politics of gender, clothes, and the naked body
-practice as research
Our seeing is already deeply predetermined. Much of the knowledge we gain through vision and our other senses, and the way we direct our seeing, is highly organized. To a large extent this is not a matter of choice but of our cultural and even our neural conditioning. We see conceptually, metaphorically, linguistically. But whatever our culture, we also see to some extent literally. There is always a tension between these two ways of seeing, and between our consciousness of meaning and being…Meaning shapes perception, but in the end perception can refigure meaning, so that at the next stage this may alter perception once again…
-taken from Meaning and Being by David MacDougal
This passage from MacDougal sparked an interest in me to investigate how perception creates meaning in the way we look at gender roles, clothes, and the naked body. How and why do clothes make a man? A woman? How do people perceive others that do not fit in these categories? How about gestures? Depending on our gender, how and why is the way move and gesticulate perceived one way or the other? Why is it so important that we are even clothed at all? When is nudity appropriate, and who decides this? If meaning is created from a pre-condition, a condition given by society, then I wanted to create a performance that would help us to see beyond what the eyes physically see – and into the socio-political and moral climates that create their meaning.
I knew I wanted to explore the naked body as material for the performance. How do you do this in a performance without it looking cheap and contrite? Fortunately enough I came across the ‘grandmother of performance art’, Marina Abramović at the time of this research. “Abramović has used her body as both subject and medium of her performances to test her physical, mental, and emotional limits—often pushing beyond them and even risking her life—in a quest for heightened consciousness, transcendence, and self-transformation” (ART 21 Magazine). Inspired and awestruck by her work, she empowered me to trust my own feelings about exploring the naked body. I realized that this performance needed to be about disrupting the norm, pushing the limits, and taking a risk.
Blessed with four other dancers to take the risk with me, we made a beautiful performance in front of Hamilton Library. Four out of the five of us got completely naked. It was an exhilarating moment – a moment of liberation. It felt like I was my own person for those few minutes standing naked in the lawn on campus with a small and supportive audience. My own person free from the confines of society’s morals, free of the confines of clothes and gender roles. I felt empowered. This is who I am, my world, my body, my destiny.
Before we were able to get to this point of baring it all – we had to build trust. Influenced by the concept of ‘relational accountability’, I knew that this was the only way to work. In fact, it’s the only way to work with people no matter what the job is. Relational accountability “means that the methodology needs to be based in a community context (be relational) and has to demonstrate respect, reciprocity and responsibility (be accountable as it is put into action)” (Wilson). Prompted by this method, my first conversation with dancers was about explaining the piece: the different clothes to wear; the feminine and masculine gestures to work with; the hierarchy clothesline; the chair choreography; and the nudity aspect. I shared also that we only had two rehearsals to create it together. I was very explicit in letting them know they did not have to wear, put on, or take off anything that they didn’t want to. I was also clear about my intention of getting naked at the end of the performance and that they are welcomed to join.
Relational accountability allowed us to be mutually heard, respected, and honored. It made everyone feel like they were a part of the process and not just being told what to do. Nudity is a very loaded subject in our society and I know I had to approach this subject very delicately. I wanted us to all be there for each other, to support each other’s choices, and to not feel any pressure. These were our conditions and we stuck with them. Each of us were held accountable to each other in the process and during the performance. This process of relational accountability is something that I will always use and I mahalo Shawn Wilson for sharing it with all of us.
Another aspect of the process of this performance was auto-ethnography. I asked the dancers if they were willing to journal, take pictures, video, or any other means of documentation of themselves while creating Beyond the Eyes. There were no rules about what they chose to document or how, it just had to relate to the piece being made. Here is a poignant example of what one of the dancers, Lucy, wrote:
I prepared that morning differently having watched The Artist is Present. State of being. Taking my time. Cultivating.
Performance: I loved juxtaposing gestures and oddly matched costumes.
In line, pulling my bra over my head feels exhilarating. Pulling down my underwear even more so. Naked – liberation, standing firm on the ground, feeling the wind. Camaraderie and solidarity we built over the rehearsals helping us take the risks. Looking along our line, compared to the clothed hierarchies we’d played with, I suddenly see that collectively we have just redefined naked as powerful.
The power of dance, as reflected in this practice as research, is evident here in Lucy’s reflection. Dance is my practice, and if I or we, are able to journal and document the processes we undertake to create our art, the amount of insight and information there is invaluable. This topic of the naked and clothed body and the socio-political climates it must navigate through is ripe for the exploration of dance and movement. Practice as research opens an otherwise closed door to the viewers, the audience. These are like the “behind the scene” moments for the artist, but even better. Better because there are no smoke and mirrors, just honest reflections. This vantage point may never be seen otherwise to the viewer or the audience member. Practice as research is not only good for me, but for those who want to see what it was like making it, what we went through, and most importantly, how we felt about it.