London Theatre Seminar
‘Body-parts, Choreography and Politics’
Thursday, 20 February 2014, 6.30-8.30pm
Room 3/6 in the basement of Stewart House (next door to Senate House, accessed through the Russell Square entrance)
In this paper I address the social dance of despelote, a frenetic dance that emerged during the economic collapse of Cuba in the early 1990s, as a way to theorise how Cuban bodies, particularly Cuban mulata (mixed-race women) bodies, respond corporeally to historically familiar demands of the Cuban tourist economy. By linking the frenzy of the despelote with the mulata body during an economically traumatic moment in Cuban history, I seek to demonstrate how the mulata functions as a visible, visceral commodity-citizen for a nation that continues to struggle with its significance in the transnational libidinal and cultural economy. The despelote serves as a metaphor for the unravelling of not just the Cuban state’s economy but the role of the mulata from that of citizen back to commodity once more. I make a case for this return of the mulata commodity as a tense and contested return, where the mulata-dancing-despelote signifies the messiness, tension and unresolved politics of nation, gender and sexual identity that Cuba(ns) negotiate through on a daily basis.
Melissa Blanco Borelli is Senior Lecturer in Dance at Royal Holloway University of London’s Drama and Theatre department. Her research interests include feminist historiography and performance ethnography, popular dance on screen, Latina/o performance, e-learning and pedagogy in the arts, and theories of corporeality and affect in relationship to neoliberal capitalism. Her monograph She Is Cuba: A Genealogy of the Mulata Body and her edited volume The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen are both forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Other publications include a chapter on undoing the tragic mulatta in Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez’s Black Performance Theory (Duke University Press, May 2014) and a chapter which theorizes embodied subjectivity through Hollywood dance films in Broderick Chow and Alex Mangold’s Zizek and Performance (Palgrave McMillan, forthcoming 2014). Other scholarly work appears in Women in Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Brolga: An Australian Journal on Dance, the International Journal of Performance and Digital Media and the International Journal of Screendance. She is an Executive Board member of the Society of Dance History Scholars (2010-2016) and on the Executive Committee of Society for Dance Research.
This paper will examine Chandralekha’s final piece of work Sharira (2001), a provocative duet between a woman and a man, as a challenge to heteronormative codes of male dominance and female submissiveness that govern performance of Indian sexuality. There are two ways in which this challenge is relayed: firstly through a haunting triangle motif that is evoked repeatedly through the controlled parting of the female dancer Tishani Doshi’s legs. Symbolic of the yoni hasta in yoga, a hand gesture that symbolises the yoni itself, Sanskrit for life-source, the divine passage and the vagina, this choreographic echo of this triangle in and through Doshi’s body is perhaps a constant visual reminder that her body is both a harbinger of life and a centre of sexual agency. At the heart of the analysis then is a resolve to shift the perception of the Indian woman as an asexual bharat janani (Indian mother) to a sexual jagat janani (world mother). The second way in which the piece challenges heteronormativity is through an über-slowing down of time which emphasises the materiality of Doshi’s body and the extremes it can execute. This in turn allows her to embody an extended and heightened temporality that lies beyond real-time in order to be re-written in and by it. The paper proposes that these two choreographic strategies are efficacious in challenging heteronormative codes surrounding Indian sexuality only because they work interdependently. That is to say that it is only because Doshi is able to part her legs in hyper-slow-motion that the evocations of her yoni move beyond the realm of an objectified, sexual body-part that is to be occupied and consumed by a male partner. Instead it becomes a powerful emblem of her ability to contain and spawn sexual desire as well as to create, sustain and give birth to life, and therefore stakes a dominant claim in the performance of Indian heterosexuality.
Dr Royona Mitra is a Lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University where she teaches dance theatre, intercultural performance, live art and critical theory. She has a PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London on the British-Bangladeshi artist Akram Khan and an MA in Physical Theatre also from Royal Holloway, University of London (2001). Her research interests include dance theatre practices, intercultural performance, body and diaspora, and contemporary experiments in South Asian dance. In 2008 Royona was awarded the New Scholar’s Prize by the International Federation of Theatre Research (IFTR). She has published in the Routledge Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, Feminist Review Journal, Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory and has contributed to various edited book projects on performance, culture and identity. Royona is currently writing a monograph entitled Akram Khan and New Interculturalism: Rasa, Abhinaya and Physical Theatre for Palgrave Macmillan, the first book length project to examine the works of this seminal British-Asian artist.