Friday, 1 June 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #21 - Choreography part 2

In mid May we had scheduled a trial performance of The Hidden Pin Up at a venue in Manchester, which for reasons beyond our control had to be cancelled. It was a bit of a blow but rehearsing in situ and developing the performance to a near finished version gave everyone a chance to see our collective ideas weave together.

Lenai, our fantastic dancer from Manchester's House Of Ghetto (HOG), did sterling work picking up where we'd left off from our first choreography session a few weeks back. For the trial performance we wanted to use a staircase as the stage area as this was to be an intervention, treating the audience to an unexpected experience from their viewpoint gathered at the stairs base.

Using our chosen song of Miss Celie's Blues for the first half it took Lenai no time to adjust to the diagonal ground of the stairs while using the hessian fans to recreate a traditional fan dance. The results were stunning as the stairs lent an air of magic to the piece, literally letting Lenai appear far above our heads with natural light shining behind her and through the fans. As she made her way down the steps instinctively matching her moves to the words and breaks in the song, both myself and HOG choreographer Darren Pritchard, knew that this was going to be a very strong piece.


 Once Lenai was on a level with the audience our idea to flip the script and introduce a modern Vogue beat for the second half of the performance took shape. This was especially exciting for me as I was intrigued to see how the very different moves of Vogue dancing would fit the piece and I was not disappointed. As a professional dancer with a strong Vogue background Lenai added a sophisticated sensuality that matched the fluid movements of the burlesque section to perfection.

Our plan was to have live vocals performed by Justina Aina the fab singer who we recently worked with to create our own Vogue track for the piece. Her confrontational use of the words I have stitched into the fans would have juxtaposed brilliantly with Lenai's graceful ascent back up the stairs, eventually to disappear like a dream that once was. Unfortunately we never got to try this out but from the groundwork already done, both Darren and I know this would be a powerful blend that would leave a lasting impression on the audience. As we progress on this project there will be much more to come so watch this space!

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Everything I See I Swallow

I've just seen a woman tied up and suspended from the ceiling. Her pale naked body contrasted with the red ropes that criss-crossed her skin as her flesh swelled slightly around the cords. Her entire shape was transformed as the ropes cut off her ability to move and forced her into an unnatural position. As she swung round and round, she was no longer like you and I, she looked helpless and immobile, bound fast, but she was far from powerless, she was completely in control.

I've just left the theatre from a showing of Everything I See I Swallow, a commissioned production taking place at The Lowry as part of their Week 53 celebrations. My mind is humming with thoughts of the things I've seen and heard.

Using a mixture of aerial skills and Japanese rope bondage known as Shibari (or Kinbaku) Everything I See I Swallow explored the complex and difficult relationship between long standing feminist ideologies and modern feminist viewpoints as portrayed by the play's characters, a young woman called Olivia who has found empowerment through submission and her mother, a woman who has tried to bring her daughter up to own of her own body, and steer away from damaging female stereotypes.

When the mother finds out that that her treasured peach of a daughter is posting naked images of herself in rope bondage on Instagram she is horrified and dismayed. In an attempt to protect her precious offspring she hammers home the feminist theories she herself has been educated on and the words of feminists past tumble from her in desperation, words we know she has read and memorised from the piles of feminist literature heaped round the stage.

Is Olivia doing this just to get online followers? Does she realise how harmful these type of pictures are? Or what a bad message they send out to other young women? Has her mother taught her nothing?

For the daughter the experience of being tied up is anything but exploitative. The beginning of the play starts with her hanging chrysalis like bound in her ropes, and like a butterfly, she hatches from their bonds a new person. As she carefully removed each knot, untying them herself and stepping to the ground she explained her journey to freedom.

For Olivia it was the pressure of living up to an acceptable version of femininity placed on her by society that truly confined her. It was good to be pretty, but bad to be pleased about it. It was expected that she should be flattered that men found her attractive, but bad to act on her own sexual desires. In time she felt ashamed by her own sexuality, hiding her body away. Yet, having the realisation that what really turned her on was submission was a turning point for her. A chance to actively play out the role of passive female through choice.

Choice is the really important message Olivia is trying to convey. No-one is forcing her to submit, it's a completely free decision and one that she gets pleasure and her own agency from. For her mother its hard to accept that something so intrinsically derogatory can be positive. As Olivia tries to explain her reasons for bondage, the mother is conflicted by her need to protect and nurture her daughter and get on board with such an alien idea.

To some degree this is an argument I've heard many times before. Topics like burlesque, Grid Girls, even make up and high heels have been compared to constraints invented by men for the pleasure of the male gaze; for every woman who feels legitimised by these sensual and sexual tropes another feels belittled and stagnated by them. It's never a simple issue of who is right or wrong but a tangled web of time and place, personal experience and choice.

For me, the play spoke eloquently about these precarious arguments in a focused and engaging way. It was easy to like both characters and understand where their very opposing views came from. The daughter's inner monologue describing her daily struggle to find her place in a male dominated world where she felt both comfortable and respected touched on unspoken emotions I, and I suspect many women, have often felt. Modern living for the younger woman really can be an ongoing journey of awareness and analysis, measuring your worth against a man made scale of what is acceptable and realising you can go against the norm. However finding the strength and understanding to do this isn't always easy.

The daughter character found that being tied up through choice and enjoying it subverted the struggle. It turned the power play on its head. Essentially she found full ownership of her body both physically and mentally by fully living in a moment where she was 100% compliant and enjoying herself. This was beautifully illustrated by a segment of the play where sensual music thrummed, the lights glowed red and through a crimson haze we saw Olivia look directly at the audience with a suggestive grin. She moved with fluid motion across the stage wearing diamante and little else. Finding the coils of red rope she expertly began to tie specific knots winding them over and around her torso, between her breasts and down her back. Within no time she was transformed into the living work of erotic art swaying gently above the floor suspended by her bondage.

Then her mother entered. The music stopped abruptly, the lights turned white and her mum's disapproval stole the moment of all it's magic. Olivia was instantly unsure and awkward and clawed at the ropes to remove them. 

The mother character, like many feminists who grew up during the 60's 70's and 80's had first hand knowledge of what it was like to be sidelined and marginalised to a much greater degree than the young women of today. It is because of the older generations relentless fight for equality that young women like her daughter have been able to find their own voices and make such unlikely life choices while they are still young. The disconnect occurs when these choices seem to go against the older generation's moral compass. What this play reinforced for me was that the fight was for nothing if the old school don't support the freedom of choice even if it may seem to take on a patriarchal leaning. Choice is a huge step towards the ideal of equality. Understanding, conversation and support are key to moving forward.

Everything I See I Swallow was a beautiful and moving production that often left me in awe at the incredible aerial work which was used to describe memories and emotions. Both actresses, Maisy Taylor and Tamsin Shasha were fantastic at climbing high above the audience and creating elegant effortless shapes that defied gravity. The ropes they climbed could be both a device to bind them or give them opportunity to fly, depending on their state of mind. 

This was a thoroughly insightful look into the psychological, sexual and emotional journey of feminism within the modern world, an ongoing journey that is taking new and unexpected turns. It is up to us as a whole to make sure we don't get tangled in all the politics along the way.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #20 - Taking the Mic!

Friday was a very exciting day where The Hidden Pin Up got taken to the next level via song and spoken word as we spent the morning recording our very own vogue track!

Since we have the first half of the fan dance performance mapped out to a chosen song that evokes the bluesy burlesque of the vintage era (see this past post for details), it was important that the second half was just as strong yet gave our dancer the chance to move and tell her story in a totally different way.

Myself and co collaborator Darren (house mother of the House of Ghetto) decided to go down a vogue route as that is something the House of Ghetto are especially famous for and can be tailored, much like burlesque, to convey whatever message you want. 

With his strong knowledge of dance and music Darren suggested using the words from the feathers on the burlesque fans as direct inspiration to create our own customised track. Cue the arrival of talented performer Justina Aina (check her out, she's great!) who came with us to the Salford's Lowry Theatre to record some samples that will be laid over music.

It was fascinating to see how Justine worked. Having already been given the full set of stories from the fans, she had put them into sections and created a poetical arrangement that could be broken down, repeated, spoken and sang.

With technical manager David Wimpenny on the sound desk (he really knows his stuff and is a technical wizard, thanks so much Dave!) we were able to record several layers including, repeats of lines, whispered paragraphs and free-styled sections.

The next step will be putting everything together and creating the finished track, however we will be having a trial run of the performance including the fan dance and live vocals later this month, more info to follow!

Here's a sample of Justina's freestyling over a track, this wasn't recorded for our final piece but gave everyone an idea of how the live vocals could work. Hearing the stories put together in this context is both uncomfortable and funny. I'm loving how this is turning out and I am looking forward to sharing the finished thing with you!

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Hidden Pin Up - #19 About the fans

Now that choreography has begun on The Hidden Pin Up (see last post) I thought I'd do a little overview on the burlesque fans I created as they are in integral part of the work which explores the black Pin Up, a figure lost in time due to prejudice and the racial fetishes that still surround women of colour to this day.

Based on traditional burlesque fans, I decided to use hessian instead of luxurious feathers to replace the usual glamour with something basic and crude. This was to highlight the 'primitive' and 'savage' stereotypes about women of colour that have surfaced throughout the project and also the hessian harks back to collective ideas of plantations, slavery, poverty and the unrefined. 

An added bonus to using hessian to create individual feathers was that the frayed materiel moves and looks like dried grass, which added another layer of meaning to the fans, evoking tribal garments like headdresses and skirts that typified the stereotypical view of the uncultured 'exotic'. You can see how I made the fans HERE

I knew I wanted to decorate the fans in some way and as the project progressed it became ever more apparent to me that women of colour today face the same prejudices and fetishes as their vintage Pin Up counterparts, in fact, today's women of colour are still dealing with a hangover from colonialism and Western privilege that began centuries ago. 

With this in mind I started to collect real life stories of racial fetishes towards contemporary women of colour. Friends and colleagues and women I had never met shared their tales and an uncomfortable pattern of everyday micro aggressions began to emerge. These became the inspiration for the embroidered words on the feathers. 

I used different shades of brown black and tan and I wasn't too bothered about how much the words stood out because micro aggressions aren't always easy to spot. Some are glaringly obvious and others can sit there unnoticed yet still leave a mark.

With the stories in place the fans became a physical barrier between the viewer and the dancer that spoke only of false fantasies, bias and discrimination, not of the true person behind them. They became a literal way to hide the dancer mimicking the project's title, The Hidden Pin Up and highlighting the fact that real black and non white Pin Up's from the vintage era were largely obscured from the mainstream due to these stereotypes.

There are spaces left on the fans which I hope to fill up as the project continues and I'd like to collect new stories at every performance. Perhaps if I get enough I might even stitch onto the dancer's hessian costume too so that eventually she is covered. 

The fans were made to be danced with but also be seen as a stand alone piece that tell the history and ongoing story of the black Pin Up. I'm excited to see how they progress.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #18 - Choreography part 1

On Friday we finally got to visit a dance studio to begin choreographing the routine for The Hidden Pin Up!

I met with Lenai the dancer from Manchester's House of Ghetto and Darren Pritchard, the house mother and choreographer, and all three of us were raring to go! I was really keen to see how my hessian burlesque fans would perform and also excited to put our ideas together. After researching and working on this concept for a year, it was thrilling to see it come to life and put some meat on the bones!

The performance is based on a traditional fan dance and anyone who has been following this project for a while will know that using fans was inspired by my research into vintage exotic dancer Jean Idelle who was one of the most successful black burlesque performers of the 1950's. You can find out more about Jean HERE

The aim of a fan dance is to tease the audience by only showing hints of bare flesh as the fans move around the dancer's body. It's important to captivate the audience with the fans movements so they highlight poise and footwork and emphasize what the dancer does with her arms and legs. It's usually the last third of the performance where the dancer does a 'reveal' and their full figure can be seen.

Darren was fantastic at giving direction and using traditional fan dance moves mixed with some of the vogue moves he is famous for. We even came up with some new moves I've never seen before. I was especially impressed with Lenai, who has never done any fan work before but picked up the skill almost immediately! 

It was exciting to see the fans in action. I was interested to know how they would perform as they are made from hessian instead of the soft floaty feathers usually used in burlesque. It turned out they had a grass skirt/ dried grass movement that I loved as they reinforced the 'primitive' character the project calls into question. They did shed fibres like crazy but there was something satisfying in watching the hemp fly around Lenai as she shimmied and turned.

It literally gave me shivers to see the dance performed to music. We wanted a song that not only hit the vintage mark but also spoke of women of colour and strength over adversity, for while this work plays on stereotypes and fetishes built around women of colour, it also puts the agency entirely in the dancer's hands and invites the viewer to look past the cliches. The piece we chose was Miss Celie's Blues from the soundtrack of The Colour Purple. Here's a little taster:

The full first half of the routine is now mapped out and we were all really excited by how much we got done. It was a fun morning and I can't wait to work on the second half which will have a a totally different feel and energy.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Get your Mum's portrait done for Mother's Day

This Sunday 11th March I'll be drawing postcard portraits at Love Thy Neighbour in Chorlton Manchester, 12-3pm

This is a drop in event and portraits are free to Love Thy Neighbour customers! Plus you don't have to be a mum to get your portrait done!

Each picture takes about 10 minutes and is created with ink and brush pens. To see more examples of my postcard portraits check out the page on my website.

Friday, 2 March 2018

The Hidden Pin Up #17 Can I Touch Your Hair? AGAIN!

I saw a friend had recently posted this on Facebook and I asked her if I could share it as the thread made some really important points. What is it with the lack of awareness about personal space and black women's hair?

I've been thinking a lot about this. The instances of hair touching and commenting on afro hair has come up a few times in my call out for everyday stories of fetishisation from women of colour. I think this thread highlights so much about how this small gesture has such huge historic and cultural baggage attached to it and the negative impacts it can have. 

The online magazine Everyday Feminism has a fantastic article called '8 reasons You Want to Touch a Black Woman's Hair - And Why They Mean You Shouldn't'. It cleverly puts into perspective how this objectification is not only racial but sexist, even if the intentions behind it aren't coming from a negative place.

'[It] comes down to one of our core feminist values, consent – respecting everyone’s agency over their own bodies, including their hairHaving our hair touched is just one of the ways Black women are often denied this agency in our society.'

This is a brilliantly insightful and well written piece and I urge anyone to read it. Similar versions of other stories I've collected for The Hidden Pin Up make an appearance here too making it clear how curiosity and ignorance are rife everywhere. This article breaks down the nuances behind the 'Can I touch your hair?' problem perfectly. 

Another issue that the hair topic throws up is how afro = inferior. (See one of my past posts also about this). The person commenting on how their niece is getting a complex because her hair is different is really upsetting. Women have enough to compete with when it comes to our appearance. We are constantly told we should look a certain way. We can't age, get wrinkles or grey hair. We can't be too fat, or too thin. We can't be too sexy or too dowdy... it just goes on and on. But women of colour have the added pressure of not fitting the Western ideal. There very few role models with afro hair in mainstream culture. Most women of colour in the media have weaves or straightened hair and that is fine, it's their decision. But without full representation of different cultural identities in the public realm this might never change and the vicious cycle of afro hair inferiority just continues. Without afro hair becoming a normal fixture in everyday life it keeps it as an 'other', a fascinating object to be touched and commented upon.  

It's just such a huge subject and hair is just the tip of a very tangled weave of problems about female representation and how women of colour specifically are interpreted.