Sons of Sissy: revisionist subversion

 

Simon Mayer says Sons of Sissy, his hybrid dance-performance piece for himself and three other male performers, was inspired by his “permanent interest in looking for what connects us and what we share as human beings instead of what separates us from one another.”
The connector he has chosen to examine here is folk dance—specifically the folk dance of his native Austria, and more specifically the schuhplattler—and folk music, art that is “made to be shared, to bring people together.”
He subjects these forms to a merciless, sometimes sardonic, sometimes absurdist deconstruction in order to explore what he calls “concrete topics”: society, spirituality and particularly history. History, he points out, repeats itself. Right-wing politicians are using tools and tactics similar to those used by the Nazis—and one of those tactics is “to get closer to the people by using folk culture as their property and tool of advertising.”
His approach to the light and the dark sides of social ritual opens up such a broad and fertile field of reflection that you hardly know where to dig first.
The schuhplattler, you might think, is folk dance at its most lumbering and artless: an ancient, barely-disguised village-boys contest of fierce masculine jollity in which the participants stamp and clap and slap their thighs and legs and march about.
Perhaps taking his cue from Orwell, who said all art is propaganda, Mayer stretches this marching aspect to its utmost, sending one of the dancers off in a long, stamping route-march round and round the performing space, a strenuous and noisy exercise in robotic self-erasure that reminds us that Hitler came from the same place as the schuhplattler.
At the same time, something quite else is going on. Mayer doesn’t mention gender, but he doesn’t need to: the topic is front and centre throughout, not only because the four male dancers perform much of second half of the show in the nude (the nudity becomes commonplace very quickly) but perhaps more importantly because, of necessity, the female roles in the traditional dances are taken by men.
We see the schuhplattler twice, once clothed and once not. The removal of clothing shows male aggression at its most elemental and its most ludicrous. But it also holds male-female convention up to the light. It may be simply coincidence that the two dancers with the longest hair are the ones who take the female roles, but we are repeatedly encouraged to reconsider conventional role assumptions as naked men clutching imaginary lapels twirl their equally naked partners in traditional choreographic interlacings.
To muddy the gender question even further, two of the naked men later engage in a slow, standing, face to face embrace. The episode had a certain poignancy given the ironies implicit in the sexual conventionality of folk art forms, but by contrast with the subtlety of the messaging of the rest of the show it also seemed suspiciously like a deliberate pushing of the envelope, just because.
The show (just over an hour without intermission) opens and closes with musical episodes of great sweetness—a laendler-like tune decorated with fluty yodeling to start (with the singer-performers playing a variety of folk instruments) and a melodious and melancholy piece of four-part harmony as the lights fade. In between, the sound is widely various, often loud (at one point one of the performers inserts ear plugs) and generated by folksy sources: blaring brass, crashing cowbells dropped repeatedly from a height.
At one point, one performer curls up on the ground and howls repeatedly in apparent—and because of its duration, genuinely moving—anguish. That element of duration is an important one. Much of what we see and hear is taken to what feels like excessive (certainly uncomfortable) length—physical exhaustion is a running theme—and we have the time to speculate on the jackboot force of relentless repetition of very simple messages.
Orwell (again) said that to use the word ‘political’ about art refers to the desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. In that sense, Mayer has created a crafty piece of subversion that offers unspoken political commentary through the unexpected and provocative revision of a fragment of established social tradition.

 

Sons of Sissy was at the Dance Centre, Vancouver, April 4-6, 2019.

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Wen Wei Wang: souls unbound

 

 

March, 2019

 

A couple of years ago Wen Wei Wang made a dance called Dialogue, for six male dancers. It was about ways that we make contact with each other—or don’t. The piece threw a transformative cloak of grace and order over roughshod male energy and competition.
Now he has made Ying Yun, for five female dancers. They are not at all alike, these pieces, and yet they have a similarity, and that similarity is in their generosity and understanding of what it is to be human. They render visible the idea of souls unbound.
As a dancer, Wen Wei Wang always commanded the stage with disciplined power and inherent elegance, a coiled, oiled versatility that was a product of his background (his upbringing in China, and his experience as a dancer in styles ranging from Peking opera and Chinese ballet to a wide range of Western contemporary movement).
That breadth of experience in life and art inevitably shapes his expression as a choreographer. He respects and celebrates the individual and shows us what it is like to be truly free in the body. Being free in the body is not as easy as it might sound. And it is a paradox of sorts that this sense we get of meeting individuals at their most liberated—souls unbound—is founded on the controlled elegance and restrained power that so distinguished his performance.
The new piece investigates the lifelong influence of what he calls his close affinity with femininity and womanhood. It is dedicated to his late mother—the title, Ying Yun, is his mother’s name: Ying, he tells us, could mean hero, and Yun indicates clouds. Because of this, we are bound to be looking and listening for references to his Chinese background, and we can fancy we hear them occasionally in the street sounds on the soundtrack. We might also imagine her spirit in the projected image of a glowing sun-circle that dominates the stage for a time then diminishes to a tiny ball of glowing defiance.

As always with his work, we see a range of influences from his dancing career (ballet tropes: the dying swan, the impossibly beautiful princess) along with the torqued joints, deep, powerful squats, leaps and lunges and swirls of the modernists. The bodies of the dancers imbue this movement with an aura of the feminine—soft power, controlled with a restraint and discipline reminiscent of the work and teaching of his mentor and partner, the late Grant Strate: a solemn, alert grace.

There is generally something heroic going on in Wen Wei Wang’s work, in the sense that we witness the human creature striving nobly; it is evident here in the sustained poise and exquisite control of these women as they push to their expressive limits. We see them as confident individuals, collaborating, respecting each other’s beings, admitting us to human truths through human movement: the same grace beyond gender that we saw in Dialogue. Together on a single bill these pieces would make a powerful pairing.

Grace under fire: Wen Wei Wang

 

November 23, 2017

Wen Wei Wang’s latest choreography, Dialogue, which opened the Dance in  Vancouver biennial last night, continues his explorations of themes of inter-human interchange, our need to make connections with others and our anxiety  when attempts to connect are misunderstood.
Six male dancers lay their bodies and souls on the line in a linked series of solo, duo and group pieces that approach this universal human dilemma from various skewed viewpoints, some of them wryly comical, some of them bittersweet. They give us glimpses of human creatures in all their flawed grace.
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Devils and angels

 

June 19, 2002

KRAKOW, Poland: The airport empties quickly after my flight’s arrival—it seems to be the last of the day—and I am the last person standing. I have neither cash nor transportation, nor do I have Polish, not that that matters: I walk up and down the length of the terminal for an hour or so and see not a soul. Continue reading

Carol Shields asks some interesting questions

October 10, 1997

What’s it like to be a man at the end of the 20th century? Carol Shields had no idea. So she put the question to a variety of men she knew—her husband Don, her friends (she doesn’t have many who are men, she says), teaching colleagues, acquaintances from her busy life as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and University of Winnipeg chancellor and English professor. Continue reading

Martin Amis, man of extremes

 

October 25, 1989

Writing about sex is something Martin Amis is famous for, but he calls it a writing challenge. Few modern writers, he says, do sex “without embarrassing us slightly.” Even Updike he finds slightly embarrassing. “Lawrence is full of it—again, embarrassing to me.”

What makes him really squirm is “when I think the writer is actually getting into what turns him on—I think you lose universality and it becomes rather pathetic. They let you look where you don’t want to see.” Mind you, people do tend to think that writers have lived through the sexual experiences they describe, which makes him afraid that “people think I must be weirder than I am.”

He’s lively and quick in conversation, with a smart wit built on shared references and shared humour. In his writing, he says, he enjoys “heading toward the cartoon and the caricature. I like extremes rather than complexities and subtleties. It suits the way I write.”

He has a Swiftian mercilessness to his satire, but thinks the term “disgust” is too strong to describe the moral stance that shines like a beacon through his work. “All writers are basically keen on life, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the business of putting it down on paper … and putting it down means celebrating it, in my case through vicious laughter.”