Naked ladies, onstage, at the Belfast Festival? Joanne Savage speaks to director Nic Green about a novel dance piece and the relevance of the f-word (feminism) in 2010
Second-wave feminism filled the 1960s and 70s with excoriating attacks on patriarchy and justified, if often shrill, demands for the emancipation and empowerment of women. A series of important feminist polemics defined the bra-burning mood, most notably Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – which pointed up woman’s enslavement in the conventional marriage; pretty little wifey scrubbing the kitchen floor while her priapic other half took on the world.
Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch was also seminal to this mood, outlining how women had been denied sexual freedom and healthy relationships with their bodies in a society structured on phallic logic.
Trilogy, an unusual piece of dance theatre, engages with this watershed feminist moment, specifically replaying scenes from Town Bloody Hall, the 1971 debate on the Women’s Liberation Movement which saw Norman Mailer get a verbal thrashing from the sisterhood, and which was filmed by Chris Hegedus and PA Pennebaker.
Germaine Greer gave a rousing, though somewhat naïve speech at that event, on the suffocating effects of the male artist’s ego, claiming that ‘no woman yet has been loved for her art’, much as Yeats wrote that only God could love woman for herself alone and not her yellow hair.
Greer read the female’s role throughout ‘his-story’ as one of despairing passivity; woman adorns the background while man composes symphonies or writes immortal poetry. This oversimplified the case and overstated woman’s subjugation – points which Mailer wasn’t slow to flag up, while cleaning his ear wax with the end of his pen and deriding all these demands for equality as ‘diaper Marxism’.
To make its feminist point, Trilogy will invite 50 female volunteers to dance naked on stage (you can volunteer below), a radical move that left one writer at the Guardian wondering if this were not a kind of theatrical Gok Wan.
But director Nic Green is adamant that the play, which will run next month as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, is 'a joyous celebration of women, of women’s lib and women’s wobbly bits'.
'The first part is a big, naked, wild ensemble of dance,' Green adds. 'The movements we hope local women will join us to perform on stage aren’t floaty or balletic, but jumpy and wobbly and free. The oldest woman we’ve had perform the dance was 73 and women of all ages, shapes and backgrounds have danced away, naked, happily.'
But why the nudity and the wild dance, or the snippets from Town Bloody Hall, when we’ve already had third wave feminism (which discounted essentialist conceptions of gender)? After all, women today are perhaps as empowered as they’ll ever be.
Is the f-word even relevant now? The voices insisting that we still live in an oppressive patriarchy are increasingly marginal. 'It’s about finding a freedom,' Green admits, who conceived the idea for the project after working with teenage girls. Most confided that they felt they were fat and had ultimate ambitions to diet, be as pretty as possible and ensnare footballers.
'Trilogy allows the women who choose to participate to stand up and say, "This is me, this is who I am, this is what I was born with and it’s OK,”' enthuses the director. 'We want women to feel happy with themselves and their bodies and to realise that they don’t need to perpetuate negative thought patterns about themselves in their day to day living.'
Certainly, the media worries over the dress sizes of female celebrities to an astonishing degree, ratcheting up anxieties about body image among women to hysterical levels. You only need to do a quick headcount of the number of women you know who think they need to lose weight, hate their thighs, cleavage or backsides and feel it’s imperative to live mostly on diet coke, boneless chicken and salad, to realise that being happy with oneself is a state that all too often eludes the female psyche.
This was the central point of Naomi Wolf’s early 90s feminist polemic, The Beauty Myth, which saw women as radically disempowered by a beauty-obsessed society that left them chasing impossible ideals of physical perfection instead of directing their energies towards more gratifying enterprises.
How, for example, could a woman attempt to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, campaign for human rights, paint a masterpiece or write a Booker-worthy novel if she’s starving herself and staring in the mirror, fretting that she doesn’t look like Kate Moss and will always have a generous derriere?
'Even if you think Town Bloody Hall is dated,' proffers Green, 'you can’t help but be inspired by the energy and gusto of these women in the way they shout and cheer and point out the problems with the ways society has failed to champion women or give them a positive image of themselves.
'Feminism means different things to different women. We’re not saying that we hate men, we’re just trying to be happier with ourselves. Trilogy isn’t an angry play. It’s about celebrating femininity. I think feminism will always be relevant because it is about emboldening women and establishing a sense of community.'
This three-part interactive arts project doesn’t claim to advance sophisticated theses about contemporary feminism or why the f-word remains something of a dirty word, even among women, unfairly conjuring images of doc-marten wearing harridans who don’t shave their legs and could live with the extinction of the male species. Instead, Trilogy intends to be an energetic evening of sisterhood, a shedding of negative attitudes to body image that ends with the nude chorus singing 'Jerusalem', defiantly, at the top of their lungs. More power to them.
Trilogy runs at the Waterfront Studio from October 22-24 as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. If you would like to volunteer to be part of the performance email Louise Brodie at firstname.lastname@example.org.