning before Gala and Michael’s dress rehearsal, two hours of indiscriminate camera-ing. Michael said, “I’ve lived here two years; never been.” Well it’s a regional museum, so you never know if it’s going to be banging, sad, or somewhere in-between.
Somewhere in-between, with moments or rather bloody good, plus fuck that was well done why don’t more museums do it like that? Lighting was a bit crap, lots of the natural stuff, which is good, but not diffused enough and pointing at heavily varnished old paintings, which is not, and some rooms where the clowns took over the illumination, so I’m wondering if the museum people even look at their own art. They don’t like people photographing though, that’s for sure. Cheap entrance price and utter thieving gouging ten euros to flop out a camera. Kinda stunned at that, like, you’re not the Louvre, you know that, eh?
Not much mediæval stuff, which is always my first stop, but there is a 1563 print of Martin Luther (minus nail holes), plus a stack of Albrecht Dürer copper engravings, which are achingly beautiful. I especially love the bagpipe player and the more disturbing works that didn’t photograph well, so no wild boar with an extra set of legs on its back, nor his mythological stuff. Past the wooden sculptures covering 500 years in a room, and into into another dim room with holy crap!
Francisco Goya’s Los caprichos. Everyone knows him for his Los desastres de la guerra series, but Los capricos was the my inspiration for bitches 婊子 and is by far my favourite work of his. And here’s half a dozen (they probably have the whole series buried somewhere) lined up along a wall.
Then what happens is that “Why don’t more museums do it like that?” thing. Nearby a Rembrandt engraving (the Zweiter Orientalerkopf one) is a 19th century Japanese watercolour, heavy orange sun setting over a turbulent wave, followed by Jan van Bylert’s Singende Hirte. It’s just the beginning. Some rooms later, when we’re deep in 20th century German Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit all over the walls, the centre of the room is Japanese and South-East Asian sculpture and works on paper. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen artwork from across the globe arranged like that in the same room … same museum? Coming up a blank. It’s rare even to see, say, Buddhist sculpture in the same museum as European art, outside of monster museums like London’s V&A where multiple departments are under one roof, but even there that former stuff is anthropology or The Asian Collection, and somehow implicitly not art — it’s craft or religious iconography, or Other … anything other than proper art coming from proper artists. So to put the two together, two thousand years East and South-East Asian mingled with half that of European; the head of a stone Ghandara Buddha figure from the first to third century next to Adolf Erbslöh’s Blaue Reiter period Schwebebahn; Javanese Wayang kulit shadow puppets and a folding screen by Kano Mitsunobu beside hard 21st century works by Sabine Moritz, Tamara K.E., and Tatjana Valsang; they work together so well and it isn’t an imperative to see the former as art like the latter but it becomes very uncomplicated and unremarkable to do so.
To see this stuff that’s always less art than art because it’s ‘for a purpose’ or whatever, be seen firstly and even solely as art is unexpected and radical. See the colour and that delicate but relentless Expressionism in the tapestry of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s from his time in Switzerland, facing off an equally colourful and delicate Chinese or Japanese Buddha / Luohan from centuries earlier. If nothing else, even if this arrangement does nothing for you, at least these works are being seen. And I’d totally be up for a big museum that does it like this. Imagine being in the Louvre or on Museum Insel in Berlin and not going into separate museums for each arbitrary delineation, but wandering through European mediæval art, and Ghaznavid Islamic art, and Japanese Kamakura art, and Chinese Song and Yuan, and South-East Asian, and the mediæval Americas and Africa and Australia … a global mediæval art exhibition mashed with a 20th century one. Sometimes I think museums are just going through the motions of museum-ing and exhibition-ing — however awesome their collections are — and then I find something like this, not this neo-liberal museum bollocks infestation, but something profoundly Museum: here is art, let’s look at it all together and find out what that looks like, what it causes, how it enriches all the artworks.
Complete divergence here. Back whenever Alte Nationalgalerie had the Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende exhibition (almost two years ago), amongst all the sublime brilliance they had this Degas piece. He’s a sleazy tosser, but I have a love for his ballet pieces, like Tänzerinnen im Probensaal, which I cried over. Fucking art. So I’m in Von der Heydt-Museum, and there’s a Degas! And it’s the same one. Didn’t cry this time, I’m hard, me. There was another of his too. Yeah, I know he’s a cliché, but it’s because he started it. All of that was to say, same work, different exhibition, different museum, different wall, different lighting, different companion works, different audience (a lot smaller and quieter for one), all that makes a different artwork. I didn’t even recognise it as the same one. I was talking with Robert Bartholot about this, how to photograph art, and how the work changes as fast as the light moving outside, and I dunno, maybe compare the two. Same, different.
Other special works. Besides Adolph Erbslöh’s Schwebebahn, cos I was in Wuppertal and the Schwebebahn is the best Bahn. How about Bahnhof Gesundbrunnen? My home station. I know that bridge so well even if that station hasn’t looked like that since the ’40s. There was also an Edvard Munch, which I got mad excited about, cos I don’t think I’ve ever seen his stuff on a wall. A whole bunch of 20th century post-war German art, almost all by men until the century flips over, Kuno Gonschior’s massive yellow minimalist / colour field / abstract expressionist piece was definitely a fave. So much I missed and haven’t even mentioned.
Worth going to? If you’re in or near Wuppertal, then yeah, says Frances who lived in Melbourne and went to the NGV maybe once — and didn’t pay attention. It’s difficult to modulate this for people who aren’t like me, who don’t travel hours with an agenda of binging art. If I was in the Ruhrgebiet or Düsseldorf for a bit, then it’d be a no-brainer: go to Wuppertal, see museums, see Pina Bausch. See Pina Bausch, ride the Schwebebahn.
Six hours on the Autobahn and straight into the theatre to find Gala and Michael hard at it. I reckon they must be near the end, arriving so late as I did, but they keep going, like they were waiting as long as possible for me to get there before they started. In the end I missed maybe 20 minutes of their pre-general on Thursday evening and had the delight of their sweaty hot bodies jumping on me the instant they realised who the tardy arrival was.
Turns out missing the beginning is crucial to understanding what’s going on. Without Gala’s first monologue the piece only has the meaning I put on it; it’s a strong argument for context and against interpretation. So I’ll start with interpretation. A woman in a long, pale-lemon dress, cut just below the half-way line of her calves. Sleeveless, but over a dirty white short-sleeved shirt. A man in Oxford Blue corduroy trousers and a blue-grey unbuttoned shirt over a dirty white singlet. Both bare foot. A stage coated with ash, four wooden chairs, and downstage where the stage manager’s box would be if it were on-stage instead of off, a table, chair, computer, sound and light desks, spaghetti-ing cables onto the floor into a red effects box, and a single microphone on a long cable.
It’s one of the enduring clichés of dance theatre, ballet, contemporary dance and all, the single man and woman on stage, dressed so, performing the clichés of heteronormativity. It would be a comedy, except it’s not. It’s a cliché also of gay male choreographers making such work, almost a compulsion, like having to ‘reinterpret’ Giselle or Swan Lake. I’m watching these two dancers, tall, lithe, strong, who I’ve known for well over a decade in various cities and countries, who have danced together for thirteen years now, who I adore — so let’s not pretend I have any interest in lip service to ‘objectivity’ here — who I love watching dance, especially when it’s their own dancing, especially together. I’m watching them, and without the benefit of that first monologue, wonder how awkward it’s going to be if they fall over into that cliché. And giving them credit here, I know them for mercilessly mocking all the tropes and stereotypes of dance, both with their words and with their bodies. Yet sometimes the piece makes itself, and sometimes even the most caustic find themselves wanting to say something on those roles and identities and selfhoods which are real and lived, which we have to negotiate even if we ourselves are not fully part of, even while they are so often used to fill the void of ideas.
The next day I see the whole work. I pay attention. I listen to Gala say, “Have you said any words of love today? There are no words of love today.” Say, whisper, bellow. Her voice is a typhoon blasting the stage, pushing the air before it. Rage, hate, anguish. This is the story of Medea, who kills her children after her husband’s betrayal. This is the story of Gala. In Genesis, Michel Serres says,
The more I think, the less I am me. If I think something, I am that something. If I simply think, I am no longer anyone. In any case, me thinking am nothing.
[…] Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is the subject known as I. The more I dance, the less I am me. If I dance something, I am that something, or I signify it. When I dance, I am only the blank body of the sign.
When Gala and Michael reference the story of Medea and Jason, the Gods take an interest. Not to say it’s an invocation, but rather to recite the lines from Euripides’ Medea, and to find or thread together multiple variations, be it Euripides, Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio, or their own private lives deferred through these variations is enough to reverse the relationship. It is Medea who dances her life through Gala as much as it is Gala who draws on Medea to tell her own. It is a repetition across time, through each work referencing a predecessor, tracing branchings and bifurcations back to Medea. It is a repetition also in their bodies, dancing themselves, dancing each other.
I want to diverge from philosophy here and write of the awe I feel seeing these two together. Because this is becoming something of a review and not just photography and a travel document, Gala and Michael first danced together in Leigh Warren & Dancers, Michael coming from Oz Ballet; Gala from WAAPA (by way of me and a couple of pieces back when I actually made dance). Michael went on to Compañía Nacional de Danza in Madrid, while Gala went to Charleroi Danses then Ultima Vez in Brussels. As for why I was seeing them in Wuppertal, Michael joined Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch a while ago. So we’re talking about two highly capable dancer-performers, who have worked across dance, theatre, opera in Europe and Australia while making their own work together for much of that time, and ‘officially’ since 2012 under the name cie. OFEN. They move, alone and together, with brutal clarity. This isn’t the kind of work you can make in six weeks by throwing together some steps and ideas; it’s a knowing of self and each other down to their bones, worked into their bones. Even if they had gone fully into the cliché, I’d be destroyed by the beauty of them together.
The inevitability in their dancing. They compound that with dialogue, or with just the mundane acts of technical concerns, changing the lights, sound. There’s a moment where Gala is on all fours, around the centre of the work, the light and the energy has gone into a dark place, like blood is going to be spilt — or already has and you don’t even feel it yet — and Michael, barely above a whisper, spits, “Get. Up.” Savage. A slap to the face. Hatred where there was supposed to be love; betrayal and resentment and spite. You want to see work like this. You want the shit mediocrity of the cliché exposed for what it is: violence and abuse. Those saccharine dramatic conceits of the love story rest on the unmentionable bodies of murdered women, and while Medea might have murdered her children, this is projection: it is not women who are the murderers, not terrorists who women must fear, but the men in our midst, the men closest.
It’s a fucking hard, brave work.
It’s a beautiful work. I’ve said that already. Here is the violence of abuse, and here also is something to aspire to, here is a way out. Michael and Gala, Gala and Michael. Maybe a decade and some years is what’s needed for such a work. The care they take with each other, the familiarity, even or especially when they get rough, when it needs to be endured. The matter of fact getting on with it, like digging in the garden, there’s a complete absence of pretence that also doesn’t try and be some shite authenticity, like here’s the genuine, essential, real Gala and Michael for your entertainment. I want to say more, but then it becomes personal, and the point of a performance is to defer biography. So I will end with the end. Michael is back at the table. He and Gala have danced together, separate but together, increasingly apart, the light has increased for this last somewhat third or act, he sits and watches her as she comes from upstage in front of the chairs, dancing, dancing, and fades the lights, she’s smiling. Alone, survived, no longer Medea, Gala dancing, smiling.