So You Can Feel – Pieter Ampe

5th March 2015, SICK! Festival, The Old Market, Brighton

  • How do you feel in your body as a gendered and sexuate being?
  • How is that feeling an interaction with the world – your own body, clothing, various props, glances and gazes (including the ‘male gaze’) friends, family, lovers, passers-by (all the interactions between and beyond intimate relations we have names and coded behaviours for?)
  • How can dance – Pieter’s dance, our dance (dance, dance!) – help us move towards a more playful relationship with gender and sexuality that serves freedom and is conscious of power?
  • What does it mean to be an audience or spectator to such dance? How is it that we co-create gendered and sexual meanings through the reading of gestures and signs?

These are a few of the questions I had on reflecting on Pieter Ampe’s solo dance piece So You Can Feel. Billed as ‘the coming of age of a man and his body’ Ampe’s astutely observed piece explores how the subtlest, and most exaggerated, of gestures impact on how gender and sexuality are perceived. The alignment of Ampe’s limbs on a bar stool combined with gazes that may be direct, coy or longing suggest alternately heterosexual or homosexual rituals of romantic/sexual interaction.

A structure that is presumably a mirror at the back of the stage serves as a point of mediation – something to bounce back off in this solo dance. There is something teenage and private, potentially embarrassing, about the flexing of muscles in front of a mirror, posing languidly in your pants, for yourself, for the prospect of a future lover’s gaze.

As an audience-member, my experience of projecting gendered and sexual readings onto the dance/r was strongly connected to the materiality and sensuousness of the dancer’s clothings –

  • Ampe dons a curly wig and a t-shirt that reads ‘I like girls who like girls’, a pink pouty kiss in the corner. He proceeds to bop about in a ‘yeah boi’ kind of a way. I recognise the self-serving, self-congratulatory tolerance of ‘any sexuality is acceptable as long as it serves male pleasure’ and wish that figure wasn’t so familiar.
  • Ampe pulls on black leggings, bares his chest, and lets his hair down. Music, lights, strutting – old school caricature of a gay bar.
  • Ampe slips into a fishnet body stocking and the curly wig returns. Back to the audience Ampe moves in the manner of the hyper-feminine, hyper-sexualised subject that we associate with the fishnets. Confusion ensues regarding the extent the sexual energy comes from the dancer or the (crotch less) clothing. What energy does the dancer emanate and what do we project onto his movements through the trappings of the fishnets that shout model/lap dancer/sex-worker/drag queen… ? How is gender expression a form of self-expression when it is so heavily mediated through culture? On this stage Ampe is allowed to play but where are we granted such wiggle room?*
  • Ampe begins to squirt the contents of a litre squeezy bottle of a thick-ish white viscous liquid onto his belly with a disarming glee. As the dancer covered himself in the paint the level of abstraction facilitated new possibilities beyond cultural specific moments or human form – the dancer transforming into a statue of a Greek god, a ceremonial dancer, the cat that got the cream. Yet, the fluidity this liquid costume enabled felt threatened by the apparent drying out of the substance, visible on the hairs of the dancers legs, embodying the tension between free-flowing-ness and fixity in our gender/sexual identities, orientations and behaviours.
  • The dance drew to a close with Ampe offering his white body as a screen for a projected image of himself dancing to be displayed. To connect with your embodied self and yourself as projection – whether that which is projected outwards or is projected onto you – is a powerful metaphor for the struggle of moving through the world navigating gender/sexual perceptions in time and space.

Having found the dance provoking I was glad of the opportunity for post-show discussion but the Q+A session left me frustrated and I was annoyed at myself for not having spoken up (part of the motivation for writing this post). Eric Anderson, Professor of Sport Masculinities and Sexualities at the University of Winchester took to a platform in the bar to tell us how to interpret what we just saw with reference to his current research on the decline of homophobia and norms of male intimacy on college campuses in US and UK contexts.

Anderson asserts that there is empirical evidence that homophobia has decreased in the US & UK since the 1970s and with this decline, norms of socially-acceptable male intimacy have also, and it has become very common for young men to hold hands/sleep in the same bed/kiss. Anderson acknowledges that what is read as ‘gay’ is culturally situated and therefore differs from decade to decade. Nonetheless, he does not seem to have considered that norms of male intimacy may have changed with homophobia remaining intact, or changing form. How might you explain the prevalence of the phrase ‘no homo’, for example? **

Anderson’s research was squarely, and seemingly unapologetically, focused on the experiences of gay men, without stating that the work was on a specific form of homophobia with a logical argument set out for who was excluded from his research.

Boogaloo Stu, who was co-hosting the Q+A, challenged Eric’s theory that homophobia has decreased, outlining his experiences negotiating public spaces in Brighton. Stu drew a fine distinction between fashion and costume in terms of how people interpret his style. If some lads on West Street of a Saturday night interpret his clothes as costume – that is fine, hilarious, ‘banter!’ If it is read as fashion, Stu is likely to be in danger of ridicule. Prof. Anderson proceeded to tell Stu that his outfit was a costume… way to go social scientists valuing the lived experiences and knowledges of people with insight into your field of study!

A question from the floor carried the assumption that Muslims were inevitably, or inherently homophobic and this racist assumption went unchallenged. When Eric was directly asked to justify why his research only included white young boys Eric responded defensively with a tone verging on aggression – are you telling me to put myself in danger? / I have a partner and children / are white lives not a legitimate field of study?

The atmosphere was palpably tense and there was no effort from the festival organizers to dissipate the tension or distance themselves from Eric’s offensive comments or his over-bearing presenting style.

Pieter made a joke about the Q+A being one of the most intense he had experienced. A question over whether the audience was laughing in the wrong places, at rather than with the dancer, especially where the male dancer was presenting as female clarified the anxiety around what is troubling for people when norms of gender representation are challenged. Pieter used the language of play and queer seeming to suggest that this line of questioning was a bit redundant  – as if to say, Hey! How about we take ourselves and all this sexuality and gender stuff a little less seriously – I like to play, let’s play!

* Since becoming jobless I feel like I’ve got more wiggle room and have been enjoying presenting more boyishly – shorter hair, wearing the same jeans for days on end with an old fleece from my teenage years that I rarely wash. Hurrah for the freedom to be grimier than I think I’m allowed to be as woman!

** recorded 45, 869 incidences of the phrase ‘no homo’ in tweets in the past seven days.


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