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.