“Smoke” and the Choreography of Femininity

This dance is an examination of the body—a consideration of the possibilities of feminine corporeal instinct and intelligence. The dancer’s body flows and contorts with an unusual beauty, her long legs stretching as she reaches out, stumbles, and falls. She learns her own physicality as she pulls her own hair, explores her face with her hands, grinds her hips in a sexual manner, shakes violently, and shuffles across the space as if bent from old age. This dance is an exploration of deep intimacy as much as it is the inner dialogue of a woman as she traverses her daily life, both alone and in relation to a man. It illustrates in a purely physical language that the quotidian tasks of a traditional woman only scratch the surface of her emotional being—which takes shape in soaring leaps, turns, and extensions—as she navigates the terrain of the everyday.

                     This solo is part of a larger dance entitled “Smoke,” conceived in 1995 by Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, and starring Niklas Ek and Sylvie Guillem. It was originally choreographed for television, and tells the story of the relationship between a man and a woman through a solo for each and a pas de deux. In the woman’s solo, the music is a sweet, haunting piece for cello and piano by Arvo Pärt that elongates each movement, and ensures that even the occasional motions that seem mindless or amusing (blowing her nose on her dress; whispering nonsense to herself) are pregnant with an acute sense of longing. Her life is inside this room, and as she propels herself off the walls, it becomes clearer that this is the journey of woman, isolated for the present and somewhat removed from time. She performs exaggerations of activities considered normal for a traditional female in everyday life: she runs, has sex, carries children, checks her watch, undresses and redresses, does handwork, folds cloth, stumbles, and receives a letter containing bad news. However, the dance never lapses into a linear storyline, instead choosing to hold the audience in the magic of the unexpected.
At times the dancer’s movements are fluid, and at others she seems to be controlled by an unseen force; perhaps her controller is the as yet unseen man, or maybe she is trapped by currents she cannot command, sweeping her through these everyday tasks while her mind wanders. She appears to be born out of her mother’s womb, violently rocks an invisible child in her arms, and quickly skims into an astonishing grand jeté. She slides out of her dress, half naked, and just as easily slides back into it again. As she answers an invisible telephone, admires her reflection in her own hand, and scrubs the floor with her long flowing purple dress, emphatically wringing it out, her hands become her props, no longer quite attached to the rest of her body. Her wild shaking sometimes is hysterical, and other times appears to be a dance of religious fervor. Sometimes she shuffles across the space, old and tired. Other times she carries herself like a child, or a madwoman, as she pinches her own face, plays with her braid, and counts her fingers, as if feeling and trying out her own body. It seems that she is trying to maintain her sanity within her confinement as she writes with her fingers on the walls and flings herself with abandon across the room, filling the entire space, a flightless bird.
The dancer makes the viewer almost uncomfortable by the sheer longing her body projects. But this body does not seem to crave sexual attention; rather, it bares all it has, sparing nothing, and is still breathtaking even in moments not considered technically beautiful in classical dance. The female form, especially in ballet, is the ideal, and its feminine grace erases all vulgarities. Not so with this dancer. This is the story of a real body, a private body made public, which allows the audience to see parts of her femininity not usually revealed to anyone but an intimate partner. The authors of the essay “An Intimate Ethnography” explain that intimacy “alludes to the idea of bringing subjects and objects closer together, and can also imply the tangling of these identities, the collapsing of distance between the subjective spaces until they blur” (38). The dancer invites the audience to a new level of intimacy, one in which the subjective spaces blur—a half-crazed bursting forth of emotion and longing that creates a window into her protected world.
Marcel Mauss posits in his Techniques of the Body that there is a society of men and a society of women, and there are not only psychological but biological differences that separate the two (463). Joan Acocella argues in her essay, “Imagining Dance,” that “dance is not a portrayal of the way we live, and to think that it is seems to me to betray an excessive attachment to the way we live, or the way we explain our lives to ourselves, in the language of reason and morals” (13). Perhaps this solo is not a portrayal of how women live, but of how women are. The dancer represents the society of the female, and through her body, the audience sees the bodies of all women as they navigate their own emotional landscapes through the simple banalities of the everyday, whether they be conventional or not.
The woman in the dance is enclosed between walls—her domain is the space inside the room. She handles and interacts with objects such as a table, a letter, and her clothing. A phrase Barbara Browning writes springs to mind: “the exemplary quotidian movement in which she understands herself to be always, on some level, dancing is an act of domestic labor which tends to be understood as predominantly women’s work . . . ” (391). But the audience gets a look behind those quotidian activities, and sees—through breathtaking leaps, turns, extensions, and collapses—the woman’s expansive range of emotion. The choreographer does not criticize the daily tasks that have been the duty of women for centuries as much as he acknowledges that history and that legacy, and travels beyond the movements of the everyday and into the woman’s emotional terrain. It is as if he is bringing together two worlds in one dance: the simple and physical, which handles day-to-day work, and the spiritual, which encompasses everything underneath that surface.
Marcel Mauss claims that women are inherently weaker than men are, saying, “[A woman’s] punching, her delivery of a punch, are weak. And everyone knows that a woman’s throwing, of a stone for example, is not just weak but always different from that of a man: in a vertical instead of horizontal plane” (463). One must take into account Mauss’s position in history; in 1934, when the article was published, feminism was a relatively new concept. But even Barbara Browning in She Attempted to Take Over the Choreography of the Sex Act claims that “ . . . while it goes without saying that a society’s sexual division of labor will lead many men and women to accrue a different set of techniques, even nonfunctional gestures, such as making a (non-pugilistic) fist, might be learned differently by the different genders” (386). But, again, it does not seem to me that Ek is trying to emphasize the woman’s place in the home as the weaker link, nor is he trying to create a feminist dance, but rather to celebrate the woman and her physicality as she is, without making comparisons. In exploring the relationship between the traditional man and woman, and in sharing a fleeting moment in which they collide, the dance illustrates how untraditional they really are.
The woman seems to be constantly surveying the landscape for something or someone. She receives a letter that distresses her—it is apparent that she is not entirely isolated, and that her aloneness is temporary and perhaps even imagined. At one point, the man’s feet cross the stage, but she has her back to this crossing and does not take notice. It is only at the very end of the solo that the man appears, waltzing with the woman very tenderly and briefly before she removes his bowler hat and leaves him standing alone, smoke gently rising from his head. The smoke, for which the piece is named, seems to be their method of communication—a signal that all is well.
This poetic ending leaves the audience with the sweetness of that individual meeting, and is not at all embittered by anger towards the man for having imposed the woman’s isolation, or for the systems of patriarchy that have dictated women’s roles throughout history. In fact, it is the woman who softly slips away first, as mysteriously as she arrived, having shared with the audience a depth of intimacy. Rather than a protest of the larger social implications of traditional gender roles, the dance is a piece of poetry about how women and men affect each other, and exist both together and as separate entities. Perhaps dance is the best medium to explore this complex relationship, both on individual and societal levels. Without words, the unnecessary is stripped away, leaving only the visceral and allowing the audience to take from that relationship what it will. The woman knows that this is her song, her chance to reveal herself without explanation, and in return all she expects from her audience is a willingness to listen.

Banerji, Anurima, and Ilaria Distante. An Intimate Ethnography. Vol 19, No. 1 (2009) 35-60. Print.
Browning, Barbara. “She Attempted to Take Over the Choreography of the Sex Act:” Dance Ethnography and the Movement of Sex and Labor. Eds. D. Soyini Madison and Judith Hamera. The SAGE Handbook of Performance Studies (2006). Print.
Mauss, Marcel. Techniques of the Body. (1934). Print.

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