Gender, Sex, and Fabric
The problem of the skirt – at least the long, voluminous skirt, as demonstrated in Nicole Roerick’s Morose Beauty – is one of access. Designed for the ease of the other, not the wearer, the skirted woman paws at the fabric, twisting and groping like an injured dog at its cone.
Dancer-choreographer Roerick skillfully threaded this skirt problem throughout the four-section, hourlong work, in the studio/theatre at Galaxy Dance Center May 18-19. Costumed in voluminous white skirts and tight bodices in the first section, “Enfetter,” Roerick, Alyson Dolan, and Amy Myers obsessively explored the clothing’s restriction and relentless forces against their bodies. The soundscape for the section was the result of the friction in the movement: endless swishing of fabric, creaking of wooden benches, and sharp breaths.
Voluminous fabric returned in the third section, “Kyoto.” Four women in the kind of wedding dresses that infantilize – puffy sleeves and big bows – accompanied Roerick’s reading of a litany from Julie Otsuka’s novel The Buddha in the Attic, about the scores of Japanese girls and women who emigrated to the United States after World War I to become the brides of strangers. In the brides’ collective memory of how “they took us,” there are “white silk kimonos twisted up high over our heads” and feelings of suffocation. The dancers gathered the fronts of their skirts and tucked them into their briefs, the resulting bulge and exposure both ridiculous and harrowing. When they discarded their bodices, they were submitting: Soon after, the skirts went up over their heads.
Roerick, in her first full-length show in Austin after moving here last year, showed a fine, sculptural quality, tattooed edginess, and an enthralling ability to sustain tension, and her movement language had inventive clarity. When her dancers repeatedly stabbed their own chests with their fingers, there was no mistaking their violation. The movement for the women firmly relegated them to a liminal place, where they were restricted from climax – it was sex, yes, but through a feminist lens, sexual frustration is a mere springboard. Throughout the piece, their garments created constant friction not only against the body but also against honesty, openness, being one’s real self in the world.
The “male” movement in the second section, “hyper(fe)male,” a duet for Roerick and Jude Hickey, evinced a freer mode. Dressed like him in pants and suspenders, she mirrored his struts, bicep curls, and big, lunging steps that ended in collapse, to classic tunes wrought with today’s sexist taboos. When Roerick discarded the pants to reveal a white slip, however, she “reverted” to the vulnerable female. In conquest, Hickey climbed on top of her, which seemed too literal and unnecessary given Roerick’s choreographic skill. But in other parts of the duet, her craft with movement powered home complexities: Moments of yielding and attentiveness took the edge off misogyny but also revealed its depth. Violence and tenderness were not mutually exclusive.
Sure, we have come a long way from the era of the songs in “hyper(fe)male” – it’s no longer cool to refer to an adult woman as “little girl,” for example, nor is it always acceptable to admit, as a woman, that you feel you “need a man.” But Morose Beauty seemed to reinforce the permanence of gender, or of sex, and thus of the problems therein. In the duet, Roerick eventually pulled the pants and suspenders back on over the slip, but the clothing didn’t grant her back the “male” freedom of movement. After having succumbed to femininity, her “female” movements, by female limbs, resulted in entanglement with the suspenders, and subsequent restriction by them. In her final solo, “Is This All?” she eventually shed the (pure) white (restrictive) bodice, this time in liberation. But even barechested, with a black blazer over her shoulders, but she remained wrought with the thrusting lunges and stabbing gestures. The different was that this time, those movements were accompanied by the sounds of a thunderstorm, as though the pelting of the rain – a phenomenon greater than men; the prerequisite for biology – was, itself, invasive.