Margareta Sörenson[1]


The text presenting the theme of the conference Redefining Femininity in Today’s Theatre begins with the words: “The concept of femininity seeks in today’s theatre it’s own place, language, identity and expression”. The concept is under change, and has been transforming itself along the centuries, but in the western world most distinctly during the 20thcentury.

The human beings and their bodies acting on the theatrical stage in any performing art are mirrors of the time and the society around them. Studying photos from theatre or dance productions only some decades ago would immediately remind us how close the performing arts are to style and fashion, the talks of today, the icons, ideals and values of the times being. Ofelia on the stage in the 1920’s or in the 1990’s – to what extent is she the same person presented to the audience? It is a question of looks, of costume and hair dress but also much deeper changes in behaviour, gestures, voice, ways to move, ideals and dreams connected or created around a young woman confronting a confusing love story. Shakespeare’s questions on identity, who am I?, who is ‘the other’?, are responded to differently by the end of the 20th century as when they once were presented in the shift between 16th and 17th.

In such a perspective, aspects if quantity might seem of less importance, but, to my mind, the great amount of studies, news paper articles, reviews etc on the position of women on stage and their work play a role in the aspects of qualities. The many how? and why? during the last decades have contributed to modifications in the perception of the theatre traditions concerning women on and off stage. The last five or ten years female theatre directors, playwrites and producers in the Swedish theatre circles pushed forward a discussion, both deep and wide, questioning themselves how they can proceed in developing a more equal balance between the sexes in and behind the theatrical stage. The more regional theatre boards and governmental comities were involved the wider the projects have been growing, and I will not here go deeper in the different measures taken in the question. However, the result was quantity in numbers of female artistic leaders of theatres, of female directors, and an improved conscious and a more thought over view of the situation. The result in practice, is yet not obvious and most certainly a future one.

Still, the quantity aspect revealed many other questions, aspects and problems. The problematic of sexual harassment in the theatre’s staff, for instance, suddenly was in a new and sharp limelight. Obviously, the limits between harassment and compliments, between decency and moral panic, between male and female behaviour showed a new map of an old and familiar landscape when defined in a context of gender equality. Of course, ironic remarks have been made against “counting heads”, against a fixation in quantities. On the other hand, it becomes clearer, thanks to the statistics of the quantities in gender equal distribution within the theatres, that numbers and quantities are only measures of what is expressed in qualities such as ideals, models, or images. And one important change within the quality of how the female and male bodies are staged, do reflect the redefinition, or gradually changing definition, of femininity as perceived in our time and contemporary performing arts.

Who is looking on whom?

The concept of ‘the male gaze’ often has been resuming in a too easy way how femininity was defined. The sylphide of the 1830’s could easily be explained as an ideal and dreamed image of a woman, seen and dreamt about by a man. Even if it became a romantic dream and ideal, at least in fashion, for women as well, it was defined in a male perspective. Recent research would also discuss whether falling in love with a fairy defines a male escape from heterosexual norms, a criticism of the ideas of time and it’s marriages set up by families and not according to preferences of the individual. The claims of the wishes and rights of each individual is, of course, closely linked to early liberalism and the freedoms of education, enterprise and personal choices.

70 years later Isadora Duncan started a refusal against the male definition of the feminine and defined herself as a woman when dancing in Greek classical silk tunics, smooth enough to follow her body lines and show her naked feet and the lower parts of her not covered legs. To us, it looks well dressed, and it is difficult to imagine the scandal and the door opening effect, obviously connected to other movements in the western world as the campaigns for women’s rights to vote. Isadora Duncan’s definition of her own femininity includes intellectual and corporal expression, it is also a redefiniton of female sexuality as well as a provocative challenge towards a new, possible step for women to define themselves, to express themselves as individuals and not exclusively as members of the feminine collective. It is equally a big step away from previous conventions on how the female body could be exposed in public, on pictures, on theatre stages as well as in private life. Maybe, we can resume Isadora Duncan’s contribution in the history of femininity as an introducer of femininity as a concept defined by a woman herself and in her own right.

When Pina Bausch passed away last year she left a rich and vast heritage of dance as theatre and dance-theatre as an interactive part of a pictorial “gesamt-kunstwerk”, performance seen as an art experience where different art forms are melted together and synthetic. Without the many carnations, the piece Nelken, (carnations) would be something totally else; what would normally be called scenography is a part of the whole production. One element, as essential as the set and lightning of the stage, is the body expression of the dancers. They are dancers, trained and fit and with different backgrounds as dancers, but deliberately different from each other in opposition to the tradition of classical ballet and the idea of the dancer as a member of a uniform group. In Wuppertal Tanztheater the idea of “body casting” was realised, combining different looks, heights, body types in a pattern of multitude, stressing the personality and individuality of the dancer.

A profiled individual, even to the limit of eccentricity, always was a part of the male definition of man. Women seen as individual, with other qualities than traditional beauty, is not a Pina Bausch invention, but mirrors a wide and general development of femininity in the 1960’s and forward. It is such a profound ideological base to us all living now, that we easily forget it’s relatively freshness and it might seem trivial to point out that gender equality is a constitutional base, giving man and woman equal formal rights and duties in society. With gender equality and it’s stressed human right’s perspective, the individual is the main character, the protagonist in society. And as individuals the wish to define the individual life project, professional and private, will follow more or less automatically.

Pina Bausch’s works describe individuals within a group. The individual is most often a woman, exposed to a collective or a context – as in Sacre de Printemps or Café Müller. The loneliness of everyone in a group is exposed in Kontakthof, a piece that is recently re-worked by a group of teenagers, 14 years old, in Wuppertal. Women in the Bausch world are mostly dressed in silky evening or cocktail dresses, men in dark suits, with or without a shirt and tie, ways to dress that is quite far from the everyday way to dress in our time. Why this choice? Because it sum up the conventions of the sexes? Because it extrapolates the concepts of femininity and masculinity? Because it is beautiful and expressive together with the human and dancing bodies? To the audience it presents an image with iconographic qualities, not a realistic one, but a pictorial presentation rich in ideas and philosophical aspects on notions as time, sex, life, joy, sadness, alienation and the complexity of belonging to a group and being individual.

Swan Lake, by Tchaikovsky, choreographed by Mats Ek, 1987 © Lesley Leslie-Spinks
Swan Lake, by Tchaikovsky, choreographed by Mats Ek, 1987 © Lesley Leslie-Spinks

The evening dresses stress the femininity put in question. In her works the female dancers form a kind of “me” in the performance. The perspective presented in Sweet Mambo shows women dancing in a set design of white transparent curtains, reminding us of cinema icons from the 1930’s or 40’s, and on the backdrop sequences from the film Blaufuchs from 1938 with Zarah Leander in close ups were shown. Produced in the nazi-era of Germany, with an actress with nazi-sympathies and pictures stressing her almost masculine profile, her beauty and glimmering tearful eyes – why did Pina Bausch choose these iconographic signs? In the dance piece the female dancers in their evening dresses are over and over again hindered in different ways by the male dancers: carried away, stopped, lifted. How can we read the piece if not as Pina Bausch commenting on concepts of femininity? And what is her message: that femininity insist in redefining itself and the picture for that is the women trying to dance out and through all the idealistic and romantic white transparent curtains, moving delicately in the wind draught on stage.

Pina Bausch’s influence on theatre and dance during her lifetime has been immense. Mats Ek, the Swedish choreograph and director has worked since the early 1970’s in parallel with Pina Bausch. They both are parts of a wide landscape of contemporary dance with roots going back to German expressionism in previous generations, Kurt Jooss in the case of Bausch, Birgit Cullberg in the case of Mats Ek. Mats Ek worked for some 25 years directly with the Cullberg Ballet, a group of dancer with personal styles and looks. As the leading Ek-photographer Lesley Leslie Spinks put it: Strong women and beautiful men!

Mats Ek wanted to question the aesthetics of ballet and searched a different kind of beauty, a new and anti-romantic view of men and women in his works. Especially in the re-studies of Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty or Carmen he tries to construct alternative aesthetics, more true to the ordinary man and life of today. For a long period a majority of his pieces were created for the lead dancer of the company, Ana Laguna, a classical dancer from Madrid who in very young years joined the Cullberg Ballet and contemporary dance.

Meanwhile, the classical dancer’s body more and more developed towards an athletic approach, the well-trained and fit dancer thus reflecting the more and more technical demand of the classical ballet. Since the renaissance of classical ballet in the 1950’s to start with male dancers became powerful stars, combining technical skill with dramatic expression, with icons as Nureejev or Baryshnikov. It took some decades more to see the same aspects of the human body more and more dominate also the female dancers, like Sylvie Guillem, all tall slimness and muscles.

In modern dance during the same period, the naturality of the dancing body was loved and cherished in jazz dance and in modern dance, as in the styles of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. Smooth, plastic, soft dance demanded other corporal expressions. Other important influences to the western world of dance is the Japanese Butho and its concept of an almost naked body exposed, but dressed in white body make up and with a clear stress on the androgyne aspect of man or woman.

Mats Ek’s version of the Swan Lake is a critical study of the human values presented in the classical piece. He kept the story line of a young man who does not want to marry one of the girls his mother proposes to him. He is longing for something else, and is attracted by the wild swans, and fall in love with a swan princess. The costumes of the swans are in Ek’s interpretation gender neutral, the spectator can see that male and female dancers are dressed alike, in this way stressing the animal-close and maybe even androgyne aspect of the human being.

Still, it is obvious that the swan princess is female, and that she, as much as the young man, is attracted to him. She is not hunted for and caught; she searches freedom through love, both emotional and physical. Ana Laguna’s look is clearly feminine, but opposing the thin, weak and sublime body expression of the romantic sense in her bare feet and robust thighs. This is a living creature in her own rights of love and free will.

In Giselle, Ek’s first restudy of the classics in 1982, he transforms the sweet country girl to a still lovely, but also slightly retarded village girl. In the classical Giselle, she is a normal girl dying of the chock of being betrayed in love. Mats Ek’s version stresses her alienation and drop out-ness in the village, and she turns insane. The second part takes place in a mental hospital among other young women with similar destinies. The slight clownish appeareance of Ana Laguna’s Giselle challenges femininity, in it’s way discussing femininity and also in a touching way exposing how dependent a young woman was – or is – of the good will and good intentions of men around her.

The dance version of Carmen in Mats Ek’s interpretation gives both Ek and Laguna possibility to discuss a woman who define herself as a free person acting, in love and other matters, according to her own decisions. Carmen, one of many female workers in the tobacco industry, smokes her cigar in a distinct demonstration of her own rights using a male and phallic symbol in the way she wishes.

Swan Lake, by Tchaikovsky, choreographed by Mats Ek, 1987 © Lesley Leslie-Spinks
Swan Lake, by Tchaikovsky, choreographed by Mats Ek, 1987 © Lesley Leslie-Spinks

Woman defined as a human being, an individual in her own rights, could be suggested as the redefinition of femininity in Mats Ek’s works. Femininity summed up as strong, capable and independant, qualities that for long were the privilege of men. In dance the message is easy to read: the female dancer is not just one in a collective, but a personal variation of a human being. When I interviewed Brigitte Lefévre, director of the Paris Opera Ballet, who staged several of Mats Ek’s pieces, she took her left and right forefingers and joined them slowly in the air and said: for Mats Ek man and woman is like this, One plus One.

The body casting, that is the acceptance or even preference of bodies of different shapes, proportions and colours, also challenges the idea of the human being as a young adult forever. People grow older, dancers included. Several dance companies in the world today seeks forms and context for working with elder dancers, whose bodies express another kind of beauty. Still excellent movers, but no longer capable f long leaps. Mats Ek created the recent years some pieces for Ana Laguna and Michail Baryshnikov, both excellent dancers with brilliant skills and wide capacities and a beautifully relaxed thinking of the human body, for both sexes.

In popular culture and in commercial media the female body is iconised with very detailed and specified measures, allowing very little individual variations. In the arts, however, an alternative thinking of femininity is exposed and put forward, better corresponding to the needs and rights achieved by women in the modern world. The redefinition of femininity is a definition of being human.


[1] Margareta Sörenson is a Swedish theatre and dance critic. She has directed the Seminars for young critics for some time and, recently, at the Congress of the IATC in Yerevan (Armenia), she was appointed Vice-President, as well as Director of Colloquia, of that same Association.

Copyright © 2010 Margareta Sörenson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Femininity and Body Language; Reflections on Pina Bausch and Mats Ek