Is misha Adriann
Is as Wellington mé agus is as Tulach iad mo shinseir Ghaelacha.
Ceade meile a faite
I mihi to you in Irish Gaelic, the language of my mother’s forebears. A smattering of Gaelic is part of my inheritance. But the fact that I mihi at all demonstrates the marks made upon me by the tangata whenua, whose culture lives and breathes in the bones of Aotearoa/New Zealand. I am a member of the group of people known increasingly to ourselves and even abroad as Pakeha. We are not the tangata whenua, but are now perhaps more than tangata-o-tiriti – that legal status which covers all those who are not tangata whenua, but who reside here in this land.
My research question is who we Pakeha are and how we express that sense of self in (theatrical) performance. I am particularly interested in the expression of identity of Pakeha women but I know that arriving at a definition of just what constitutes the (theatrical) performance of Pakeha female identity is a slippery notion. Firstly, the word Pakeha itself continues to be the site of controversy. It origin is obscure and there is no precise definition of its meaning. Its first recorded use is in the Treaty of Waitangi and it is taken there to mean Other as opposed to Maori or Ordinary. The nature of the ongoing debate about this word is evident in the use by the New Zealand Department of Statistics of the classification of people who could be known as Pakeha as European or sometimes as NZ European/Pakeha . Equally controversial is the question of what socially performative activity demarcates the biologically female as woman, as Friedan, Greer, Iriraray and Butler have asked. But I am taking a normative approach to the idea of the theatrical representation of woman. If an actor of either sex appears to be portraying a woman in a manner that suggests a serious attempt at the identity, female, then the character will be taken to be that of a woman. In order to consider some aspects of how a Pakeha woman is enacted in performance, I will focus in this paper on the dance theatre work Fishnet. This work was conceived, choreographed and performed by the Pakeha biologically female dancers Kilda Northcott and Lyne Pringle. They created this piece with additional dramaturgical help from the also biologically female writers and directors Madeline McNarmara and Jo Randerson.
The physicality of the work Fishnet, as a theatrical enactment of Pakeha female identity, offers a good opportunity to examine at least three aspects of space. There is the consideration of the use of the theatre space itself in the work, then of two thematic spaces opened up by the work: the visibility of middle-aged women, and the nature of cultural identity. I will begin with the performance use of the theatre space.
When the geographer Edward Soj wrote in 1989 that space as an active element has been undervalued in contemporary social theory he was raising a concern that is of particular interest for all who perform, and especially for those who perform dance and dance theatre. Reflecting on Soja’s concerns about the illusions surrounding space, Keith and Pile muse on the nature of space itself. If space is considered to be opaque, unable to be pierced then it becomes ‘fixed, dead and undialectical’ and the ‘production and reproduction’ of space which enables it to contextualize ‘politics, power and ideology’ (Soja 1989: 124) ‘becomes lost’ (Pile 1993: 5). Theatre activity is intimately concerned with the production and reproduction of space. As an activity taking place in a defined ‘real’ rather than virtual space, it becomes, according to Bruce Wilshire an area in which we ‘set up reverberations … [so] that we can get some sense of the totality, [of existence] and of our place within it. His reasoning rests on the notion that in order to make sense of our existence we must ‘try – and fail – to bound the boundless if we would reveal it. This bounding of existence within the theatre space, is what makes a previously undialectical space become ‘a place of geography … transformed to become a place for presenting’ [my italics] : 201).
It is this presenting which concretises social relations, reifying everyday moments which are otherwise fluid movements in time through space, and subjecting them to a particular scrutiny. Through capturing the moment so it can be repeated, what performance theorist Richard Schechner terms restored behaviour , we gain a sense of ourselves. And just as one form of scrutiny is the bending and twisting of time, for example the telescoped time of the three short hours upon the stage, so equally another is the compression and expansion of space. Bert O States, very aptly named his work on the phenomenology of the theatre Great Reckoning In Little Rooms ; for in the play of theatre, space and time alike are bent and twisted, projected and doubled back on themselves, are split and restored, expanded and contracted. Theatre space then is not opaque for it is continually pierced by the attempt to bound the boundless. Nor is it completely transparent in Soja’s words ‘an abstraction’ : 5). Transparent space becomes so intuitive that it ‘prevents us from seeing the social construction of affective geographies, the concretization of social relations embedded in spatiality’: 7).
Yet performance space is never just transparent, just an empty vessel in which the performance happens, it is an intrinsic element of the performance, and in its use can be thought of as a fluid entity. This is the exact manner in which performance theorist and teacher Keith Johnson refers to space as an entity which flows . When we as audience members go to watch a performance, we are aware that we have gone to a designated place in which to watch. Entering into a space, which is certainly special and may even be sacred, is the first element of taking part in a performance, either as an actor or audience member. In the theatre every space from auditorium to fly tower is laden with affective geographies : 7). Peter Brook’s famous definition of theatre centres on space he speaks of a person walking across an empty space with someone watching him, without the space to walk in, there is no event . On the stage the relationships of people to each other, and to objects, in space, are critical markers of their nature, status and intentions. In the theatre, space along with time is an equally important creative principle.
Theatre goers will be familiar with the idea of the division of a performance space into areas. This division is sometimes expressed in the set and often in the lighting. These areas are convenient, they enable all kinds of performance directions to be precisely made; but in the context of the psychic and embodied use of space they are more than a convenience. By moving props and set items, by raising and lowering light, by the simple device of changing the colour of the lighting, the space can be expanded and contracted, turned from day to night, from yesterday to tomorrow, from love to hate. This flexibility of space, is a part of the ‘as if’ mechanism of performance which allows it to transport the participants, both audience and performers, beyond the quotidian to the twice behaved space of interpretive event. Schechner recognising the crucial linking of time with space established his Performance Event Space-Time chart moving from minutes through months from actual to symbolic time and from private to sacred to be transformed into multi-space . For in the hands of the performer the manipulation of space, both actual present space and imaginative space, becomes more than an option it is a necessity. In the prologue to Henry V Shakespeare asks:
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt
The answer of course is yes.
This twisting and manipulation of space returns me to the dance work Fishnet. Though performance is essentially about the ‘as if-ness’ that constitutes our imaginative events. It is an ‘as if-ness’ that that never the less takes place in the spacio-temporal world. Therefore the title of this paper ‘Local Bodies Navigating Theatre Space in Aotearoa/New Zealand’ is a literally descriptive one, for the dance theatre work Fishnetrequires that the bodies of Lyne Pringle and Kilda Northcott, possess, navigate and manipulate the physical space of the stage. This is true for all dance which essentially plays with bodies in space but in Fishnet the manipulated space, is itself a physical and psychic element, as much an essential performance element as the movement, costume and lighting itself. Space grows and recedes as the work moves from moments of excitement and fun to moments of painful disclosure.
For example in the scene which I shall refer to as the mad scene the dancer Lyne Pringle rushes onto the stage dressed in a red flowing gown of nineteen fifties style clutching a dagger in her hand. Kilda Northcott meanwhile has been positioned in front of a white flat while talking about theory in a pseudo-French accent. The first space to be investigated in this section is that of authenticity. Kilda is asking what are the conditions under which she needs to operate in order to be accepted as an expert in dance, and as an expert in the lives of middle-aged women. Just being a middle-aged dancer by itself does not seem to be enough, there is need for authentication, and approval; and how better to get approval than to allude to the academy? At the moment of Lyne’s arrival on the stage the lighting and music change and the space flows out from Kilda to Lyne. The scene change is achieved by moving the lighting fader and so changing the visual space, and by filling the aural space with sound. The actual devices are clichés and deliberately so, but their effect is to expand both the psychic and cultural space. Through her movement Lyne takes possession of the space, expanding it till it fills all the stage and also moving it from the realm of the cerebral to that of the most primeval of emotions, fear and anger. Through a simple change of lighting, music and movement the parody has been shifted, widening it from the one Kilda has established of an external expert, to include another look at women as a demented possibly menopausal woman.
Filling the Stage
The device takes the performance from the rational to the supernatural, from the twentieth century to the eternal. The tight light of the white spot has become free flowing red and dangerous, enhancing the dagger of blood, and symbolic of death, birth, menstruation, murder and witchcraft. It is of course all part of an examination of gender and the visibility of the middle-aged woman.
Kilda Northcott picks up this parody again when she quickly recovers her composure after Lyne exits the stage. Within a few seconds she returns to the role of expert this time speaking of the frame. By moving in and out of frame she demonstrates both visibility and invisibility but there are greater questions to be considered. At a deep level this parody is of the idea of frame, of any frame. The parody asks if it is possible to capture any one person, any one woman within this mannered space of the frame. The parody asks the audience if they can be at all sure of what frame they are in with these women? It questions whether or not they are separate entities, each belonging to a different realm and time, or whether is there no time/space separation, or whether they are each contained within the other and by implication within all women?
In addition to its questions of both space and the female occupations of that space the work also requires the audience to navigate a bending of ideas of time. The costuming of Lyne Pringle in the second sequence negates the certainty of current time. She appears to be a housewife from yesteryear. The costume changes continue to raise questions about where the action is in time. When Kilda changes costume to a slinky black dress it is uncertain whether or not she has grown older or younger. The first dance is contemporary, the second a swing number, and the question raised by this is: are the dancers evoking a return in theatre time to the forties or are they simply expressing the current craze for swing dancing? If tempus fugit it is doing so in all directions for the sequence is certainly not linear. The dancing itself is both adult and youthful, casting doubt on the stage age of these performers. A mature sequence of dance is followed by a video of cells dividing in utero, and this is played across the naked bellies of the two dancers. It is unclear whether this is meant to recall their beginning as humans, or their children’s beginnings, or all beginnings for the video includes a shot of a small dinosaur. It is uncertain where we are in any timeline; whether the events are in a now or a then remains completely unclear, and all that the audience may be able to deduce is that they are in a symbolic space.
Kilda Northcott’s first appearance in a rugby outfit questions the notions around such femaleness. Her status is indeterminate; is she a player or a fan? Women’s rugby teams are currently a very popular pastime for girls. At the same time the use of the football jersey, hat and mouth guard are immediately recognisable local symbols, ironically represented here by the tongue-tied goddess Kilda Northcott.
The Tongue-tied Goddess in Rugby Gear
I began this paper by sketching briefly the problems associated with defining oneself as a Pakeha woman. Butler, referring to de Beauvoir , maintains that gender is not a stable fixed identity but one which is constituted by repeated intermittent actions that establish it. If notions of gender depend on its daily performance perhaps notions of cultural identity do also. If we perform our cultural identity in much the same manner as we perform our gender identity, through the stylised repetition of discontinuous acts in time then Fishnet explodes such performing of gender through devices like the football costume while at the same time re-enforcing concepts of cultural identity. For my research into an understanding of the theatrical performance of female Pakeha identity rests on an understanding of the existence of a wider Pakeha culture/Pakehatanga; a culture which has developed over the last twenty-five years This development is contiguous with the developments in Maori consciousness (the Maori Renaissance). In performance the last twenty-five years have seen a confident ownership of truly local Pakeha stories and modes of performance. This ownership can be expressed as telling our own stories. But this raises the difficult question of who are Pakeha? Joanne Rachel Pellow offers the following observations about what it means to be Pakeha: ‘there seemed to be a strong sense of ‘something’, a sense of other kinds of differences which were difficult to pinpoint and articulate.’ She writes that ‘many of the people interviewed could see a clear difference between themselves, other European/Pakeha New Zealanders and those ‘others’ in New Zealand who were not the same as them.’
Pellow however did not offer an exact definition of what it means to be Pakeha except to quote Jennifer Lawn’s article ‘Pakeha Bonding’ in Meanjin (Vol.53, No2/Winter 1994, 295-305):
Pakeha are white, but not wholly Western, no longer simply European, affected by things Maori, Caucasian by race, Pakeha by ethnic self-identification.(p.300; Pellow 1995: 29)
I would like to put some boundaries, shall I say fence-lines, around this definition and suggest that Pakeha are people of Anglo Celtic origins whose families have lived in Aotearoa over several generations. I see us a type of hybrid or mixed people, my metaphor for this state is the estuary, we are neither the salt of the lands from which our ancestors have come nor the fresh water of the Tangata Whenua, but a mixing and mingling and estuary. I hasten to make clear that I am not talking about a mixed race people but rather a mixed culture.
For Pakeha a main obstacle to expressing who we are resides in our language. The problem for Pakeha is that we are forced to express our sense of self in a form of the English language, albeit with the inclusion of many words of local and Maori origin. Stephen Turner (Turner 2001) suggests that if we had our own language we could speak of ourselves, and our words being local would have local meaning. In a section ofFishnet Kilda and Lyne tackle the problem of the limitation of language by speaking with the voice of birds, as a ‘couple of old chooks for there is a distinctive manner to the local use of the English language and a distinctive use in our selection of icons. A sequence in Fishnet depicts the beating of a bundle of flax as if it were a Taiaha. This will be read and understood in a local way in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In this sequence the prop, the bundle of flax, is a common local wetland plant, but one of deep economic and therefore cultural importance to Maori. Its appropriation and use in this dance displays the syncretic use of symbol which is common to Aotearoa/New Zealand. The significant local product is given a re-usage in a Pakeha context. The steps used by the dancer are also significant because they approximate the wero challenge presented to visitors to the marae. The dancer also turns and twists the flax as if it were a taiaha. In such a way through the localness of language and symbol, Pakeha identity is defined by a structure of cultural experience, after Raymond Williams. I am indebted to Dr Suzanne Little for that succinct definition.
Lyne Pringle with Flax Tiaha
But Pakeha identity does not reside just in the selection of symbols, the rugby outfit or the flax leaves, but also in the manner in which these symbols are used. Throughout the work there is a strong element of irony. In some ways the work could be said to be a pastiche as it employs a range of dance styles and movement, from different eras and dance traditions, but always there is an over-riding tongue-in-cheek quality which I think is a strong thread it the Pakeha world view and which aptly manifests itself in Pakeha performance. Take for example the section employing the minuet. The dance notation is correctly observed but the original work is both overlaid and undercut by the costumes of the performers. And what is to be drawn from the swapping of clothes? The use of the minuet both masks, bends and reveals the idea and the figure of woman in a few moments.
Minuet Clothes Swap
The philosophical focus of Fishnet centres on the loss of visibility of the middle-aged woman, and in asking questions about visibility, questions the roles of gender. In her essay ‘This Sex Which Is Not One’ Luce Irigaray suggests that woman’s entry ‘into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her consignment to passivity: she is to be the beautiful object of contemplation’ (Irigaray; Butler 1997: 250). Kilda Northcott and Lyne Pringle’s questioning of this economy does not suggest that woman should move away from a scopic world view but insists she should never be/is never, passive. The questioning also contends that having once entered the scopic economy women should not be thrust out at a certain age but should continue to remain visible throughout her life. A section of the works centres on Kilda Northcott, who has been exalted as a Goddess on a plinth in an early section, now confined to a small box, the space ironically inside the very plinth while Lyne Pringle, in the role of lecturer, speaks about and for her. On emerging from the plinth Kilda becomes the international expert giving her speech on visibility and invisibility, this time held in the glaring light of the white spot. Irigaray complains that in traditional psychoanalytic theory woman signifies an absence, a nothingness. She writes of the representation of women in Greek statuary that it shows ‘that this nothing-to-see has been excluded, rejected, from such a [scopic] scene of representation. Women’s genitals are simply absent, masked, sewn back up inside their “crack”’ But according to Lyne Pringle: ‘There is a crack, a crack where the light gets in.’ This work suggests that this crack in the dark is the power of women. Tom Cardy of the Dominion Post entitled his review ‘Dancers look to reclaim the gaze’ quoting Pringle who said: ‘Let’s reclaim the gaze for ourselves.’ How do we define ourselves? How does Kilda define herself?
The power of women is acknowledged, albeit tacitly at times, in the society of Aotearoa/New Zealand, for a settler economy depended on the strength and adaptability of it women as well as of its men. Pringle and Northcott are protesting that this heritage of female strength should not be set aside. In the performance FishnetKilda Northcott and Lyne Pringle grapple with come central issue of human experience: the invisibility of the middle-aged woman, and the performance of gender and culture. Through these theatrical performance these issues are given visible shape through embodiment in the person of the performer. At the same time they occupy not only a fluid and multifaceted physical space but as they are received and reconstructed by the watcher through the imaginative faculty they inhabit the imaginative space. Both spaces are opaque and transparent at the same time because while the performer is truly living as they perform, the experiences are not just being ‘truly lived’ at this moment. Rather they are being reconstructed, in Schnechner’s words restored, and placed in front of an audience for contemplation. And it is in that act of contemplation that both performance and audience move to occupy the space in-between.
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