In the world of theory, concepts and ideas carry a weight equal to, if not more substantive than empirical data. What better way to reign in the high intellectualizations of scholarship than to inject them with the gritty plasma of the body? Dance theorists, arguably the most sensuously attuned of academes, probe the body’s infinite nuances and inflections for gleanings into the mystery of the human condition, emphasizing direct experience with the subject in question (for many dance theorists are dancers themselves) over arm-chair postulations.
Jane C. Desmond is no exception to the slew of dance theorists lobbying for a grounding-in-physicality of research modalities into the nature of social and bodily practices. In her 2001 compilation Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On & Off The Stage, Desmond criticizes past researchers for mistakenly assuming written-text analyses to be the only insight-yielding procedure for dissecting issues related to gender and sexuality, and deems the wordless texts of the body an infinitely more edifying source. Desmond, in questioning how social theorists could possibly ignore the detailed examination of bodily enactments and performances when studying an aspect of identity so profoundly encapsulated in physical terms as the sexual, mobilized sixteen of her colleagues to assist her in launching an investigation into the "kinesthetics of sexuality" (an exploration of sexuality via the concrete expressions of dancers’ bodies). Desmond’s kinesthetics succeeds in relying on the body as an empirical source of data without reducing sexuality studies to a Kinsey-esque "-ology" of processes and statistics, and thus preserves the character and pulse of its subject matter.
Desmond’s entourage of essayists examine a broad range of dance personalities and choreographic trends (including choreographer Loie Fuller’s groundbreaking manipulations of lighting, costume, and film technology as a means to blur and, ultimately, reshape conventional representations of the female persona [Julie Townsend]; Joe Goode’s shameless choreographic commentary on effeminate gestures [David Gere]; Charlie Chaplin’s ability to thwart his on-screen masculinity by vesting his balletic impulses in homoerotically charged plot interruptions, all the while sustaining mass public appeal [Paul B. Franklin]; Nijinsky’s recurrent role as slave in Diaghilev’s repertoire as indicative of the closet homosexual’s struggle to disclose his secret identity to a society which holds him in homophobic captivity [Kevin Kopelson]; Merce Cunningham’s [and protégé Steve Paxton’s] efforts to strip dance of any and all sexual connotations by supplicating its expressions to the arbitrary laws of cause and effect [Susan Foster]; a lesbian dancer’s mission to supplant the notion of female spectacle as the exclusive property of the all-desiring, male, heterosexual eye with an equally insatiable female gaze [Ann Cvetkovich]; the Sydney, Australia, Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras as representative of the social clubs and dance parties offering homosexuals consecrated spaces within the public sphere to celebrate and concretize their marginalized identities [Johnathan Bollen]) all in an effort to demonstrate the various strategies dancers and dancemakers implement to combat and reinforce the sexual norms of twentieth-century European, Australian, and (especially) American culture.
As a male, heterosexual, professional dancer with elementary exposure to dance theory, I found myself resonating on a kinesthetic level with many of the issues Desmond’s colleagues are better qualified than myself to express in words. In the interest of space, I’m restricting my commentary to the essays which shed the most refreshing light on my personal and professional identities.
A cursory glance at the contents of Dancing Desires uncovers a collusion between the words Queer and Desire particularly alarming to a male, heterosexual dancer who finds himself a sexual minority in his profession. Struggling to assert my (admittedly soft-edged) portrait of masculinity amidst a consternation of aggressively narcissistic gay personalities (yes, I uphold this stereotype to be not altogether inaccurate), I questioned why desire wasn’t a compelling enough topic without having to attach it to the en vogue sexual aberrations of the day; however, Desmond’s introduction promptly dissolved any misconceptions I upheld as to the limitations of the word Queer. Desmond broadens the term’s commonplace referral to gay/lesbian acts and practices to include any act or practice, not necessarily homosexual in nature, which society nevertheless construes as resisting sexual norms.
Enter the male, heterosexual dancer and his newfound affection for the word Queer! The surplus of homosexual slurs in my arsenal of childhood memories as a prancing, flitting playground spectacle prevented me from embracing the word Queer as a testament to overcoming adversity. While my unsinkable desire to explore my body’s kinesthetic possibilities by imitating women’s gymnastics floor routines and, later, by pursuing dance as a career, might qualify as "queer" in relation to the heteronormative constraints of contemporary American culture, my explorations wax anything but queer in the eyes of the explorer, who (if I may write of myself in the third person) simply answered the primordial calling to know his body.
Judith Butler’s research, a common point of critical departure for Ramsay Burt, Desmond, Bollen, and Gere, attests to the high social price male dancers pay for identifying with so keenly feminized a profession. No person willingly subjects himself to the punitive measures of social non-conformity unless the desire to know oneself takes precedence over whether or not mainstream society endorses the unique trajectory of one’s quest for personhood.
Julia L. Foulkes’ examination of gay choreographer Ted Shawn’s re-envisioning of the 1930s American male dancer as a symbol of strength and fortitude (in short, all traits virile and non-submissive) in the face of economic adversity; Susan Foster’s appraisal of Merce Cunningham’s sexually neutralizing "chance procedures," exploited in the 1960s by contact improvisation pioneer Steve Paxton; and Gay Morris’ assessment of how Bill T. Jones’ preoccupation with decidedly masculine subject matter in the early 80s secured his credibility later in the decade when he emerged as an openly gay choreographer, all catch historically relevant, homosexual dance artists in the act of refusing to be caricaturized by their sexualities.
I relate most directly to Merce Cunningham’s androgynous dance persona, though I lack a lover and collaborator equivalent in gender and celebrity status to minimalist composer John Cage (whose romantic affiliation neither Cage nor Cunningham ever publicly acknowledged). In an effort to avoid being construed or, in my case, misconstrued as "queer," I, like Cunningham, run the risk of caricaturizing myself another way: as a blissfully unaffiliated eunuch bereft of sexual values and proclivities.
While I applaud the above choreographers for seeking identifications above and beyond the sexual, I can’t help but suspect these homosexual maskings to be, on some level, a shame-based response to the heterosexual totalitarianism of twentieth century America, for only in the sympathetic wake of the AIDS pandemic (the past fifteen years) has homosexuality merited conditional status as a culturally acceptable practice.
David Gere’s analysis of 29 Effeminate Gestures, Joe Goode’s endearing choreographic testament to the male embodiment of feminine mannerisms, helped me confront my own effeminate heterosexuality, confirming my male dancer status as a mixed blessing. Gere deduced early in life that to be born male was to be born lucky, but quickly realized luck befalls the male-born only in so far as he possesses the bodily intelligence to command masculine assumptions from those around him. Woe to the male-born who "talks with his hands." I’m intrigued how radically my unintentional affectations distort my public posture, how incorrectly the world-at-large interprets my physical articulations, how I, as a dancer on stage, manage to titillate and arouse women, while the act of being a dancer in my daily life produces the opposite effect.
What constitutes a lasting impression more exquisitely than a defining gesture, the singular, unrepeatable flare that, as Milan Kundera suggests in his novel Immortality, embodies a person’s essence? The resistive choreographies examined by Desmond’s colleagues function as crowning gestures of defiance, encouraging gay and straight performers alike to adopt the chameleon stance of Charlie Chaplin, who, as Paul B. Franklin eloquently portrays in the compilation’s opening essay, disarms and mesmerizes his homophobic antagonists with never-before-considered sexual enactments, heroically donning the label Queer as a badge of honor.
- Paul Christiano
Free-roaming Chicago dancers such as myself boast little spare change, but many loyalties. I’m particularly indebted to a young, ambitious urban jazz dance company called Instruments of Movement (IOM), whose cutting-edge choreography wholly compensates for its non-existent payroll. IOM recently implemented its signature fusion of Jazz, Ballet, Modern, African, Hip-Hop, and Breakdance to create Lifted, a modern parable based on the life of Christ. Artistic Director James Morrow’s numerous inspirations for this project, ranging from the movies Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet to his own mentorings as a student at an all-boys Catholic high school, gel seamlessly into quite the multi-media extravaganza, complete with live and pre-recorded video footage, spoken text ala Gibran, a very wet baptism sequence, and an audience-inclusive candlelight vigil...all in an effort to render Christ’s journey accessible to the less-than-pious masses.
IOM’s original debut of Lifted back in March, 2004, captured the attention of the president of Chicago’s Sacred Dance Guild, so much so she promised a year later (as IOM revved up for an encore performance of Lifted) to sell fifty tickets to guild members in exchange for the opportunity to conduct a post-performance discussion with the dancers exploring the question, "Can Concert Dance Be Sacred?" I gulped audibly at the prospect of half a hundred staunch Catholics bearing eye-popping witness to some of Morrow’s more controversial biblical embellishments (namely, casting the Messiah as a woman; staging a rather sensual pas de deux between the Messiah and Ms. Magdalene; and implying Christ’s death via rape/assault versus crucifixion), but I rested slightly easier when I remembered the guild’s president screening Lifted a year prior and deeming it a "masterpiece." I relaxed even more when, showtime a few weeks away, the guild’s marketing director invited IOM to attend an alcohol-free rave at a local non-denominational Christian church where, as part of the evening’s entertainment, she balanced candlesticks on her arched, barely-clad chest in honor of the Hawaiian Goddess, Pele (a far cry from the Holy Virgin, but definitely more my style).
I soon learned Chicago’s Sacred Dance Guild houses as many Wiccans as they do Catholics, and pretty much anyone else seeking to pay kinesthetic homage to a higher power (I pictured bands of whirling pagans encircling rows of white-gowned liturgists and smiled as phrases like "Unity In Diversity" came to mind). What difference does it make to Mother Eternity/Father Infinity, whose "center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere," whether the African shaman regards Earth’s surface as a massive "Welcome" mat in need of periodic flogging, a holy shakedown of sorts, thousands of dust-letting feet summoning up the gods for a little fresh air, or whether the Pentecostal aisle-roller raises her heart to the ceiling, cracks open her sternum in ecstatic high release, and prays for the Holy Ghost to fly in?
India’s entourage of gods champion just as many earthly causes as Rome’s hierarchy of saints. Form is secondary to function as far as Man’s search for meaning is concerned, as demonstrated quite poignantly by three-hundred IOM spectators of various affiliations united in raucous applause come curtain call.
While Lifted certainly appeals more readily than Sunday morning Mass to the religiously laxed multitudes, its themes remain essentially spiritual, qualifying rather obviously as "sacred" concert dance, in my opinion; but what of concert dance that eludes any direct spiritual correlation? Were Cuban slaves, imported from Africa in the mid-1800s and responsible for the development of Rumba (the cornerstone of Latin American ballroom dance), any less motivated by a sacred sense of purpose for deriving dance steps from menial, daily tasks (e.g. stomping on cockroaches ["Cucaracha"]; skirting the outer edge of a wheel ["Spot Turn"]) than Alvin Ailey for riffing on his Southern Baptist childhood (Revelations)? Can baptized movers justifiably fault unbaptized shakers for assigning meaning to mundane chores, turning the burden of slavery on its head? Is Chicago choreographer Ginger Farley any less sanctified in her artistic endeavors for allocating a portion of her $15,000 grant from the Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum toward the study of plant life in preparation for her site-specific work hosted by the Chicago Botanic Gardens celebrating Autumn foliage? Can a species survival-dependent on so hodge-podge an ecosystem justifiably restrict the sacred to the business of higher apes and angels?
Dance is a response to life, and what is more sacred than life? If we equate spirituality with passion for life, then dance in and of itself is a spiritual reflex, constantly responding to the concerns of existence, be them turns of season or how best to squash bugs.
I might not have joined the priesthood as my Freshman Year theology teacher suggested, but one need not wash his hands in holy water to forge a relationship with the ineffable:
I’d planned to pursue a Creative Writing career after graduating high school, but words traveled only so far before expression slipped into another register. Movement plowed through my dead ends with language. Like a worn soul-searcher long-last stumbling upon his kindred house of worship, I entered stage left onto mine: a prayer, mute, yet musical; winged, yet gravity-bound; perfection and ruggedness amended by bodies flawed in just the right places to spell out art.
I'm grateful to dance for evicting me from my self-imposed monastery and unearthing my latent team-player instincts. Always the bystander, the inside-joke outsider, diehard party of one, until I subscribe to a choreographer’s cause and re-emerge an ensemble member, swept away by group dynamics like a monk by Nirvana, posed however a dancemaker deems, yet somehow more myself than when I’m walking down the street, more in touch with the world than when I’m talking or teaching, more essential to my congregation than to any church I’ve ever belonged.
Lifted was particularly challenging for me considering the amount of Hip-Hop involved (I'm about as jiggy as a rubber chicken), but I managed to my surprise, via blind surrender to Morrow’s cause, to pass myself off as quite the booty shaker...and an Apostle no less! And as I sat burying my sweaty forehead in a towel while the Sacred Dance Guild fired loaded question after loaded question, I remained delightfully silent in the knowledge that everything I wanted to say I’d said already. It was the closest I’d come to believing in God in quite a while.
- Paul Christiano
Anatomy of a Fairy Tale
In the fairy world, is a genie ever really just a genie, a princess just a princess, a wolf simply a wolf? Did the original authors of fairy tales intentionally imbue their characters with double identities, or did the thirst for meaning of a centuries-old readership will those identities into being over time? My own compulsion to read meaning into life’s every last detail binds me to the assertions of Carl Jung’s protégé, Marie-Louise von Franz, who maintains that “fairy tales are the purest and simplest expressions of collective unconscious psychic processes.” (Marie Louise von Fransz. 1970. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales [Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications], 1). While updated time and again to accommodate the fluctuating trends and values of cultures-at-large, fairy tales, according to Jungian analysts, resonate unfailingly with primordial desires and fears common to all people (von Fransz. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, 1-2).
Folk historians believe by tracking the evolution of fairy tale characters and examining how societies renew poetic licenses over the centuries, one can detect shifts in the public consciousness that vitally affect social climates (Alan Dundes. 1989. Little Red Riding Hood: A Casebook [Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press], 219). I’ve chosen to examine the history of Little Red Riding Hood as a means to pinpoint crucial shifts in Western attitudes pertaining to child sexuality, and illustrate how those changes paved the way for stringent, hands-off policies regarding adult-child interactions.
The wolf’s predatory function in Little Red Riding Hood begs a sexual interpretation, especially in a culture as pathologically obsessed as America with protecting children from the knife-wielding playground stalker supposedly lurking behind every dark corner. “‘Don’t talk to strangers’ isn’t good enough anymore. What worked when we were children just isn’t sufficient in today’s world,” warns Carol Soret Cope, author of Stranger Danger, as quoted by social critic Judith Levine in her controversial book, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex (Judith Levine. 2003. Harmful To Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex [New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press], xxiv). The idea of a sweet-talking carnivore enchanting, then devouring a gullible, aging caretaker only to gain access to a child’s bed speaks to the culturally-assumed pedo-sexual tendencies of men-at-large, but to note that and go no further, I merely subscribe to the common consensus that folk stories function best as didactic, cautionary tools for young readers unwise to the ways of the world, and exist chiefly to cater to the moral needs of children. I prefer, instead, to question why Western society instituted a children’s literature genre for this purpose in the first place, and, at the risk of undercutting the moral effectiveness of these tales, to reevaluate what society considers to be morally reprehensible: Do the Wolf’s tendencies to eroticize innocence denote a universal sexual evil American society pledges to eradicate even if it means castrating every last man who cops to a sexual preoccupation with youth, or is the object of the Wolf’s desire strictly forbidden only to the extent mainstream society refuses to grant children sexual autonomy?
Joseph Campbell, comparative mythologist best-known for his ten-part PBS series, The Power of Myth, recounts an ancient Persian creation myth about Earth’s first parents:
“In the beginning, mothers and fathers loved their children so much, they couldn’t help but eat them. God thought this a problem, so he reduced parental love by 33.3% or so, just enough to stop parents short of devouring their offspring.” (Joseph Campbell. 1988. The Power of Myth. [New York: Doubleday])
My research into the puritanical underpinnings of contemporary American sexual codes of conduct suggests the reason adults are so averse to tolerating the erotic expressions of children in film, literature, photography, and, dare I say, daily life, stems from a fear of straining the already blurry boundary separating the child’s figurative status as edible commodity (“She’s so cute, I could eat her up!”) from her literal potential to trigger an aesthetic arrest so intense as to unleash the observer’s primordial urge to ravish the irresistible. “Perhaps power hates pedophilia so,” James Kincaid postulates, “because it actually threatens to grant power to the child, placing the adult in a weakened, sometimes dependent position.... Recognizing children as sexual beings means recognizing one’s own children that way, which in turn may force us too close to incestuous ponderings.”(James Kincaid. 1992. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture [New York: Routledge], 25-26).
Why does the sex educator stutter? Jocelyn Elders spent all of two weeks as Surgeon General back in the mid-90s before being terminated for suggesting that teaching masturbation in school sex ed curriculums might actually benefit a child’s growing sexual self-awareness. By instituting curriculums which attempt to reduce sex to a biological function in need of no further explanation, parents and educators do well to alleviate fears over the terrible power children might otherwise wage over adults if allowed to embrace sensual pleasure as a birthright.
In “Doctors and Nurses,” a short story published in the Autumn 1996 edition of the London-based literary journal Granta, Blake Morrison writes in achingly candid fashion about his young daughter. The first few paragraphs, in which Morrison describes the nightly ritual he goes through dressing his daughter for bed, could easily be mistaken for soft porn if read out of context. I pick up from after he dresses her:
“Is a father allowed to miss his children physically? Should I feel guilty that I do......? A child on my lap, being read to, and I find myself erect. Love of children. It’s not supposed to have anything to do with sex. It hasn’t anything to do with sex. I have no desire to have sex with my child, but this feeling is something like desire...... No one trusts a man with small kids.... No point being angry. We’re liabilities. Too many other men have queered the pitch. And how to explain the erection if you had to? Not desire but love’s ecstacy, suffusion, bliss, warmth in your lap.” (Blake Morrison, “Doctors and Nurses,” Granta 55 , 79-80)I wonder how many fathers secretly experience this only to recoil in shame and disgust at themselves. Most “upstanding” citizens would consider this a bodily betrayal in the strictest societal sense, if not the penultimate human transgression. Conversely, I wonder how many men, bachelors and fathers alike, fail to distinguish paternal instinct from libido, and find no moral cause to deny themselves the arousal children provoke in them.
When is the Wolf a rapist; when is he a remorseful sinner; when is he a master of self-restraint? When understood as archetypes of the collective unconscious, the Wolf and Red Riding Hood speak directly to the suppressed drives of human civilization as it struggles to balance proclivity and propriety. I propose that what attracts the Wolf isn’t so much the child’s “innocence” as the marginalized existences wolf and child share in common. Wolves and children are substance and shadow of the same unknown quantity the general public toils endlessly to hold at bay: the wolf, thrust to the periphery of civilization, perceived as a threat to the social order; the child, quarantined within society as a radioactive mesh of impulses and sensations. Victor Turner, celebrated anthropologist, coined the term “anti-structure” to denote an organizing system which functions above and beyond the mundane social order as a cosmological counterpoison to all things normative (Victor Turner. 1975. Dramas, Fields, & Metaphors: Symbolic Action In Human Society [New York: Cornell University Press], 50). The Wolf sees something of himself in the uncharted territory of the child’s body, a sublimated anti-structure he celebrates, possesses, and, occasionally, devours in order to feel more at home in his own ostracized skin.
Folk Historian Jack Zipes attributes the birth of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf to the socio-political reformations of 17th Century Europe, crediting Charles Perrault, faithful servant of Louis XIV, with transforming a French peasant’s oratory tale involving a werewolf and a female protagonist bereft of any color association to serve the aristocracy’s zealous moral agenda (Jack Zipes. 1993. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood [New York: Routledge], 25-26).
In the peasant’s tale, a werewolf challenges a young girl to a race via alternate routes (“The Path of Needles” versus “The Path of Pins”) to see who arrives faster to Grandmother’s house. While the girl (who, in most versions, chooses “The Path of Needles”) dillydallies gathering pine needles, the werewolf forges ahead on “The Path of Pins” to Grandmother’s house, kills the elderly inhabitant, and slips under the deceased’s bedcovers to await the girl’s arrival. After encouraging the girl to eat her grandmother’s flesh-disguised-as-meat and drink her blood-disguised-as-wine, the werewolf instructs the girl to throw all her garments into the fire and join whom the girl still believes to be “Granny” in bed. The werewolf’s hairy body evokes suspicions in the girl, who excuses herself to go defecate, but not before the werewolf ties a string to her ankle to track her whereabouts. When the girl fails to return, the werewolf emerges to find his string knavishly wrapped around a tree stump, the girl long-gone (Zipes. The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, 21-23).
Zipes classifies this account as one of many rites of passage tales commonly told in 17th Century French peasant sewing communities, most of which considered the induction of young girls into the most lucrative underclass industry of the era (the sewing craft [hence the allusions to “Pins” and “Needles”]) a psycho-sexual transition into the spectrum of womanly affairs. The cannibalistic imagery, according to Zipes, alludes to the conscientious apprentice as she painstakingly digests the knowledge of her predecessor (Grandmother) in order to effectively replace her at the spinning wheel.
The most redemptive detail of this oral account, in comparison to subsequent literary overhauls, lies in the young girl’s unassisted escape (Zipes, 24). Contrary to popular, present-day off-shoots of this tale, wherein a foolish girl poses as wolf’s tender morsel, or, at best, entrusts the rescue mission to a male outsider, Red Riding Hood’s predecessor “shrewdly outwits the wolf and saves herself.” (Zipes, 23)
The budding adolescents of the Renaissance aristocracy harbored sexual agendas above and beyond the social/familial functions assigned to young, upper-class, 17th Century European females. Young, aristocratic brides-to-be frequently answered the calls of libido in direct opposition to the arranged-marriage order, preferring romantic trysts to marriages of convenience, eloping with lovers of choice so to defend their most intimate territories against stranger-invasion (socially contracted spouses rarely set eyes on each other before the wedding day). [Zipes, 30-31]
Enter Charles Perrault, who, at the behest of Louis XIV, bastardized a tale of female empowerment in an effort to arm wary parents with the didactic power to subdue wanderlust in curious children, thus securing the highly valued virginity of arranged brides-to-be. Perrault eliminated all unseemly references to cannibalism, defecation, and nudity (the oral tale accounts for each and every garment the girl tosses into the fire), donned the anonymous protagonist in a rouge cloak, and christened her Little Red Riding Hood. In the true spirit of the newly-erected children’s literature genre, Perrault stripped the wily child of her autonomy, characterized her as incapable of making wise decisions, and, in so doing, sacrificed her to the wolves.
While French peasant communities relished in nature, the bourgeois elite sought to rescue Europe from the profane clutches of pagan naturalists, thereby expanding the sacred domain of industrialized, Christian civilization (Zipes, 25); thus, while the peasant’s tale accepts the erotic appetite of the man-wolf as a fact of life and equips the little girl with a strategy for outwitting a man-wolf on the verge of starvation, Perrault’s tale reflects the moral indignation of a “high” culture on altogether sour terms with matters of the body.
Red Riding Hood’s infamous cloak effectively upstages all coming-of-age symbols (the able-bodied youth metaphorically superseding the incapacitated elder by swallowing her flesh and blood; the tactical prowess demonstrated by feigning the full bladder which seals her escape; the sexual maturity signified by the burning of clothes). In recasting the young girl as the scandalously red apple of the wolf’s insatiable eye, who plays blindly into the Wolf’s devious clutch, Perrault reinforces the Old Testament assertion that Woman is ultimately responsible for Man’s transgression, and claims she only has her ignorant, irresistible self to blame for the maltreatments she suffers at the claws of erotically-fraught beasts (Zipes, 348-349).
Perrault even provides a moralite, lest any confusion arise:
“From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition — neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!” (Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, “Little Red Riding Hood,” Wikimedia Foundation; http://www.libs.uga.edu/ref/chicago.html)
Perrault’s moralite boasts no small following in the States. America has banded together time and again to reign in the terror of the unknown by assigning anti-normative forces (threats to the social order) a tangible profile: be it the Salem witch, the barbaric "displaced person" of the early 20th Century, the Communist infiltrator of the 50s, the alien abductor of the 80s, or, alas, the psychotic child-lover of the new millennium, Uncle Sam persists in fashioning a scapegoat out of the Wolf’s pliable flesh (periodically remolded to accommodate society’s changing trends and agendas). Solidifying the unknown quantity in this way leaves less to the paranoid American’s neurotic imagination.
The public rages against the pedophile for daring to desecrate illusions of purity and innocence foisted on the young by a sentimental culture which quarantines childhood like an immune-compromised Eden. Red Riding Hood’s role as the somewhat naive arbitrator of chaos and order who, by daring to forge a dialogue with the unknown, remains perilously exposed to its elements, shadows the experience of the modern child as she navigates her path through the forest of "Sexual Predators," those latest incarnations of that wretched historical chameleon, the “bogeyman,” forever skirting the perimeter of humanity’s relentlessly socialized inner sanctum.
Re-Choreographing the Wolf and his Prey
Jack Zipes accounts for over 200 versions of Little Red Riding Hood in his subsequent exploration of the tale’s 400-year literary history, but of the 200+ rapes, maraudings, seductions, and molestations Red Riding Hood has suffered in the past 400 years, rarely has she emerged the hero of her own story to the degree of the original French peasant’s tale. The most popular renditions of the story remain Perrault’s version, penned in the latter 17th Century, and the revised Grimm Brothers version, published over a century later. Neither does Perrault’s conclusion, wherein the wolf successfully devours both grandmother and child, nor the Grimm Brothers’ introduction of the meritorious woodcutter, who slices open the wolf’s belly, releases Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, then crams him full of heavy stones so he can’t move (Zipes, 31-33), acknowledge the potential for resourcefulness in the young female protagonist.
To supplement my textual research into the “trials and tribulations” of Little Red Riding Hood, I’ve choreographed Riding Red’s Coat-Tales, a kinetic re-envisioning of Little Red Riding Hood which grants a wizened girl the power to negotiate a predator’s advances and, in so doing, define her sexual boundaries. I believe a tale as central to matters of sex and the body as Red Riding Hood’s invites physical interpretation, and that choreography has the potential to ground Red Riding Hood in the knowledgeable body she was born 400 years ago without.
I decided to imbue my trio with animalistic qualities so to accentuate the role basic instinct plays in forging Red Riding Hood’s predicament: The Wolf (myself) in his erotic pursuit of Red Riding Hood; Red Riding Hood (Jackie S.), self-preserving, yet curious as to her body’s potential; the Grandmother (Erin Z.), blinded to the Wolf’s true motives by her desire for his affection. Consider the prototypical dysfunctional step-family: Child is left to her own devices as aging single-mother (altogether ineffective parent, sex appeal on the wane) desperately seeks stepfather’s adoration; stepfather marries single-mother to gain access to stepdaughter’s bed.
Erin’s character is very much an accessory to the action; she provides the Wolf access to Red Riding Hood, all the while believing she alone commands his affection (a desperation for love so severe she’d sooner deny the obvious than forsake the illusion of being wanted). Once the Grandmother’s denial calcifies (rendering her the ultimate push-over), she becomes more of an obstacle, less of a means to the object of the Wolf’s desire. The Wolf wastes no time in devouring the obstacle, but finds himself so erotically overwhelmed by Red Riding Hood, he can’t help but swallow her, too.
I chose to empower Red Riding Hood’s character by eliminating the meritorious woodsman who enters in the final act to slice open the Wolf’s belly and rescue the prey, and placing the rescue mission into the cunning hands of Red Riding Hood herself. Red Riding Hood, as heroine, acquires a keen sense of smell for the Wolf in Don Juan’s clothing, avoids following in her grandmother’s footsteps, and, though made to swim too fast by the Wolf’s aggressive advances, takes what she can from the encounter to better understand the erotic potential of her own body.
To propose Red Riding Hood could ever possibly evade being swallowed by the wolf is unrealistic, in much the same way women are eternally at risk of being swallowed by the male, heterosexual gaze, but I don’t consider women or Red Riding Hood to be entirely crippled by their mutual entrapments inside the belly of the animus. In managing to carve herself out of the Wolf’s stomach, Red Riding Hood withstands male objectification (falls short of being digested by it), and heroically rehearses her refusal to be possessed or defined by that libidinously skewed blank assessment she’ll be combating the rest of her life.
I’m certain to enjoy ample backlash in suggesting the Wolf (in so far as creatures of his kind link terms like “Sexual Predator” with notions of uncontrollable impulses which inevitably lead to images of flesh-tearing) need not relegate the sexually “abused” child to the role of “victim.” Riding Red’s Coat-Tales suggests that by empowering children to define their own sexual boundaries, society enables them to decide for themselves whether to interpret a sexual encounter with an adult as good or bad. I propose that the Wolf, in more instances than any morally-conscious American dares consider, has the potential to serve as a catalyst for sexual awakening in young girls, devouring nothing more than an idyllic innocence she never truly possessed in the first place.
I questioned whether casting Jackie S., a twenty-two-year-old female, to play the part of a young child compromised the integrity of Riding Red’s Coat-Tales, but decided that subjecting a real child to the Wolf’s sexual advances (however dramatized) had more potential to reinstate Red Riding Hood as a casualty of carnal knowledge in the eyes of a conservative public than to, alas, celebrate that knowledge as proof of autonomy. While I can envision a culture wherein children readily enter into non-threatening sexual dialogues with adults, I haven’t the faintest clue how to coach the typical pre-adolescent dancer so to elicit a portrayal equal in complexity to Jackie’s, which challenges the presumed innocence of children by suggesting that Red Riding Hood doesn’t altogether dislike what’s happening to her, a complication certain to rattle the average, conservatively raised child’s sexually aloof self-concept.
If children figure into a theoretical dance framework, they do so primarily as depicted by spritely, nubile, post-adolescent professional dancers, not as performers in and of themselves. The “high art” world is dominated by artists who’ve reached the pinnacle of their creative and intellectual powers after years of trial, error, and study (child prodigies notwithstanding). The artless posturings of child dancers, then, hardly strike dance theorists as worthy of critical analysis!
How, then, to explain Hollywood’s vast repository of child stars and the myriad unfriendly forces – domestic and supernatural – children of cinema confront on a daily basis? Why can thirteen-year-old Linda Blair masturbate with a crucifix in The Exorcist, or 12-year-old Daveigh Chase slash throats for fun in The Ring, while the child dancer remains an icon of purity and all- American goodness? The film industry invites spectators to toe moral and ethical lines vicariously through fictitious characters often so dehumanized and distorted by technology as to appear impossibly (thus disarmingly) other. The child on stage is far less amenable to technology than the child on screen, far less removed from the real than the actor reduced to pixels and light transmissions and thrust into reprehensible scenarios to be viewed at safe, socially acceptable distances.
Just as cinema holds true to its origins as a product of 20th Century, technological culture, so does concert dance cling to its roots as a 16th Century Italian high-court practice, formally institutionalized a century later by the very king who enlisted Charles Perrault to adapt a certain unsung tale of female empowerment to suit the moral agenda of the French upper-class (Judith Chazin-Bennahum. 2003. The Living Dance: An Anthology of Essays on Movement and Culture [Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company], 110-113). The average theater-goer expects the same idyllic representations of humanity from today’s dance performances as conveyed in the age-old ballets of the Renaissance. The expectant mother rhapsodizing in wistful anticipation of her daughter’s first ballet lesson is almost as iconic a personality as the resultant girl-child donned in pink tutu, wand in hand, prancing and flitting for all the world to adore.
At the risk of reinforcing the notion that sexual contact between adults and children is inherently a violent act, I chose, for dramatic effect, to exploit the violent extreme of an adult-child power imbalance. “All forms of human contact involve uneven power relations,” declares social theorist James Kincaid (Kincaid. Child-Loving, 29). While I acknowledge the need for some type of ethical protocol when it comes to negotiating the power imbalances implicit in all sexual, indeed, all human, relationships, I stand by Judith Levine’s assertions that aggressive tactics are exceptions to the rule in the majority of reported cases of adult-child sexual contact. “Pedophilic butcheries are even rarer than abduction murders,” Levine contends. “In 1992, nine children under the age of twelve were victims of similar crimes, out of over forty-five million in that age group.” (Levine. Harmful to Minors, 24). I agree with Levine that denying children a sexual identity in no way helps a child to assimilate the oft-times merely unpleasant sexual encounter with an adult in a way which preserves that child’s ability to experience sexual pleasure later in life; nor do I disagree with her that the rage and hysteria which accompanies the reaction of the average “upstanding” citizen to instances of adult-child sexual contact helps the child to internalize sex as anything other than dirty and shameful.
Is it so impossible to imagine that a child might take pleasure in waxing erotic? Sexual drives and impulses dispatch ghosts into modern notions of body-as-machine, causing bodies to disobey their operators, or, at the very least, making bodies difficult to control. The aroused body is too busy responding to its own pulse to attend to the social order. What are we to make of children (already prone to selfishness and want) who indulge in arousal, except to throw up our arms in helpless acquiescence as they retreat to the pleasure-islands of their bodies...never to heed the call of systematic cultural servitude? By relegating the child’s body to a “sacred Eden” within the larger forest of culture, society prevents the greater cultural matrix from tipping the child off as to her developing sexuality.
A Brief History of Childhood
According to Philippe Aries in his unprecedented 1962 volume, Centuries of Childhood, “childhood” is a socially constructed fact, not a biological reality (Colin Heywood. 2003. A History of Childhood [Cambridge, England: Polity Press], 5,11-12) Art historian Anne Higonnet ventures to illustrate how this construct is systematically preserved, expanded, and refined in large part by children as depicted in art. In examining paintings and photographs of children from various historical eras, I, like Higonnet, seek to catalog the changes in Western conceptions of childhood which led to conflicting discourses per the nature of innocence (Focus-On-The-Family sexual conservatism on the one hand [which insists all children to be unavoidably “victimized” by their chance sexual encounters with adults] and MTV sexual indiscriminateness on the other [which portrays the youthful body as wholly willing and penetrable]). Higgonet, Associate Professor of Art History at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, charts the formation and evolution of childhood in her book, Pictures of Innocence: The History & Crisis of Ideal Childhood, and clearly distinguishes between the “Innocent Child” of the Wordsworthian era, and the “Knowing Child,” who emerges during the Victorian period as an antidote to the former. (Ann Higonnet. 1998. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood [New York: Thames and Hudson], 12).
The harsh prospects of medieval life demanded godspeed assimilation into the forays of adult-scale life-and-death struggles. As far as most historians can tell, children in the Middle Ages were categorically indistinguishable from adults, frequently rushed into backbreaking apprenticeships at very early ages (Heywood. Centuries of Childhood, 16). Notions of children as miniature adults carried over into the Age of Enlightenment. The Madonna Della Sedia (Figure 1), painted by Raphael in 1514, is typical of the Madonna/Child images
promulgated during that period. When compared to the mother/child images which appeared two centuries later during the Romantic era (See Figure 2: Mrs. West & Her Son, Raphael [Benjamin West, 1770]), the child in Raphael’s depiction appears much more stoic and unaffected, an entity unto himself,
whereas West’s painting draws the child ever closer to the mother’s cheek, and makes visible the child’s grip on the mother’s shoulder (Higonnet. Pictures of Innocence, 40-41). By the 18th Century, children are no longer rendered self-sufficient.
Artists also began to make more of a distinction in physical stature between adults and children (See Figure 3: Portrait of Mrs. John Angerstein and her son, John Julius William [Thomas Lawrence, 1799]). Jack Zipes, in his cross-analysis of over a hundred Red Riding Hood illustrations drawn between 1800 and 1984, charts a gradual reduction in size and loss of adult attributes in renderings of the rouge-cloaked child which parallel the general trend in child
portraitures noted by Higonnet to have started somewhere around the dawn of the 19th Century (Zipes, 357-381; Higonnet, 33).
As life’s ephemerality came to represent the central theme in 18th Century European literature and art, Western society rediscovered children as harbingers of a stage of life worthy of oft-times tearful reflection (Heywood, 24-25). Bubbles by John Everett Millais, painted in 1886 (Figure 4), is the polished product of an upper-class artistic genre instituted a century earlier. Pre-Victorian artists sought to exalt the wondrous world of children as wholly antithetical to adult experience (Higonnet, 33-34). Prior to the Romantic period, children were regarded as awash in original sin, in much need of
Christian cleansing, but the William Wordsworth’s and the Victor Hugo’s of post-Renaissance Europe effectively wiped the child’s slate clean, and invented the human “tabula rasa” Higgonet refers to as the “Innocent Child.” (Higonnet, 8-9)
The “Knowing Child” starts to contradict Romantic notions of innocence during the Victorian period. Making a Train by Seymour Joseph Guy (Figure 5) is notable for the prominence he gives the child’s naked chest. The absence of breasts, coupled with the fact that the child is obviously playing dress-up, imagining a time she’ll eventually be able to wear long, flowing dresses, sets the child apart from the adult world, yet certain aspects of the painting suggest the child isn’t altogether ignorant of what adult experience entails. Guy’s provocative use of red as the color of the girl’s hypothetical dress is one indication, and the curious chair stationed off to one corner, yet facing her direction as if someone sits watching her, suggests she might secretly desire
an adoring witness. Lastly, in copying Joshua Reynold’s The Infant Samuel at Prayer (See Figure 6 for detail), painted a century earlier, onto the back wall of
the girl’s room, Guy conjures the “Innocent Child” and the “Knowing Child” in the same painting (Higonnet, 36-38).
Lewis Carroll’s depiction of Alice Liddell as the “Beggar-Maid” in his 1858 photograph (Figure 7) likewise explores an emerging tolerance on the part of visual artists for a child’s ability to evoke sensual sentiments. 20th Century social conservatism quickly nipped that in the bud, however, as the general public began treating any and all sexual depictions of youth as threats to the revitalized moral order.
The photography of Sally Mann picks up where Victorian artists left off in attempting to reconcile the “Innocent Child” and the “Knowing Child.” Mann describes the photographic process which led to the publication Immediate Family, one of the most controversial “art books” in recent history:
“We are spinning a tale of what it is to grow up. It is a complicated story and sometimes we try to take on the grand themes: anger, love, death, sensuality, beauty. But we tell it all without fear and without shame.” (Sally Mann. 1992. Immediate Family [Denville, New Jersey: Aperture], 11)
By “We,” Mann means herself and her three children, whom she considers to be artistic collaborators, rather than photographic subjects. True to her word, Mann fearlessly preserves the sensually-charged gesture in photo after photo of her frequently naked children. By providing a maternal lens through which to view child sexuality in action, Mann de-criminalizes the act of gazing intimately upon the “Knowing Child.” (See Figure 8: Naptime [Sally Mann, 1989]).
Mann alleviates any lingering suspicions regarding ill-proportionate photographer/subject power dynamics by concluding her 78-page pictorial with a shot of her pre-adolescent son, Emmet, waist deep in a tree-shrouded river, water-treads flowing away from his outstretched hands to indicate a slow, backwards wade in the direction of the river’s vanishing point, while eyes, nose, and mouth taper laser-sharp toward his mother’s lens in a visage of dead-serious finality, a photo aptly titled, “The Last Time Emmet Modeled Nude,” (Figure 9) as if to commemorate the closing moments of a partnership Emmet had decidedly outgrown, but a partnership nonetheless mutually embarked upon and negotiated.
Mann discusses her father’s irreverent sense of humor in describing the sexually burlesque artwork he’d fashion out of tree trunks, trash, and other found objects and display around the house in lieu of Christmas decorations (Mann. Immediate Family, 9), an impertinence Mann complicates in pictures like The Wet Bed (Figure 10). As if capturing her child naked, face-up, asleep,
and marinating in her own bodily fluid isn’t a chilling enough commentary on vulnerability, Mann disturbs the tension by incorporating an element (strategically placed we’ll never know) barely visible below the bed: a rag doll with its dress pulled up over its head. While most parents labor tirelessly to shield their children from “perverse” associations, Mann breaches the perimeter of the child’s blissfully uncomplicated world with humor, eroticism, and grotesquery, a weighty, paradoxical triple-bind Mann finds altogether compatible with the once and future child, however frequently those complexities escape the selective radar of innocence-smitten adults.
Mann’s “immediate family” resembles those tight-knit seamstress clans banished by the French elite to the profane netherworld of knowledgeable bodies. Mann’s family eats from the Tree of Knowledge, but refuses to wear loin-cloths. By granting her children permission to acknowledge and explore sexuality “without fear and without shame,” Mann equips her children to run with the wolves, to navigate a path through the forest of sexual objectification and subvert, through their own, unassisted cunning, the sly entrapments of the wolf’s gaze.
- Paul Christiano
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