Writers: Rose Beermann, Corinna Schmechel, Melanie Lane
Three texts about "Wonderwomen”, Melanie Lane, on 22.02.2017 I HAU Hebbel am Ufer
Rose Beermann is a choreographer, performer and dramaturg from Berlin. The relationships between fitness, dance and media representations of female bodies are central subjects of her work.
The Caricature of the ‘Strong Woman’ and its Monsters
For me, the central theme of Melanie Lane’s work appears to be the decision to work with two professional female bodybuilders, to display their particular physicality and the related practice of movement. Rosie Harte and Nathalie Schmidt are experts in self-staging. The poses, facial expressions and playful gestures we’ve seen in bodybuilding competitions seem to have become second nature to them. As a spectator, I can satisfy my curiosity, take in every centimetre of these bodies in their skintight costumes and allow myself to be seduced by their abilities.
The performance begins in dim lighta. A body can be seen under an oversized glittery black sheet. The flowing fabrics creates a landscape in the stagea area, while a second body in a nude suit liess curled-up on the floor. The covered body begins to move slowly into poses, morphing the fabric to the bassy, expansive soundtrack by Clark, sparking an abundance of sensations in me. The images change from Greek statues, gestures of physical power, to a live event of body-shaping.
As the piece goes on, the performers move through various stage pictures and worlds. They float through a shimmering fabric universe as superheroines with sparkling eyes, posing as Amazons with spears, or dancing to a pop track with barbells. The hiss of exhalation to activate the deep abdominal muscles, the painstakingly slow tempo of tensed muscles, or the counting and commentary on their own movements render these impressions strange, and alter them over and over again. It makes me think not only of images of ‘strong women’ in popular culture – the Superheroine, the Amazon – but also of the presumed monstrosity of these bodies.
I like the fine, articulated work with objects and materials, such as the giant glittery blanket – a recurring element in the piece. In my view, Melanie Lane found appealing ways to put Rosie Harte and Nathalie Schmidt’s particular bodies into the context of ‘strong women’. But during the course of the piece, I wondered which are the bodily attributes that are being propagated as feminine here – the long hair and fingernails, the glitter and the heavy make-up? Are they counterbalances to the ‘masculine’ muscles? The strategies for breaking through traditional gender stereotypes that I know from a queer, feminist context seem much more complex, more elaborate. We did away with the Sexy Superheroine vs. Monster dichotomy a long time ago, didn’t we?
One moment stands out for me. The performance takes place in HAU1, a large, classic theatre stage – but the audience is seated on the other side, and behind the stage is a giant, empty auditorium. At some point in the middle of the piece, Rosie Harte puts on a sparkling cape and turns around towards an imaginary audience. She murmurs, whispers and screams an unintelligible message to them. Then I think, "Aha!” We are behind the scenes of a bodybuilding competition and get to see these two people’s thoughts, hopes, and fantasies! The choreographic view as a camera behind the scenes. Unfortunately, this motif is lost as the piece continues.
This thought is enough, however, to lead me to reflect on the role of choreography and the relationship between choreographer and performer. Here, choreography is like an invisible hand that makes its characters dance right before the audience’s eyes. I keep wondering what the choreographer’s motivation was for exploring these bodies. What is her opinion of ‘strong women’? Maybe I’d feel less compelled to search for an answer if the choreographer had made her position more transparent, and I could read the choreography not so much as a regime of representation of certain images of femininity, but rather as a negotiation space, a dialogue between choreographer and performer.
Corinna Schmechel has been a competitive boxer and trainer for 10 years. She is also a PhD candidate and visiting lecturer in Sociology and Gender Studies, focussing on the body, gender and sport.
Many projects that break stereotypes and put contradictions side by side face the problem of keeping those clichés alive – and even fortifying them – through constant repetition. This seems to be the problem with Wonderwomen. In order to ‘connect athleticism and femininity’, as promised in the advertising copy, you first have to think of them as separate, and not compatible, entities. How often, after all, do we try to connect masculinity and athleticism?
I went into the theatre with this sceptical underlying feeling. My main thought during the first act was: Why must a piece about strong women involve them crawling around aimlessly, making loud breathing noises? Personally, I would have been fine with not understanding the piece, due to my meagre affinity to the theatre, yet even my more knowledgeable companions – all of whom, incidentally, are ambitious fitness and martial arts practitioners – also communicated their unease with this scene. Luckily, this act does not make up the entire piece – the protagonists move their bodies into an upright position, and perform synchronised strength exercises in presentation poses, accompanied by shining glitter and spotlights.
We interpret this as a story of self-discovery and resurrection, in which an aesthetic, glorified existence arises from the protagonists’ aimless existence. This is a classic story that speaks to our experience, but the way it is told here is not exciting. Interesting negotiations take place between the lines of the success stories usually told about women – or equally, with other groups marginalised by society – who excel in areas not intended for them. Between these lines there are multifaceted stories of solidarity and competition, of breaking norms and adaptation, of self-empowerment and self-deprecation. Here, the subject matter of Wonderwomen might have offered some more potential, but this wasn’t taken up, or wasn’t recognisable – at least not to me. One image I did find exciting during the piece was when both actors lifted a long barbell together. For me, this represented breaking away from the things usually associated with bodybuilding. It was a picture of togetherness rather than individualism and opposition. It disappeared in a flash, however, and a moment later, they pulled the barbell into two short poles and began – against one another? comparing themselves to each other? competing with another? – performing classic barbell exercises in unison.
The girlish, almost male-gazey soft-porn poses of the performers annoyed us. Is muscular women wantonly playing with their long hair meant to be the link between femininity and athleticism? Maybe it was supposed to be ironic? To hint at the absurdity of the bodybuilding industry for female participants who have to prove their femininity as well as – if not despite – their muscle mass? Unfortunately, the irony was lost on us.
Melanie Lane is a choreographer and performer based between Berlin and Melbourne. She is the choreographer of Wonderwomen.
Two women share history and practice. Training, discipline, and experience are embedded within their bodies. I feel connected to their journey, for the highly trained body is part of my own history. Perhaps my longing to engage with these bodies comes from a desire to re-connect, remember, and re-interpret the all-consuming regime of deep physical training and its effect. This piece is one part of a series of works where I attempt to design choreographic spaces for the performative negotiation of highly trained bodies. A professional ballet dancer, a teenage dance student, exotic dancers, a boxer, and now two female bodybuilders. In this series, I am looking for possibilities to reach beyond what trained bodies can achieve and to find potential for a future body.
I am drawn to female bodybuilding for its intimate relationship with the body, the resistance to the female image portrayed in society’s dominant narrative, and the possibility of physical transformation. I cannot deny how I fetishise the female muscular body in its immediate representation of both power and obsession. However, this fetish became largely neutralised through my encounter with these women. I grew to see beauty in the articulation of their architecture and a softness in the sensitivity of their personhoods.
It is a collaboration, a dialogue and a learning process – a blind date that shares the language of breath, texture, negotiation, and the supernatural.
Nathalie Schmidt and Rosie Harte – both highly successful in their sport – are proud, confident, and relentlessly determined. Apart from their bold individualities, they have their sport, lifestyle, and gender as cis women in common. Their hunger for process, progress, and achievement charms me. Their communication of personal choice is contagious and bewildering to me. I see a reclamation of the female performing body – a future body.
First encounter: we speak about gender, diet, drugs, training, competition, shape, glitter, online presence, partners, femininity, power, vulnerability, and super heroes. I eat what they eat. I train how they train. I pose how they pose. I think I’ve broken my biceps. I experience power, plus pain and instability. The diet alone ravages the mind; it prods at its weakest points as the body experiences euphoria.
Nathalie and Rosie generously expose their hesitation to perform in a contemporary dance context. It’s their first time expanding their performative language from static poses and 90-second stage appearances to a 60-minute performance. There is an opening sequence where their vertical, bodybuilding postures from competition are negotiated horizontally, requiring them to call upon their tools of resistance training in response. The discovery of acute muscular control in movement becomes a modality. They assist and support each other through endurance and transformation. They become each other’s personal trainers. They become competitors. They become mythical. Their athletic journey amplifies.
Rosie and Nathalie are activists. They live their femininity despite harsh public resistance. Hair flicking, flirtatious, sensual, flexed, hard, soft, pink, maximal. Is it irony or a genuine choice? I feel the public resistance. It’s delicious in its division — some see porn, others fall in love. Is this a moment for self-projection?
I watch them in flux between power and instability. I glimpse super heroines; their manes suspended in flight, bodies glistening under liquid fabric. I observe the rupture of power, the acknowledgement of pain, the transparency of breath, and the fragility of endurance. Their trajectory is both brutal and hypersensitive. Wondrous. Wonderwomen.