THEY GIVE THOUGHT BODY
What does it mean to you to have, to be, a body?
– Litia Perta
»They give thought body« is a dance work and a performance piece that does exactly what the title says it does — embodies thoughts. Over the course of 60 minutes, the audience is invi- ted into a range of fragmentary experiences around what it is to have, and to be, a body. Scenes, characters, movement sche- ma and narratives appear to lack both beginnings and ends, and the absence of linear narration becomes increasingly ob- vious as the work progresses. We are given to see naked female bodies adorned with the ears and noses of bunny rabbits and wearing only orthopedic shoes and socks, we encounter nurses and sex educators, a woman performing martial arts, and a study group learning to make sushi that looks remarkably like vaginas. We also take part in cucumber castration, slow dancing at a dance party and dancing butterflies. The stage is cleared and furnished and cleared again, costumes are dressed on and dressed off. Everything and nothing takes place in a series of actions that resembles initiation and departure alike. They give thought body assaults our conceptions of gender and sexuality while pointing us in several directions at once. It presents us with lived experiences as well as with imaginable utopias, producing disorder while inaugurating new order at one and the same time. The piece provides no easy answers. In their stead, it furiously projects questions onto us, in a game where the rules are being constantly rewritten.
A Loud Refusal
Where there is power, there is resistance.
– Michel Foucault
The personal is political.
– Carol Hanisch
In 2011, when Malin Hellkvist Sellén completed her degree in choreography she found herself without a context in which to work with feminist dance. Institutional power structures considered her vision to be too political and They give thought body was born out of this condition. The work attempted no separation between the private, the political and the professional, manifesting instead a loud refusal to partake in the conservative norms of the dance commu- nity. At the same time, it was a summons, to herself and to others, to become part of her self-made feminist dance movement.
Understanding this as a starting point opens up the possi- bility of seeing They give thought body as an act of resis- tance. The French philosopher Michel Foucault is known for his theories of power and resistance. He argues that there is no condition before or beyond the regime of power, that we cannot step outside its spheres, nor can we create spaces that are free from it. It is power that constructs our very conceptions of, and boundaries for, what is real and intelligible, what we can understand. What he suggests at the same time, however, is that power always relates to the forms of its own resistance. Foucault implies that power and resistance are dependent upon one another, that power relations presuppose resistance and that resistance is born in the instant that power is exercised.
Going through professional choreography training was, for Malin Hellkvist Sellén, effectively undergoing a training program in the hierarchies of the dance community. As a feminist, she was critical of the habitual onstage dance portrayal of bodies, gender, sexuality and identity. With her choreographic work, she aimed to portray more feminist and queer instantiations of these notions, as well as the blurring of such categories altogether. They give thought body was not an attempt to question the art of dance as much as it was an attempt to set the precedent of creating and interpreting a work that did not depend upon normative ideas of form and content. The work encountered virulent resistance from several key directions within the dance community establishment, and as such, became a work that offered a critical approach to the very context of its own creation.
When Malin Hellkvist Sellén created They give thought body she wanted to communicate with as direct a tone as possible and so the work contains a number of elements that engage literality as well as language. She drew inspi- ration from the work of feminist performance artists and elements of their work trace through her visual and linguis- tic references, as well as the concrete physical expressions within the work. In this way, the work also challenges the very definition and quality of dance itself, functioning for the choreographer as her commentary within a wider femi- nist discourse.
To queer is both to do differently and to make a particular set of relations that are different from the binary oppositions defined by the norm.
– Janet R. Jakobsen
One of the recurring visual themes in They give thought body is that of the naked female, wearing only socks and shoes and adorned with the nose and ears of a bunny rab- bit. This sign immediately alludes to a familiar set of tropes drawn from mainstream culture in which femininity is sexualized and capitalized upon, at the same time as being made diminutive. Rather than challenge these familiar tro- pes, however, the characters in this piece seem to embody them by employing an aesthetics that can be understood as borrowing from mainstream pornography.
In what way can we understand this imagery in the context of the piece as an act of resistance? The American theo- rist Janet R. Jakobsen approaches the term “queer” as a verb. She suggests that if “queer” is to be understood as an identity at all, it must be understood as an identity of doing rather than of being. She puts forth that it is an identity grounded in a specific set of actions designed to resist power structures that privilege certain subjects at the expense of others. “To queer” means to stage unexpected combinations ￼￼of expressions and signs in ways that disturb the presu- med inherence of conventionally accepted dichotomies and binaries. Similarly, the philosopher Judith Butler asserts that the appropriation of the previously stigmatized term “queer” by those who might have been called it is, itself, a performative act. She explains that even as the adoption of the term repeats the oppressive power structures it originates from, it performs the double action of also at the same time, dislocating the stigmatized meaning of the term.
We can understand this imagery that at first appears to play on the tropes of mainstream pornography by employing this idea of double action. The characters in They give thought body flag normative, sexualized femininity but they also point in another direction. Scantily clad female bodies are a frequent element within contemporary dance culture, just as they are in the wider culture at large. Malin Hellkvist Sellén stresses that this occurrence of nakedness tends to lack any links to movement or purpose, fulfilling nothing but the function of showing sexual objects. Alternatively, when she includes naked female bodies in her work, she alludes to the wider cultural tendency but does so in a way that renegotiates the meaning. The bodies in the piece ap- pear with rabbit noses and rabbit ears, wearing socks inside of orthopedic shoes. This results in the foregrounding of their nakedness at the same time as that very nakedness is called into question. By merging something understood as sexy – the naked female body – with something understood as unsexy – socks and orthopedic shoes – she challenges the conception of femininity as well as the meaning of naked- ness. The bodies are naked, but they are not perceived as sexy. At the same time, they are “dressed” but are perceived as uncomfortably naked. The consequence is that the image both illuminates and dismantles the way that nakedness must be performed in our culture in order to be read as naked.
In Butler’s formulation, this kind of staging embroils itself in what it is combating and in so doing manages to turn power on its head. The characters reinstate at the same time as they challenge anew, they replicate at the same time as they reinterpret and reposition. As viewers, we re- cognize what we see but find ourselves confused at the same time by the imagery not corresponding to that with which we are accustomed. The bunny rabbit details do not deliver the mainstream pornographic aesthetics they allude to, se- eming instead to situate themselves in an interspace where the boundary between subject and object becomes indis- tinct. The piece performs a resistance to power by refusing our expectations, by toying with our gazes and by provoking us to look back at ourselves in a way that renders the pre- sence of such images as the naked females with bunny rab- bit features at once both full of meaning and meaningless. The work thus offers an attempt to instigate an other power relation, one in which these tropes can be understood as flinging our sexualizing, consumerist gaze right back at us.
To challenge powerlessness does not mean that one automatically shifts into positions of power, it means, straightforwardly, that one is refusing to be seen as powerless or be positioned without power.
– Beverly Skeggs
Over the course of the sixty minutes in which They give thought body unfolds, we move through a litany of normative assumptions and expectations of what it means to have, and to be, a body. At the same time, we are also given to see bodies that upset and upstage this very normativity: other possible bodies, other possible orchestrations of what these bodies can do. Instead of portraying only the oppressive consequen- ces imposed upon the gendered body, here, a choreographic reformulation is taking place. As the British scholar Beverly Skeggs points out, when the oppressed perform acts of resis- tance, it does not mean that power is instantly dislodged from one situation and conferred upon another; nor does it mean that a power regime topples automatically. What she proposes instead is that the oppressed assume agency in the very act of refusing the powerlessness that is conventionally bestowed upon their position. This approach acknowledges the powerful- ness of power while not collapsing the oppressed into the posi- tion of being only or just oppressed. If we apply this reasoning to those who give thought body in the work of Malin Hellkvist Sellén’s, we are invited into the creation of confusions. What we are given to see are bodies that render themselves irredu- cible, incomprehensible; subjects that push at the limits of legibility, that mimic, that dislodge and critique the power structures that would seem to confine them. These bodies reference normative subject positions and then refuse them, dislocate and transform meanings and expectations, thus pro- blematizing positionalities as they create space for positions that are still yet to come. In short, in They give thought body what you see is not (only) what you get.