University of Campinas (UNICAMP)
Video 1: EU ELAS [I HER]. Solo of Juliana Moraes. Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC USP). São Paulo, SP. Brazil. Jul. 2016.
The Choreographic Structure of the Piece
EU ELAS [I HER] was a commissioned piece created to be part of an exhibition about Rudolf Laban at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC USP), São Paulo, in July 2016. Four choreographers who had studied Rudolf Laban in different places (London, New York, and São Paulo) were invited. I studied at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (at the time called The Laban Centre) between 1998 and 2000, having completed a professional diploma in dance studies and a Master’s degree in Dance Studies. The curators of the exhibition did not ask us to create something directly related to Laban’s legacy; their intention was to highlight that some choreographers, whom they considered interesting and who were working in São Paulo, had this common background.
Although I wasn’t obliged to create a piece based on my study of Laban, I asked myself when I had first recognized the influence of his system on my artistic practice. The answer was a five-minutes scene that I had created eleven years before, when I had first begun working with female gestures of “good girls.” It was my knowledge of the Laban system that enabled me to study those gestures, analyze their qualities, collect them from my own memory as well as from the world around me, and arrange them into a choreographic structure of three fragmented and simultaneous kinespheres in my body. This scene was originally part of a fifty-minute duet called Corpos Partidos (Broken Bodies) and a forty-minute solo entitled 3 tempos num quarto sem lembrança (“three times in a room without memory”), which both premiered in 2005. By performing the two works many times in different venues in São Paulo State, dancing the solo for the last time in 2012, I was able to improve my performance of the scene and continue to craft it as the years went by. At first, it was incredibly hard to keep the beat with my feet and perform for the five minutes and eighteen seconds of the music (composed by Laércio Resende). However, as I continued to dance the piece, I gradually learned to play with the rules of the scene and find more combinations. Many spectators would talk to me after the performance about the impact that specific scene had had on their appreciation of the work they had seen, and quite often it was suggested that I should turn it into a full evening solo. At first that seemed impossible, since I found it hard enough to perform it for five minutes; but in 2016, the idea began to make sense, and I felt compelled to find a way to transform it into a longer solo.
During the many years that I performed the pieces, including that five-minute scene, I used to rehearse it while sitting on a chair in front of a big dance studio mirror starting with just the arm gestures. I would repeat the arm gestures until I had mastered them, then combine them with different body parts (shoulders, hands, elbows, wrists, fingers, and chest), trying different speeds, pauses, accelerations and decelerations, variations of strength, spatial direction, and flow (direct or flexible, light or strong, linear or curved). Only after mastering the arm gestures would I add the movement of the hills going side to side, and then I would repeat it until I was able to perform both things at once. After that, I would work (still in front of the mirror) to add leg variations and, finally, the head movements.
When I move my head, I cannot see what I am doing in the mirror, which is why I do most of my rehearsal without this movement. Also, this gesture of negation has a deep impact on my inner perception — it takes me on an inward journey. The technical knowledge of body part combinations that I develop without the head motion during the rehearsal functions as a psychological anchor, helping me to keep track of where I am and what I am doing. I internalize the images of myself that I see in the mirror during rehearsal so that I have some reference for what I am doing when I perform it with the head movement in front of an audience. It is a skill I have been developing over the years; the more I consciously train my body to perform the gestures, combine them in complex ways, and vary their qualities while looking at my body in the mirror, the more I am able to create interesting combinations and variations during performance. I felt my performances were weakest during the periods when I was unable to rehearse as much as I wanted (because I was dealing with an injury or because some aspect of my private life prevented me from going to the studio as often as I would have liked) because my perception of myself was not as sharp. During those performances, I would be overwhelmed by the intense energy of the movements, and my emotions would sometimes take over — I would feel angry, sad, or cynical while I was dancing, and my movements would degenerate into less interesting combinations. Thus, over the years I learned that the more time I spent rehearsing while looking at myself in the mirror, the better my control over my actions during performances. Recently, I have also begun to watch video recordings as part of the rehearsal process, so that I can review combinations, timings, and gestures invented on the spur of the moment and try to repeat or expand on them. It also allows me to recognize that some movements were wrongly placed in the scene, too early or too late. Sometimes, looking at old recordings, I realize that I have forgotten some gestures; I might choose to include them in the work again, or I might not if they don’t seem interesting anymore.
When I decided to take on the challenge of creating a full-length solo based on an old five-minute scene, I wondered if I could turn the method of private rehearsal that I had developed into a choreographic device, slowly adding the movements of the body parts in front of the audience, leaving the adding of the head movement for last. This idea only came to me after trying and failing with many other ideas. I spent a long time exploring ways of moving around the studio space with the chair, and I also experimented with moving away from the chair and coming back to it, turning it away from (or to the side of) the audience and so forth. After some weeks of extensive experimentation, I realized I was stuck. I would look at the video recordings of my rehearsals and feel unhappy about everything I had done.
One day, I decided to do exactly what some spectators had suggested over the years: just perform the scene for as long as I could. I filmed myself for about twenty minutes dancing it full on, using head, heels, leg variations, and arm movements together. I was trying to answer Jonathan Burrows’ question: “You’ve found some movement, or words, or other material that shows something of the quality you’re looking for. How long can you keep it going for and still hold the attention of the audience?” (Burrows 83). When I watched the video recording of this experiment, I was frustrated — the scene died when performed for such a long time; it simply got boring. This experiment clarified the limits of the material: it could maintain the interest of a viewer for five minutes but no longer than that. I therefore needed to construct a stronger structure, which I chose to base on the accumulation of gestures and the use of a hidden iPod. The concealed sounds became the chassis of the piece, holding its parts together. Building the scene by gradually adding new elements, just as I had always done in rehearsals, was a choreographic device I tried as a way of keeping the material interesting for the audience, changing things before the scene became dull. Coming to this solution after weeks of frustration reminded me of something else Burrows said: “Choreography is what you do when you get stuck” (83). But I needed to bind my feminine postures and gestures of a good girl with a bigger choreographic structure to make a coherent conceptual whole. I thus made the conceptually decisive choice that I would never leave the chair. Instead of expanding the piece spatially, I would remain in the same spot and work on expanding and shrinking my body’s motion while never leaving the chair. Over the course of many performances of EU ELAS [I HER], I have become increasingly certain that staying on the chair throughout is one of the keys to this solo.
The accumulation of movements of my body was the first choreographic structure that made any sense in the creative process of EU ELAS [I HER]. Before trying this approach, I had felt I had an interesting dance scene that risked becoming a lumpy, chaotic full-evening performance. I therefore began to investigate how long each movement could be made to last. It seemed that instead of the arm gestures with which I used to start rehearsals, I should begin with the smallest of motions, the side to side motion of the heels, but the beat of Laercio Resende’s music that I followed with my heels was so fast that I felt I had to speed up the motion slowly, reaching the music’s beat after a long journey. I decided to work with a metronome and recorded it accelerating by one beat per minute (bpm) every four beats, from around 120 to 220 bpm (the tempo of Laercio’s music). With the earbuds connected to an iPod hid in the pocket of my dress, I can follow this slowly accelerating tempo without the audience hearing it. Detaching what I was listening to from what the audience heard became another choreographic anchor for the piece, allowing me to edit my motions as if I were in a movie in which only I could hear the soundtrack. Accelerating the tempo of my movements gradually in this way until I reached the tempo of the music took about five minutes, so I decided to use this motion as a baseline on top of which I would add some variations: one minute of only the heels moving, then one minute in which I would introduce leg variations, followed by another minute in which I would go back to moving only the heels and introduce concomitant arm gestures, and finally two minutes of combined heel movements, leg variations, and arm gestures. After that, I decided to add the original scene of 2005 twice, first with only me listening to the music with earbuds and second with the music being played on the theatre’s speakers. I created two perfectly synchronized sound scores, one for my iPod and another for the speakers, which I turn on before entering the stage.
The mirroring of the scene with the music, performed once in silence for the audience and then with music over the speakers, became an important choreographic device. It divides the piece into two symmetrical parts and is in line with the principle that provides the structure for the whole work: adding new information before the material gets boring. In venues with full theatrical capabilities, the piece starts in complete darkness, and the first thing the audience sees is a black chair that remains empty for two minutes. (The video included at the beginning of this text was recorded in a museum and so this element of the performance could not be realized.) Then there is a brief blackout after which the audience sees me, sitting calmly and quietly on the chair for another two minutes (another mirroring), during which time the only movement I perform is a single motion of my heels to the left. The idea behind this long initial pause is to allow the audience to look at my female body as much as they want to, to present myself passively to their gaze — I look forward without expression. Moving my heels is the first sudden motion I perform, a hiccup of a single body part. From the audience’s perspective, the accumulation is linear: the chair, my still body, the single heels movement, side to side heels movements, leg variations, side to side heels movements + arm gestures, heels + leg variations + arm gestures, heels + leg variations + arm gestures + head motion, heels + leg variations + arm gestures + head motion + music. I add unexpected pauses at specially chosen moments to provide a contrast with the physically challenging and heightened energy of the motions.
I worked extensively for weeks to construct this logic of accumulation using video recordings of myself to decide the duration of each new addition, when to introduce the pauses, and how long they should last. However, all this painstakingly detailed work only extended the piece to twenty minutes. I couldn’t find a way to extend the material any longer, so I began to look for new ideas that would allow me to extend it to at least half an hour so that I could present the work as a full evening solo. Some years before, I had experimented with plastic bags and been fascinated by the impact this simple object had on speech, so I decided to include this device in the choreographic accumulation of EU ELAS [I HER]. I am so hot from the previous scenes that the air that comes from my lungs immediately condenses in the inner walls of the bag. The audience can see the amount of air coming in and out, as the bag becomes this concrete object of measurement, and they hear the sound of my breath amplified by the plastic. The use of the bag also brought a direct familial element to the piece because of my grandmother Lea’s stories of how she used a bag to calm herself down. Even though my grandmother’s recipe recommended mouth and nose inside the bag, I keep my nose out so that I can inhale the air and slowly release it through my nose, emptying the bag completely and then filling it back up by exhaling in it with new air coming from my nostrils, making it so full that my face deforms with the effort.
After breathing in the bag for some minutes, I begin to talk in it. It is possible to speak with the plastic bag in my mouth only if it is not completely full of air; when totally full, talking is impossible as the air’s pressure prevents the articulation of words. Thus, it is not only a metaphor: words physically need free space to travel, and they cannot be formed in imprisoned places. It is not only that they can’t be heard; they can’t even be articulated, and only deformed sounds come out. When I discovered that, I began to explore the process of losing one’s ability to speak coherently in the scene with the bag. This scene does not have a fixed duration — sometimes it lasts for three minutes, other times for four or almost five minutes; the timing is organic, in contrast with the metronomically precise timing of the previous twenty minutes. When I feel the scene has reached its end, I push the bag into my mouth in slow motion and start to move suddenly, at high speed, as the light slowly fades out.
Many people ask me the meaning of the head movement; it represents “no.” It is the general gesture for negation in Brazil. Thus, it seems to be a straightforward statement, although there are many possible readings: no to being alone, to moving like an automaton without real agency, to being left behind, to being forced to behave as a good girl, to being forced to always wait and never be truly in charge. However, the movement of the head also has an aesthetic effect because it blurs my face and makes it look like the images of Francis Bacon’s paintings; sometimes you see a profile and the whole face at the same time. This happens because the eyes are tricked by the speed. Knowing that, I have cut my hair in a way that emphasizes the blurred image — that is, shoulder length, in layers, with a fringe (I have been stuck with this haircut for quite some time now). More recently, I have also begun to experiment with absurd facial expressions and some percussive sounds with my mouth. I can continue to craft the material as the years go by because I add new gestures and combinations. I keep collecting them; whenever I see a new one being performed by a woman in daily life, or on television and social media, I add it to my solo. The female gestures I choose already exist, and I take them as ready-mades, placing them in an imaginary archive that I can access during rehearsals and performances. I don’t know the order in which I perform them. This depends on many negotiations. For example, do I need to become calmer for a while? If so, I choose some easier ones. Should I add some subtle or violent contrast? Do I have cramps in my feet and, thus, should I move my legs energetically for a while to make the blood run and ease the pain? It is very different from a piece of choreography in which the steps are set and memorized in a fixed sequence.
I become quite crazy when I perform the piece. It is a psychological journey as well as a physical one. I usually begin very calm, centered, and controlled and, slowly, through my actions, I enter different states of mind. I can’t do this without the audience. I need their energy to keep me going; I need to know they are there watching so that I push myself through the toughest moments of the performance. It is a very hard piece. I never do the whole thing in rehearsals. When I rehearse, I do the scenes separately, and I work on memorizing the gestures and being very precise about their qualities so that when I am on stage I don’t lose my mind in all that madness. I always must remember the gestures and their qualities and to calm myself down internally to keep the beat with my feet. I must contend with my desire to stop and also my wish to continue and go faster and crazier. It is a violent act. However, I set myself the task to not indulge my exhaustion, but to try to collect myself in paused moments at specific times in the choreography. I like the idea that I can surprise the spectator by suddenly stopping moving altogether in a posture clearly associated with a well-educated and good female.
In EU ELAS [I HER], gestures and postures of my female body, educated to become a good girl according to my environment’s rules, are choreographed to be both cute and monstrous, docile and mad, submissive and reactive, repugnant and attractive, savage and civil. I try to be an observer of my own everyday experiences of movement and look to the process of being raised with specific conditions and ideologies relating to the female body. I research choreographic structures to present opposed images in condensed forms, paralleling surrealistic approaches with art-making in which rationalistic and logical senses of time and space are challenged by unconscious experiences in which there is not one thing OR another, but one thing AND the other at the same time (see Freud 2010). In working to create a choreography out of the body I have, I remember Susan Leigh Foster’s words on a hypothetical female choreographer alone in the studio: “She is sorting through, rejecting and constructing physical images. Her choices make manifest her theorizing of corporeality” (Foster 7).
Learning to Be a Good Girl and Memory Flashbacks While Dancing
Creating a work of art is not a scientific process. A lot of a dancer’s training focuses on acquisition of physical skills, and as a choreographer, one studies many different compositional tools, but for both dancer and choreographer training and exercising one’s intuition, inner and outer perception, is also vital. My choreographic choices for EU ELAS [I HER] were the result of a complex negotiation between what I consciously knew and understood at the time and what I felt intuitively made sense. It is by dancing it repeatedly that I have been able to slowly unravel a fuller web of significance — partly because the physical demands of the piece speak to me through sensations, feelings, perceptions, and memories.
I recognize that writing about this piece is a complex process because choreographic discourses follow different sets of rules than the ones demanded in academic papers, and no description, no matter how specific, can ever substitute the experience of exposure and exchange that occurs in live performance. Besides, any attempt for me to give an account of this piece will always be partial because of my own opacity to myself. “When we claim to know and present ourselves, we will fail in some ways that are nevertheless essential to who we are, [ . . . ] any effort made ‘to give an account of oneself’ will have to fail in order to approach being true” (Butler 28). Nevertheless, the effort to write about my artistic practice and contextualize it within the environment in which I grew up and still live in, however fallible that account might be, unfolds from the belief that artists need to take possession of their own narratives and stop being the objects for only others to write about.
Even though the excavation of my own memories related in EU ELAS [I HER] is intended to “bridge the gap between theory and experience” (Onyx and Small 773) and might resonate with Frigga Haul’s method of memory-work, I do not engage with a collective group in the discussion of my past experiences. Only years after premiering the piece and performing it in different venues did I come across Haul’s method and its Marxist feminist approach to embodiment; after some analysis of this proposition, I agree that my reflection is contained in what is described as its first phase — the individual’s reflections trying to indicate her/his processes of construction. Although I do not engage in a group reflection about female memory, instead opting to present my female memory as a sole narrator in search of its network of contamination in relation to my artistic work, I believe that the memory of my female body is both private and collective because it is a shared cultural trait. That is why in Portuguese, the title of the solo is EU ELAS. Our language has a plural specific to women, even though the first person is gender-neutral. Thus, the first word of the title, EU, translates to “I.” The second word, ELAS, translates to a feminine “they.” However, by choosing ELAS instead of WE, I also recognize that “your story is never my story” (Butler 25) no matter how many similar experiences there might be.
EU ELAS [I HER] views my dancing body and my personal body as inextricably linked. In direct opposition to the intimacy of domestic life, the lack of agency, and the criminality of reproductive decisions for many women in Brazil, in EU ELAS [I HER] I take my chair to the middle of the stage and use my highly trained dancing body to present that which is not supposed to be shown in public: the despair, pain, revolt, and rage of having to learn to be a quiet, cute, and submissive good girl, and later a well-educated and well-behaved grown woman. It might be argued that I thus sustain a patriarchal dualistic view toward the female body, reinforcing it every time I perform my solo. Nevertheless, this duality is far from being resolved, and it still marks female identity and embodied experiences in many parts of my country. Hence, instead of presenting a prosthetic solution, I show an open wound with no real prospect of being healed.
The parallel between the female body and its social role within the domesticity of the house is a long-lasting one in Brazil and part of the complex biopolitics we inherit with our gender: the expectancy that we should conform to roles confined to the intimacy of the house more than external exposition in political contexts and places of power. The postures and gestures I learned since childhood to become a respectful good girl can still be easily observed as we walk around social spaces in the countryside of São Paulo State as well as some areas of the state capital and many other places in the country. Although initially linked to a white middle- and upper-class upbringing, it is not uncommon to find marks of constrained bodies in black young females, mainly within the rising Protestant evangelical community who are educated to become respectful women with little agency, happy to stand behind their apparently honorable husbands (Rigoni and Prodócimo).
According to Susan Leigh-Foster, Judith Butler’s theory of gender as a performative construction derives its definition of performance mainly from John Austin’s theory of language. “Austin’s theory of the performativity of language, a radical opening out of language to social and political dimensions, posits that under certain conditions the speaking of a phrase might alter the status of the body performing the speaking” (Foster 3). However, Foster argues that an extensive literature about the body produced in theatre, dance, and performance studies has not been acknowledged by most gender theories. “For Butler it is difficult to envision how either performance or performativity extends beyond the verbal realm into nonverbal dimensions of human action” (Foster 4). Instead of seeing gender only as the result of individual repetition and reiteration of norms in daily performances of ourselves, Foster offers the idea that gender is choreographed. “Choreography therefore serves as a useful intervention into discussions of materiality and body by focusing on the unspoken, on the bodily gestures and movements that, along with speech, construct gendered identity” (Foster 5).
According to Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (Sheets-Johnstone xv), “movement is at the root of our sense of agency,” and its complexity is made more difficult to unravel because most of the learning process is deeply unconscious (see Leder 1990). “When the question of agency is not addressed from the perspective of movement [ . . . ], when perception is not diligently and rigorously pursued to its full dynamic, something crucial is omitted” (Sheets-Johnstone xvii). Current approaches to cognition view it as an embodied action and not as a separate process of the brain; thus, sense-making is considered the result of physicochemical processes creating an environment of significance that connects the individual with the collective in complex networks of reciprocal dependency (see Streeck). Our behavior and experiences are constantly reshaped by multimodal interactions in a constant process of negotiation, deeply rooted in inter-corporeal and place-specific dimensions. The way I see myself as an individual is linked with past experiences, both real and fantasized, in a web in which some connections are reinforced and others forgotten. My present experiences are dependent on past ones, which in turn shape my expectations for the future. Instead of a single identity, embodiment as flow allows me to keep accessing past events, search for reasons, and continue to question the processes of sense-making. If we agree that “movement is the foundation of our conceptual life, that is, the foundation of a never-growing store of corporeal concepts such as ‘inside,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘light,’ ‘open,’ ‘close,’ concepts having to do with consequential relationships” (Sheets-Johnstone xxi-xxii), then we must acknowledge the fact that the ways in which we are taught to move not only shape our muscles, postures, and gestures, but also our cognition. If our sense of agency, memory, and cognition exist in a bodily way, as an artist of the body, I believe they can be made visible through choreographic choices that expose them.
EU ELAS [I HER] is structured around my memory of growing up in the eighties and nineties in São Carlos, a medium-sized town in the countryside of São Paulo State in Brazil. There, a large portion of the middle and upper classes is descended from poor and illiterate Italian immigrants who arrived from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the 20th century and raised their statuses substantially, socially, culturally, and economically, in only two or three generations. For most of those within this white European descendent community, their success is viewed as the result of inner and individual effort, and there is a palpable sense of contempt toward descendants of slaves and recent migrants from poorer Brazilian states. This presumption obliterates the fact that slaves were freed after centuries of trauma, with no right to a piece of land, no education, and no knowledge of how the free market system worked, whereas European immigrants came with entrepreneurial ambitions facilitated by governments.
Although my parents were not religious and looked for alternative and more open-minded schools in São Carlos, there was no way to avoid some heavily Catholic, racist, and sexist environments. From a mixture of sources (friends at school and their parents, close and distant relatives, the city country club, ballet and jazz classes, television programs, national and Hollywood movies, et cetera.), female girls were taught from a young age that there were two types of women: the ones who get married and the ones who fool around. A lot of my education was centered on making me a respectful girl. Some of that was empowering because it meant having self-respect and demanding respect from others, but much was confusing.
There was a general acceptance, until recently in many parts of São Paulo State and Brazil in general, that husbands would keep an alternative life outside of their respectful homes. My father’s parents, who lived in Piracicaba (another middle-sized town in the countryside of São Paulo State with a similar history of European immigration after the abolition of slavery), had that type of marriage. My grandfather died when I was in my twenties, so I witnessed my grandmother’s unhappiness for a long time. Her name was Lea; she died a few years ago when she was ninety years old. She told me about breathing into a plastic or paper bag to restore calmness. She used a bag her whole life. The trick is that you stop inhaling oxygen and breathe your own carbon dioxide — that’s what makes you calmer. Before the widespread use of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs, the bag did the trick. The disarticulation of words forced by the bag also has a conceptual role because disarticulating intelligent women by deforming their voices has been a powerful strategy for maintaining patriarchal rule: “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in both Europe and North America, a man had the legal right to lock his perfectly sane wife or daughter away in a mental asylum” (Chester 196). However, Brazil was no different; in a study about female inmates between 1929 and 1944 in the biggest psychiatric hospital in São Paulo — Sanatório Pinel de Pirituba — Juliana Vacaro found countless stories of women institutionalized because they wouldn’t fit “a perfect model of the required standards of femininity” (Vacaro 31). A woman should “act perfectly as a wife, mother, and housewife; a simple incident, any deviation from the norm, however, could lead to her confinement in one of the numerous psychiatric hospitals scattered in the city of São Paulo and also in other parts of Brazil” (31). Brazil’s first civil code, introduced in 1916, considered women partially incapable and equated them with minors, prodigals, and indigenous peoples; until 1962, for women to practice any act, they depended on the consent of the father and, when married, the husband. It was only with the New Constitution of 1988 that women and men were finally considered equal in Brazil.
Only recently have I begun to acknowledge that my grandmother Lea is one of the women I represent in my solo. She never moved from her spot, never divorced nor left my grandfather. She had her panic attacks, her depressive moments, her anxious cries, but she wouldn’t go anywhere. Having said that, I must acknowledge that she was a wonderful grandmother; she was generous and funny with her many grandchildren. She was joyful, playful, and full of life when she was with us. However, as soon as she heard the sound of my grandfather coming down the stairs, her face would stiffen, and she would turn into a resentful old lady.
When rehearsing, performing, or thinking about the piece, I also began to have flashbacks of my paternal great-grandmother. I relived the many visits my family made to her in the city of Piracicaba in São Paulo State’s countryside when I was a child. For most of the time we were there, she would be sat in her rocking chair, dressed in an ankle-length black skirt and a long-sleeved silk shirt (either totally white or black with white dots), even in high summer. As far as I can remember, she never wore any color. Her white hair was always carefully tied in a bun, she wore a family brooch at her neck and long pearl necklaces. Nobody called her by her real name, only by the nickname Mocica — an old-fashioned diminutive of “young lady” that was used to call the daughter of the farm owner. Forced to marry a man who was a cousin on both sides (in centuries past, marriages between related families were arranged to avoid dividing land), my great-grandmother Mocica looked to me like a wax doll: expressionless, distant, detached, far gone. She had watched as her powerful husband lost every piece of land, property, and money the couple had ever had, and she had been able to do nothing about it. In the 1960s, her husband sold the family farm to an Italian immigrant. He could only afford the first installment of the payment, so once he had taken possession, he cut down all the trees and sold the timber to the many Italian cabinetmakers in the region, using the money produced by the farm to finish paying for it. One of these cabinetmakers was my Italian great-grandfather Francisco on my mother’s side; until today, my Italian descendent family from my mother’s side enjoys talking about the stupidity of the old farm owners and, more specifically, about the way my father’s ancestor had been tricked by a poor and illiterate immigrant who proved to be smarter than the traditional, arrogant aristocracy of the region. My great-grandmother Mocica spent her last years being looked after by her children, with no land or property of her own, dressed as a perfect lady who wore her silk and jewelry even for simple visits from her great-grandchildren.
In the beginning, I didn’t recognize the influence that my grandmother Lea and my great-grandmother Mocica had on my choreographic explorations, but these two figures kept coming back to me. I began to ask myself to what extent the bodies of the women with little agency in my family had shaped my own by assimilation or rejection. In contrast to Lea and Mocica, my family also has a long line of strong-minded women who fought their way into the labor market and refused to be told what to do by their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons (my mother included) — and I have aligned myself with them throughout my life. Nevertheless, the choreographic choices I did when structuring EU ELAS [I HER] and the fact that I have performed this piece over and over since its premiere have brought me closer to the women of my family that I used to feel sorry for.
Although my grandmother Lea and great-grandmother Mocica are dead now, the phantoms of oppressed and submissive women are overtly present in Brazil today. Recently, during one of the ugliest election campaigns since the end of the Military Dictatorship in 1984, cultural battles have ripped the country apart. On the twenty-ninth of September 2018, thousands of women and men took to the streets to demonstrate against a presidential candidate who had for decades spoken openly against women’s rights. (The police did not release official figures for the number of people attending the demonstration.) There was a general expectation that a big protest would raise awareness, especially amongst women, and help diminish his appeal, but instead his support amongst women increased by six percent according to the polls. Specially chosen shots of the protest, as well as images taken elsewhere and used as fake news, were spread through WhatsApp and Facebook. They showed same-sex couples kissing and women parading with naked breasts in sadomasochistic costumes — a fragment of what really happened. Journalist Rosana Pinheiro Machado, who had secretly joined a female Facebook group supporting this candidate, noted that among conservative women, the images of the protest (true and fake) spread a fear of what is called in Brazil the dictatorship of the baranga (a very offensive word for women considered ugly, dirty, and badly behaved). (See Machado 2018.)
In the aftermath of the street protest, an amazing number of speeches on television and social media by both men and women praised the clean, beautiful, motherly, well-dressed, well-educated, and well-behaved family woman, contrasting her with the dirty, unshaved, barren, badly dressed, and badly behaved baranga. The old western alliance between hygiene and everything related to good female costume, which held patriarchal ruling for centuries, was clearly back in our presidential campaign. “Dirt is essentially disorder. [ . . . ] If we shun dirt, it is not because of craven fear, still less dread of holy terror. Nor do our ideas about disease account for the range of our behavior in cleaning or avoiding dirt. Dirt offends against order” (Douglas 2). In the midst of Brazil’s longest economic recession and the biggest ever corruption scandal, the candidate who openly opposed gender equality won the presidency with a staggering majority of the votes. Although many argue that the economic recession is the real cause of his victory, others (Calligaris) believe that he won also because he embodies our society’s old prejudice against emancipated women.
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