Dancers Men "don't dance"

Thabiso Pule
Thabiso Pule | Photo: © John Hogg

Some male dancers find ways to remain “men” on the stage, writes Mary Corrigall.

Gender identity is hard to escape in the dance and performance realms as are politics attached to the body – the visual markers of identity that are inscribed into the body or via dress. However, the gender of the dancer also seems to preempt a dialogue about gender in relation to dance. This is grounded in the notion that men who dance are effeminate, homosexual. Negotiating masculinity in relation to dance appears to be such a sticky subject that an entire canon of literature has sprung up to address it, with books overtly boasting risky titles such as Men in Dance. Thabiso Pule might have been the co-creator of Penis Polictics but resists being drawn into a discussion on this topic – perhaps his insistence on being labeled an arts practitioner rather than a dancer or choreographer is in part motivated by a desire to sidestep the baggage attached to the “dancing male.”

Sonia Radebe confirms that gender has a pervasive impact on not only the dancer’s identity but the character of their gestures.

“It is hard choreographing male dancers because they don’t want to do softer more feminine movements.”

Up until December last year Radebe was a member of the Moving Into Dance Mophatong (Midm) company, which despite being established by a woman (Sylvia Glasser), has become a male dominated institution. Radebe left because she wanted to experiment with her craft and pursue collaborations with people outside of the field of dance, however, it is clear that at MIDM she had to confront barriers.

“They (the men) thought I couldn’t do what they could do. It took me awhile to convince them that I could lift a man. I can. You know being a mother and carrying a baby all the time, when they are young and you are breast feeding requires great physical strength, which you can use in dance.” As part of a desire to think of themselves as infallible many male dancers refuse to warm up before dancing, which means they are less supple, says Radebe. Certainly, Pule admits that he doesn’t warm up before performing.

He prefers to eat a chocolate. He implies that this choice is motivated by his objective to be ‘fresh’ when he performs so that he can surprise himself and the audience – improvisation is a fundamental element of his practice, he says.

In contrast to Radebe’s experiences as a female dancer, Pule suggests that men have been marginalised in this drive to liberate women. “Why is there only a campaign for the “take a girl” to work; what about the boys? What will they be thinking?” he asks. Ayana Jackson, an American-born visual artist who collaborated with Constanza Macras on Into the Fire appears to have picked up on the impact of these profemale campaigns – the body of work she showed at the Joburg Art Fair last year featured the artist posing as men.

“I wanted to acknowledge the men in my community and show that I identified with them and the issues they face around race, and being Muslim in the post-9/11 world we live.”

The new work Pule showed on the Dance Umbrella 2015, What the Hell Happened to this place?, sees the artist shifting this focus away from gender and focusing instead on environmental issues. It is not such an unexpected turnabout; his interest is on using performance (and now film too) to draw society’s attention to all pressing problems. “I want to educate people.” That said when he was first developing the work in New York as part of a residency in the US, it began with him walking across the Brooklyn bridge in a pink tutu.

Information on the Dance Writers Workshop:
Young arts writers find it increasingly difficult to find a foothold in the mainstream press. This is even more so the case when it comes to dance and performance – an area of the arts often deemed difficult to access via words.

For this reason, the Goethe-Institut, in collaboration with the Dance Forum, for the third time hosts the Dance Writing Workshop running parallel to the Dance Umbrella Festival. The aim is to nurture, discover and support new writing talent in this field, but also to get established journalists to engage with contemporary dance. Mary Corrigall facilitated the workshop.

This year’s participants shared ideas about the role of gender in contemporary choreography, a timely topic to tie in with current debates, but also with the platform for female choreographers that is part of Dance Umbrella 2015.