Last night I enjoyed an evening of beginnings at Sussex Dance Network’s event Starting Points, showcased at Brighton Dome. Choreographers Amy Tony and Eve Zandi presented extracts from pieces exploring the male gaze and the senses, social norms, and pedestrian behaviour.

First up a female with a flower head! A startling image, more comic than worrying. Soon this
the surreal idea was undercut by a butoesque ( not so funny) emerging creature – clown embodiment.

Amy Toner choreographer for Starting Points. Image credit Tim Garrod.

The performer (Amy Robyn Lyster ) surprised us, coming from the back of the auditorium. Her moves, decisive and clear, variously stuttering and shivering, otherworldly, expressionist and staggered. This, to an opening operatic aria, lent pathos to this woman’s plight as she used her space, in front, behind and to the sides, and still gave the impression of not getting anywhere. Was this the eternal women’s struggle? She spoke a few lines I am a …her words buried under flowers. Flowers that sprung from underarm and under pubis. A nod to unwieldy nature. Unwieldy woman?

This commissioned piece stemmed from a poem Amy uncovered in a Dutch museum, a man’s ode to a woman who is described purely by her scent. The performer’s presence becomes an

Amy Toner Starting Points Sussex Dance Network. Image credit Tim Garrodobject as we are permitted only to read her body, and yet simultaneously we scrutinize her face, hidden throughout. There are hints at female archetypes. Hand positions that echo classical paintings e.g. Eve bashful in her nakedness. Or swiftly strong in her physical prowess. At one moment I saw her open mouth. There was instantly then a sense of a being trying to get out. To be heard? It’s uncomfortable watching someone masked for a sustained length of time. Take it off! She doesn’t. She ultimately basks in our close attention – she has reclaimed some control.

Amy is interested in the male nose as well as the male gaze, she said afterward. Female odour
and a patriarchal society’s dread of real female smell. This piece attempts to take the head off the odourless, doll-like creature that commercials and billboards prefer to project. Could there be a way of communicating more senses? Touch and taste were absent. Watching it I envisaged the piece on film which is so good at conveying depth and space. In a landscape all senses are keen.

Amy Toner Starting Points Sussex Dance Network. Image credit Tim Garrod

The masked dancer plays with a scale of attitudinal moves, including those perceived as
masculine. She is it seems trying on ways to be – a woman. Real flowers would help sensory engagement. Too pricey and unsustainable according to Amy. A gradual peeeling off of the flower bouquet mask would offer clues to the soul. Who are you? The person inside the flowers. Indeed where do you hide? Hearing a blast of populist Dolly Parton and disco classic I’m Every Woman, was refreshing. “I still like to have fun!” this wry choreographer mused.

Eve Zandi Starting Points Sussex Dance Network. Image credit Tim GarrodEve Zandi recently took up a camera she told us afterward in the Q & A. She felt that being a
photographer was a bit like being a dancer. They both move around. Yet surely one takes
images while the other makes images. A photographer frames what we see. A dancer leaves that up to us unless it’s a dance for the camera. The work was about acts of display. Ballet threaded throughout (and an accent of Chopin) there was a skilled and easy series of poses. This fitted well with the idea of a captured shot.

Man spreading is a phenomenon that she has plumped for and again, one she aligns with dance, specifically the ballet turn-out position. Legs wide and seated she feels more assertive. Legs closed she feels more vulnerable. This is problematic for me. The overt man spread (e.g.on the tube) is fuelled with dominant space claiming. An assumption that we are interested in his splay! A ballet dancers’ body is the rigorously trained dispassionate tool she uses to portray layers of the human condition. The wide leg man shrinks space, the dancer expands space.

Eve Zandi Starting Points Sussex Dance Network. Image credit Tim Garrod Eve Zandi Starting Points Sussex Dance Network. Image credit Tim Garrod

Eve’s piece seeks to challenge these, on the surface connections. It doesn’t go far enough. Two similar marks in space or on a wall have a very superficial link. What is the intentionality behind the making? How much weight of society goes into these attitudes and habits? When does a feeling become a code? At one point Eve turns the gaze on us! Lights change direction. There were subtle intimations beforehand that this was coming. Eve had begun pacing like a stirred caged cat. She then assumes a chavvy leery gait and facial sneer – and it was genuinely intimidating.

The beginning series of simple varied seated postures were interesting for being pedestrian every day – then illuminated. More of this kind of exploration would yield more insight into social norms.

Starting Points Sussex Dance Network. Image credit Tim Garrod

On reflection, this following day I’m still hoping to transcend the ‘us and them’, transcend societal constructions and banish unwanted gazes, which is not the same as healthy flirting, across all and every gender. Sometimes however it’s a matter of choices that we don’t always have. On a positive note by integrating, again and again, our minds and bodies and all the complementary energies, within each of us, the open soma can gladly make space for that confident natural woman, the late great Aretha would have us be.

Thanks to Maxine Badger ( a Member of Sussex Dance Network) for her thoughts on Starting Points.

All image credits: Tim Garrod