Taking a slant

A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae (yes, the grammatical error is starkly obvious, but i think it’s intentionally meant to be so.) by Mandeep Raikhy was the performance I was most looking forward to for the Dance Marathon — not until Meeting-melting overturned the tables with Ikuyo’s sentimental, gripping choreography. Nevertheless, A Male Ant Has Straight Antennae was a well-delineated, clean and crisp performance rightly addressing the notion of masculinity, as the title so plainly suggests. Often, in the equation of gender equality and its progress, we look towards the female body and the surrounding issues that needs to be straightened out, sometimes slighting the taboos that males face as well. It is not necessary here for me to ramble on about scientifically measuring the population of women facing discrimination as compared to men, which also inadvertently is complicated by the issues of sexuality, because my understanding of gender equity is not to question which party deserves more attention; but the simplicity in that discrimination should not even persist if we have the awareness of equity. As one who feels strongly about this entire gender debate, I appreciated Raikhy’s examination of the male body than the conventional female body — enough scrutiny of the women, what if we place men under the same magnifying lens? Would we then be able to empathise better with what women are subjected to? Could we rethink the ways in which men are pressured to act and behave too?

Back in space 2 of 72-13, the ever versatile black/white box, I was surprised to find the space stripped down, exposing the silver metal scaffoldings that parked in grids along the three walls around the stage. Dancers in their barest form, and perhaps most vulnerable, clad in only their underwear began pacing back and forth on the stage in clear aisles, each to their own.Like abacus beads over the stage, the dancers kept shifting the configuration of their positions.

As I was penning these first impressions down, on an entirely unrelated note, the person sitting beside me was asking his partner the question, “how do they know when to walk?” and was perpetually amazed as the synchronisation of the dancers, especially in silence. I laughed in my heart thinking, we have to know that as dancers, it’s part of performing and that’s what chemistry is all about.

But that aside, the other thing that struck me almost immediately was the deliberate domineering presence of masculinity, with only one female dancer in the cast of six or seven. Before long a suspenseful music was played, in a repetitive pattern there were indiscernible noises of a wheel screeching, a metal plate rolling about and an eerie dense sound all intermixed. The dancers broke free from their neutral walks and began assuming various suggestive and provocative postures and gestures: boasting of his triceps, swaying of their hips, the intentional focus directed to her breasts.

After keeping this dynamism up for a while, without nearly boring us with the repetitive nature of the sequence, some dancers slid across the stage in weighted chassés  while other brisk walked across the stage. Gradually, quick foot steps became the little picked steps of women — you know those antsy walks of palace ladies from the ancient Chinese dynasties because they bound their feet? That hip-swaying walk. For something as simple as walking, have we already labelled someone even before we know them? And if  the audience should feel any discomfort in looking at these men acting coy and feminine, Raikhy confronts these feelings immediately: why should there be such feelings of revulsion?

The music builds up to an all-familiar techno contemporary beat and we enter this section of gender appropriation. A male dancer slants his hips “like a lady” and gestures suggestively, but is convulsively corrected by another male dancer, who unrelentingly readjusts his posture back to a straight stature, chest and shoulders out. Even the slightest intention of sauntering by the former dancer is reprimanded in an instant at the clicking of his tongue. The rest of the dancers join in, clapping, shouting or stomping as a sign for the others to ‘re-calibrate’ their masculinity. This hyper-consciousness at their lack of masculinity sees them anxiously return to a sexually neutral position intermittently.

Raikhy clearly delineates the sensibilities between masculinity and femininity. The female exudes a gentleness that is also sexually provocative, with movements that signify circularity; in contrast, the male demonstrates his domineering physicality with firm, rigid movements and straight lines, even clenched fists. Yet in a gradual amassing of movements while the dancers add to the numbers on stage one by one, the distinctions are blurred and all the dancers perform a phase that incorporates both elements in great fluidity.

Amidst all the seriousness of contemplating the gender stereotypes, Raikhy injects humour to lighten the mood, staging a men’s battle of physicality as two male dancers taunt one another against a backdrop of car race and traffic noise. Here, it almost seems infantile for the two dancers heading one another, displaying their strength ostentatiously in athletic movements. Even the scrutiny of the adam’s apple that transitioned into a session of mockery of the size of one another’s body parts, receives much laughter from the audience. In a comic duet of two men quite blasê about one another’s body that continued by a trio, we realise the irony that forms our reality. Masculinity seems almost a self-absorbed and conceited notion that we actively perpetuate for ourselves.

Suddenly breaking away from gender expectations, two men meet in an amiable manner — holding hands and caressing each other’s palm gently then resting on one another’s shoulders. Raikhy captures the sincerity and purity of such human encounters. Offering a comparison, Raikhy then stage a similar duet between a man and woman, yet not displaying the same subtle sense of restraint as the former couple. There were bolder embraces, grinding and more exploration between the two bodies — less resistance. Is this more “natural” or “normal”? Between the two men there had been an undercurrent of yearning and perhaps a slight hint of fear in its resistance.

Despite the internal conflict, the dancers find greater liberation in their movements towards the end. While they held our attention with their firm gazes and decisive movements in the beginning, the denouement sees less apprehension even as it mirrors the beginning of the dance — up and down the lanes the dancers continue pacing non stop until the lights dimmed. In the myriad of combinations that the abacus beads take, ultimately, the dancer seem to be caught within this endless permutation of homogeneity and conformity.

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