Feeling Grief, Feeling Female, Feeling Un-American

Photo: Maria Baranova

Grief may be a universally felt emotion, but the particularities of such a feeling, the way in which it’s expressed or the degree to which it’s felt may differ widely across cultures and from one individual to the next. The artist Ivy Baldwin describes her most recent work, Keen [No. 2], as that which “grows out of an open-eyed exploration of that which we uncomfortably avoid: the contours of grief.” Keen [No. 2], which premiered at the Abrons Art Center last week, and a previous version of the work, Keen (Part 1), were created after the death of one of Baldwin’s closest collaborators, Lawrence Cassella.

It follows that much of Keen [No.2]’s material was inspired by Baldwin’s research on mourning rituals, which landed on the tradition of Irish keening. Unlike a more Puritan or perhaps typical American response to grief, which might shun the outward expression of sorrow in favor of repression, keening offers an alternative. Baldwin spoke to this affective break with American feeling in an interview with Siobhan Burke last month. The physical and vocal expressions of grief allowed through keening (wailing, clapping, kneeling, rocking), expands feeling beyond the individual and private realm to a collective expression. Keening creates a kind of community of feeling that is decidedly outside of the strictures of American societal norms. This break with “normal” American behavior pushes this ancient ritual into the territory of “other.” Keening is akin to the unruliness described in Foucault’s chapter on “Docile Bodies” in Discipline and Punish, which society’s modern institutions must control and make docile (135). Foucault theorized that modern institutions controlled bodies at every level of society. Baldwin’s use of vocal utterance, which is not just keening-type wailing, but also endless and irksome trills and buzzing (of ten voices at once), staccato “Ha!”s, and angry screaming (also ten voices at once), resists this control, pushing the bounds of traditional western theatrical dance ontology (in which dancers are silent) as well as the bounds of normative speech (in America this is perhaps “Standard English,” or, at the very least, comprehensible words). Through this resistance of control and existence outside of traditional ontologies (both dance and speech), Baldwin and her dancers cannot be easily understood or perhaps even easily tolerated; the buzzing sound and continual shouting at the end of the piece made me uneasy. This ambiguity in both understanding and meaning escapes what might be ordinarily captured through the use of normative speech and the predictability of dance ontology. From this ambiguity, a multiplicity of meaning and feeling might arise, eschewing the need to do or say the “right” things in accordance with an American mode of feeling grief.

The less tidy mode of feeling allowed through keening seems to exist as a point of departure that provides Baldwin with the freedom to explore the various facets of her grief. So what started as a dance that grew out of loss unfurls into a performance that explores a full spectrum of feeling; it is at times quiet and introspective (as with Baldwin’s methodical solo mid-way through the work), wild, silly, and animalistic (as ten dancers spin, fall, careen, and swoop amidst a cacophony of buzzing vocals), tender and painful one moment, funny the next (in an intimate duet between dancers Eleanor Smith and Katie Workum). Residing in grief, one might feel all of these things.

Baldwin’s willingness to explore improvisational moments also speaks to the freedom that keening allows. The absence of order and carefulness in the large group sections suggests the use of improvisation which allows for risk, and in turn, a departure from the set notations of the choreographer. Through improvisation, each individual dancer has agency, and the choreographer must relinquish control over the dancers. Just as the ontology of western theatrical dance requires a silent mover, it also requires a dancer who obeys the choreographer. In breaking with this ontology, Baldwin and her dancers free themselves from the ordinary, and each dancer gains the ability to feel on their own terms. While American repression might allow only one “right” way to feel, keening, in action and in abstract philosophical terms, allows for infinite possibilities. Similarly, improvisation allows for freedom and discovery. There isn’t merely one right way, but many.

There are many different women’s bodies in Keen [No. 2]’s all female cast; while it may be somewhat trite to reference a diversity of body types as novel or remarkable in today’s dance landscape, I could not help but attach a feminist context to Baldwin’s work. There were women of a variety of shapes and sizes made obvious by the costumes: long sleeve turtleneck leotards. A visibly pregnant body, almost always absent from dance performance, could not be ignored. The pregnant dancer’s body seems to have the potential to elicit all kinds of questions regarding the rights (or lack thereof) and perceived abilities of working mothers, the policing of female bodies and their reproductive rights and health in our country’s misogynist political climate (or just in modern society more broadly). The fact that keening is traditionally women’s work, and that women are all too often dismissed as “too emotional,” adds to the notion that Keen [No. 2] touches on the particularities of controlling the unruly female body.

Baldwin’s use of keening in speech and movement refuses societal control of feeling grief and perhaps also refuses societal control of being/feeling female. Baldwin’s work, nuanced in various facets of human emotion, recuperates the stereotypical hysterical woman. Rather than acting as one-dimensional caricatures of the grieving woman who cannot control her emotions, Baldwin’s work allows the women to be introspective, quiet, funny, loud, angry, strong, and everything in between. She even gives them the power to use their own voice both literally (through vocalizations) and figuratively (through improvisation). For one segment of Keen [No.2], all ten women don sheer orange capes over their leotards and shuffle across the stage in swooping curves and long diagonals, arms extended, giving the illusion of floating. They serenely waft past one another in curving patterns, and as one dancer exists the stage, another enters to take her place, creating a never-ending stream of hypnotic ghosts. As their movements build to a crescendo, they exit to thrash swaths of paper behind us in the theater lobby, then rush forward onto the stage in a fury. They all scream as they forcefully beat the stage with long white strips of paper. Smith appears to tear pieces away from the intricate sea anemone of a backdrop created by artists Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen (she is really only pulling scraps from behind the backdrop, it seems). This juxtaposition of angelic grace and violent rage suggests that women can feel a multiplicity of emotions and exist in multiple states of being simultaneously, thwarting the notion that women should fit into one particular mold. To be female is to be and feel many things. And in feeling female, feeling beyond the boundaries of ordinary American culture, we can escape the stereotypical perceptions of what it means to be a woman and define femininity on our own terms.

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