Headless Women and the politics of being seen

The performance research project Headless Women asks: what are the politics of being seen? How do women find a place to exist in a world that asks them to be, on one hand, hypervisible and objectified, and on the other, silenced and invisible? Can dance and movement offer us a different way of speaking, when language fails or constrains? The idea of being headless, here, provokes a cascade of meanings: the loss of control, the denial of identity, obscurity, suppression, and so on, but also the protection of anonymity and the joy of reckless abandon through the rejection of the logical and rational.

Headless Women is overseen by contemporary dancer, choreographer and performance artist Virginia Kennard, who acts as dramaturg and conductor; the word ‘director’ is met with an “ew, gross!” Kennard’s ongoing work has a queer, femme and feminist focus. It’s grounded in theory and activism, and emphasises embodiment, accessibility and identity – alongside a love for the funny and vulgar. This open, 90-minute showing, which continues work started during a research residency at The Arts Village, Rotorua in 2019, is the outcome of two weeks of performance research with dancers Denesa Chan, Jess Quaid, Natalie Carroll, Hannah Blumhardt, Chloe Summerhayes, and Georgia Giesen. This session, described as a showcase of “a selection of stuff”, is thoughtful and provocative, posing questions and building relationships that refuse to resolve comfortably.

The protean work has half a dozen other potential names, including Drink Tea – Make Shit – Be Happy, the Medusa-like Now We Laugh, and my favourite, The Surface of the Body Gets in the Way. It takes its time as it works its way through a series of beats, vignettes and games, all of which explore the impossibility of femaleness in a world where womanhood is always contradictory and fragmentary, and where vulnerability is a site of both pain and power. This is to say: it’s about mess. Perhaps fittingly, the studio space is strewn with stuff – ripped up paper, rubbish bins, props, boxes, noise-makers, felt tip pens. There’s the clatter of the fan of an old OHP, and the repetitive loop of a minimalist piece of electronic music that sounds as if it’s made up of a chorus of soft female voices. It’s windy, and the doors are open; curtains flap and blinds crack against the wall, and the ventilation in the roof makes ominous thuds. Throughout the showing we’re invited to walk around.

The beats and games play slowly with different images of headlessness and their outcomes. In the opening sequence the dancers work in pairs. In two of the pairings, one woman gently wraps the other’s head in paper, both obscuring the face and identity of the dancer, while imposing a new persona by drawing a new face, or writing a stream of conscious narrative about expectations of ideal motherhood. The other pair hide themselves within caves of paper, clothing, making noise and demands upon another other, vocalising their need in insistent, animalistic ways. In later beats, dancers draw outlines of one another using mirrors and the OHP, combining their bodies into composite forms. One performer, wearing only briefs, her head obscured by a dropped window blind, narrates a difficult relationship with a sister, trying to negotiate pain and fragility, while others augment or contradict her monologue through gesture.

In one of the funniest parts of the session, dancers play with shiny silver rubbish bins, pretending to vomit into them, wearing them on their heads, feeding themselves trash, headbutting one another, drawing faces on them with makeup, slow dancing. They tidy up the space, as women are taught to do, trying to use a brush and shovel despite limited visual fields. As one of the audience members notes afterwards, this is liberatory as well as bleak – that there’s some freedom in being released of certain types of identity.

The final beats incorporate plants and foliage, as well as collaborative work where bodies work together in conversation or as one, sometimes with hilarious effects. At one point the women form a starfish-like assemblage and attempt to move together, but collapse into giggles. Another reads as the relationship between feminine stripper and masculine john: the ‘female’ dancer peers into a mirror on the ground, Narcissus-like, while stuffing leaves into her mouth, while the other stands by impassively.

I am really taken with a sequence in which one dancer, her face obscured by her long wavy hair, stands in front of a full-length mirror while the others festoon her with a massive spray of purple-blue hydrangeas. They tie the flowers and foliage to her breasts, shoulders and face with black yarn. It looks unpleasant, like something to endure; I feel for her. The music here is Billie Eilish’s insistent, almost threatening “You Should See Me In A Crown”, which augments the juxtaposition between the soft, floral femininity, and something more harsh.

After, we sit with Kennard and the dancers as they discuss their work over the last fortnight. They’ve built a sense of collective as they’ve developed a group practice, in some cases living and eating together. What seemed during workshops to be a series of more individual explorations have cohered into a layered, communal exploration of gendered expectations and responsibilities, including expressions of agency and (dis)empowerment. Kennard notes, with the agreement of her collaborators, that while there was an initial sense that this open-ended research might look towards a potential full-length work, it’s been obvious to all that there’s so much to chew over here that they’ve just scratched the surface. Even in this 90 minutes there’s a huge amount for us to take in. Instead, this may be the starting point for a durational work, and I can see how this long-form play could stretch out over a day. It also speaks to the worth and value of making and holding space for creative exploration. The performers have clearly had a terrific time.

***

Throughout the showing I am struck by the tensions that exist between the space and the practice – the push-pull between different expectations of ideal femaleness and femininity. The dancers, who have a variety of backgrounds and body types, have been working in a studio that usually hosts American Jazz syllabus classes, a style that requires iterative progression, precision and uniformity. There are spangled sequined curtains in front of the mirrors, and pictures in the hallways of young dancers with bright eyes and standardised smiles.  Shelves are filled with cutesy tchotchkes and framed affirmations that tell us to never never never give up, to dance like no one is watching (even though someone is always watching), the performing arts equivalents of ‘live laugh love’. Pictures in the hall celebrate the school’s success stories; photos of students past and present performing in local and national productions of licensed musicals sit near a sign indicating Broadway awaits.

The dancers’ work, on the other hand, embraces messiness, diversity, and ambiguity. There’s conceptual rigour and a lifetime’s worth of training in the room, but also discomfort and nudity, looseness, collaboration, guttural breath work, and a lot of humour. The tearoom is cluttered with cups of herbal tea. On the bench there’s the remnants of a massive vegan chocolate cake, next to a ceramic piece in the shape of a vulva. One corner of the studio is littered with books of feminist and queer theory. There’s clearly been a lot of journaling. In another corner there is a small enclosure, complete with pond and disco ball, where a three-week-old duckling called Disco has been hanging out, grooming herself and making little peeping noises. The duck has imprinted on one of the dancers, who talks at the end about the distraction, strangeness and joy and inter-species mothering.

It’s not as much of a disconnect as it seems. During one of the piece’s beats, a dancer writes about expectations and assumptions about motherhood, closing with ‘this story is unfinished’; it’s an apt way to think about the work’s project.  This all adds unexpected layers to the work’s exploration of what it means to be to be valued and to be acknowledged in a world where femaleness (lived, ideal) seems to be forever contingent on a tangled web of expectations. It gestures towards a layered collection of endless performances, be they private, public, or something in between.

Headless Women was showcased at the Impact Dance and Stage School, Kilmarnock Street, Christchurch on Saturday 16 January, 2021. This was a solicited review.

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