atlanta eke – intimacy in dance

Posted on October 8, 2010 by


tell me a little about your performance background,

Growing up I played a lot of tennis and my point of difference as a player was that I would, more often than not, win a match if I was being watched – by my dad, other parents, passers by. In a match situation when there was no one watching me play I would have to imagine there was in order to win. I began to perform, always, audience or not, performance has become something I tend to practice a lot, perhaps always. As for performance in dance, when I was 6 years old I performed my first solo in the rap section of a piece called ‘Things That Make You Go Mmmmm’, at the chadstone shopping centre. The ‘running man’ was a dance that naturally resonated in my body at the time, I could do it well and this was something I wanted to show – since then my interests in ‘showing’ what I can ‘do’ have faded and my attentions are directed more toward the relationship of myself to the audience through questioning what it is to perform and why.

and you performed a piece recently as part of the next wave festival in melbourne that appeared in private dances curated by nat cursio as part of the dance program?

This piece was titled You and Me. I was interested in making an experiential piece to fit the context of private dances. I thought the set up for private dances was very clever. The audience was entering an unfamiliar space in which to experience dance performance but were completely nurtured and made comfortable by the lovely guides and the quality and generosity of the food and drink provided.
I also think that the concept of the night was very strong in setting up a framework for me to really think about what dance could be in this environment. It was a situation I felt completely supported within but with freedom to make my own clear choices.

It made sense to stage some sort of situation.
I was not interested in producing entertainment or performing a three minute dance routine – to have an audience member sit in a tent and watch me execute ‘dance moves’ seemed simplistic.

You and Me was such that as the audience member entered the tent they were confronted with me standing there in a gorilla suit. I would watch them as they would watch me. Within moments a gentle love song would begin to play and I would move slowly toward the audience member offering my gorilla hands, which they would take and we would look, or not, into each others eyes. As time went on I would begin to slowly dance with the audience member, drawing them closer to me, the gorilla, for a romantic intimate dance.

After some time I would unzip a screen separating two areas of the tent and it would be revealed that there was a third person in the space viewing the entire experience from behind the screen. I would then let the viewer out the back of the tent and the audience member would be sat down to watch the next person come in and have the same intimate dance with the gorilla, and so the cycle continued every three minutes for two hours.

when you put it together you talked about how you have been influenced by feminist theory and the idea of the male gaze, for me this was a fantastic merging of ideas and practice, how did this come together in your head?

I am often considering what it is to be watched when performing – how people look at my body on stage. It is inevitable to be subject to the ‘male gaze’ and objectification as performer, so I try to work at dissolving opportunities for this asymmetric power relationship between the viewer and viewed.

I recently read an article written by Elizabeth Dempster – Visioning the Body, Feminism, Ideokinesis and the New Dance, in the 1993 Autumn edition of Writings on Dance. She presents arguments about how ocularcentrism, a vision centered world, produces a “phallocentric perspective”.

The theory, as I understood it, was that when sight is the dominant sense of how we consume the world (which I think it is – especially in western societies where the saturation of images within mass media nourishes capitalistic consumer society) it inevitably positions females as lesser than males – the image of the female body exists as a castrated version of the male body. I don’t necessarily agree with this theory but it became a good starting point to think about how to pervert the sensory experience of the audience member within the tent, where the seeing of the performer would be in close proximity.

Initially I was keen to remove the sense of vision from the performance all together and stage the piece in complete darkness – to produce a sensory experience that emphasized perhaps more maternal senses such as smell and touch. – I think this is where the idea of gorilla suit began, generating a new textural surface for the audience to experience through touch. I wanted to create a close physical connection with the audience whilst manipulating levels of comfort and intimacy through what they were hearing, being a love song.

But instead of taking away vision altogether I wanted vision to become the perversion of the experience. So instead of eliminating the opportunity for the position of the ‘male gaze’ I wanted to transform it and decided to create a space where the audience member could notice it for themselves – and even perhaps elicit a ‘female gaze’ – where the audience member coud feel burdened by the position of looking in on a private, intimate experience, and becomes uncomfortable even reluctant to gaze at all.

As well as this, by placing the audience member in the situation before they viewed it was to also stimulate an empathetic relation to the performance and to manipulate their memory of what they had just experienced which then affects how they see. ‘Seeing’ with memory/empathy – subjectivity instead of objectivity.

the first part of the work created really different feelings in audiences, some people seemed to enjoy the closeness of the experience whilst some were very very confronted, i wonder how much of this was the suit and how much of it was the act of close dancing?

The face of the gorilla was a little confronting, I would have preferred a softer expression but the costume shop didn’t have any friendly gorilla heads, -but this was a nice challenge for me to override the intimidation of the mask with gentle affection and reassuring love, though sometimes I just felt like a creep, especially with younger girls – girls my age. I felt like I was in some way assaulting them, I would imagine myself as some slimy guy hiding in a gorilla suit in order to feel up girls.

Within the three minutes, after initial reactions to the confrontation of the gorilla suit, I would notice people progress through different levels comfort, there was a lot of awkwardness and shyness, resistance and even disgust, though some times there was an instantaneous freedom and release. I found it difficult to dance with tall men, especially if they became really into the experience and would start controlling the situation. – this made me feel like a prostitute. I began to question whether this situation I had set up for You and Me was not so far removed from prostitution and more generally is performance just another form of prostitution?

I preferred short women that would continuously alternate from a hysterical giggle to a released softening into the experience. On the opening night a woman entered the tent and we danced to elvis preselys love me tender. As we danced she began to cry. I began to invent all different types of scenarios in my mind as to what must have been happening in her life a this time for her to respond in such a strong way. and felt terrible that I had to reveal to her that some one was watching us together and she was about to do the same.
It soon became apparent that this work would be quite emotionally draining for myself. Every three minutes for two hours, I would try to fall in love and give to that person what they needed and would respond well too. I found mimicking the body language an effective starting point. It seemed that my timing was very important to this piece, and some love songs were more affective in assisting gentle gradual allurements, with both lightness and depth, forward yet non-intrusive affection, being transparent and fun but deeply passionate. The few times where I felt the piece worked was when there was a sense of joy in the intimacy paired with an awkward, even horrific unease – I think in the context of Private Dances it made sense to try and evoke these things.

many ppl thought you were a man – which i think is quite a flip in terms of the male gaze stuff you were talking about…

my ‘male gaze’ investigations are applied to the thinking about audience and performer relations regardless of sex, but more as noticing positions of power. But I did try to become and man or women depending on whatever I imagined the audience member desired and would fall in love with.

On hearing some feedback I do not know if I was successful in obliterating the ‘male gaze’ in You and Me, and perhaps I even unintentionally put myself in this masculine position instead. One audience member said upon entering the tent he felt that he became the performance, even before he knew someone was watching him from behind the screen, he felt that he was being watched by me – hidden safely behind the mask of the gorilla, this made him uneasy and feel himself objectified – this was not my intention to reverse the situation for potential objectification, but to find a place in between, or to produce a to and fro of perception and responsibility within the staged experience.

It seemed obviously pleasurable for some audience members when they realized they were to view an intimate dance. Most people liked that they couldn’t be seen – I find this disturbing. But it is how audience is conditioned to behave. Others I think were left confused about what just happened to them and it was clear some felt upset, because the becoming audience and being given the space to notice ones ‘male gaze’ it completely perverted the reality of what they just experienced.

do you feel like dance has the opportunity to cross over into different audience/performer relationships such as this or is this a specific thing to private dances?

Dance performance always exists in a relationship to the audience. I am there, the audience is there, we are sharing space in real time. but this is a relationship where we know our roles very well and behave accordingly. I am interested in redefining these relations by diminishing the opportunity for an audience member to sit passively in the darkness of the theatre and expect to be entertained by spectacles. I think people want to be entertained. They want to be separate from – they want to admire skill and virtuosity from a safe distance. The interactivity of You and Me and Nat Cursios decision to position performance inside tents, where there was nowhere for the audience to hide, were affective strategies in dismantling conservative formats but I think it is also possible and fun to work within the existing conventions of presenting dance in theatre -in order to break them.

A current incentive to produce work is to find strategies that allow audiences to activate themselves and their own perceptions of what the experience is. I don’t want to do it for them, and I don’t want to bore them with a performance in which I ‘show’ what I can ‘do’ with my body, inferring perhaps they ‘cant do’ and so there – having a pacifying affect. The context of Private Dances gave me the space, whilst feeling totally supported, to exercise these curiosities

where can you see this kind of work going in your practice, is it something you will continue with?

I will continue to experiment with ways to allow for the production of meaning in my work that is outside conventional representation and I am interested in experiential work, but not necessarily interactivity on a physical level. What performance can produce conceptually is central to the way I work, but it is through the ‘doing’ that the concept evolves and I hope to continually undo the way in which I do every time i do do – as to keep things interesting for myself and audiences.

Posted in: Interviews