Thoughts: Myth; or, art, feminism, and the critical juncture.

by Jane

Subtitled “A study on the female species” (perplexingly omitting the word “of”) Erin Fowler’s Myth is a danced commentary on visions and stereotypes of women over time.   Fowler with co-choreographers and performers Jessie Oshodi and Mikaila Roe dance their way through images of this species: ancient perceptions of a goddess; 50s ideals of a housewife; Barbies to be manipulated; nothing more than a tease for men. Presentation of these images accompanies spoken text written by Fowler, the documentary style of Patrick Clements’ voice observing these women.

The small stage and flat seating of Nexus is hardly conducive to a good dance presentation, but Fowler, Oshodi and Roe all do well containing themselves within the space, without seeming constrained, and stay away from too much low and floor work.

The three emerging artists are technically strong, although at times sections of choreography had a tendency to delve into presentation of steps to show technique, rather than working off a through line from the choreography.  Regardless, much of the choreography is intriguing and does well to show off the strengths of the still young dancers: Oshodi particularly strong with a powerful presence in her jumps.

Jess White’s design encompasses the space, with lighting throughout the space taking on birdcages as lampshades.  Tan costumes move from sheaths to underwear to tailored dresses, punctuated with colourful aprons or black heels, costume changes from small vintage suitcases or clothes strung in the cages. The women seem to dance on barkchips, until they are removed in a scene on the housewife and her search for advancing technology.

As a commentary on that “most elusive” of species, the female, I often found myself frustrated with how little critique Fowler was presenting with these images.  It is one thing to present the commentary with the clinical detachment of a documentarian, but I feel these images, not all of them antiquities, deserved more than just a slight judgment: a moment of being out of breath, a short glance of frustration.

Some of the issues, as well, seemed slightly confused: the commentary spoke of the goddess and her power, yet the choreography itself was rather passive, with many deflected eyes and shy turns.  Interestingly, I saw a short preview of the work in Nexus’ Fringe preview.  I didn’t go back to see the whole dance piece, because I was frustrated with how much the work delved into stereotypes and images of women as dolls without commentary.

Drawing text from Marylin Frye’s Oppression, the final scene of Myth is a stunningly powerful commentary on systematic oppression and the sometimes invisible barriers which exist today.  In this scene, Fowler finally brings together the commentary I was hoping for all along.  As Fowler and Oshodi look on, Roe is entwined, moving though but never escaping a literal cage.  It is an intense indictment on society, a scary reminder of the inequality our society still faces, and yet it is in some circuitous way, it is joyful: this is a new work, conceived by a young artist, which is overtly, unapologetically feminist.  In that, there is hope.

In some ways this alone wants me to only praise the work, to celebrate its strength in speaking Frye’s words out loud.  And yet, this strong final image I think only goes part of the way for the mitigation of the other images: we can all have a laugh over Barbie, her rigidity to gender roles, her corporately ordained love for Ken, but Fowler showed us she has more to say: why is this all held over to the end?  I would love to see Fowler’s work take more inspiration from Frye, and more inspiration from her own final scene and images.

But even then, as I celebrate the final scene, I wonder if the hope from its performance is hope enough.  It’s a strange feeling of confliction: that there was too little commentary in much of the piece, while feeling like the last scene was too dark.  Is there a place for hope?  Where is the balance between hope, between being thankful that these women could produce this work, and the balance between the, at times, inescapable realities of sexism in our lives?

Beyond just thinking about the work itself, and my reactions therein, I wonder about the other reviews of this show: a show with such substance, where reviews barely scratched the surface.  Perhaps in some ways that is a good commentary on the work: it’s not exclusive, it’s not alienating, it is accessible; and indeed the piece is all these things.   But when Barry Lenny of Glam Adelaide reduces the piece to “a somewhat lighthearted exploration of how women have been seen and been promoted throughout the ages”,  I wonder: how much is any male reviewer going to be able to truly comment on something which is so personal to many women?

Yes, much of the production is lighthearted, but Fowler’s last scene – powerful in its exposition of ignorance of oppression, powerful in the added commentary through the choreography – is anything but lighthearted, and it really brings down a dark curtain over the whole piece.  And this is what I – as a feminist and as a woman and as someone trying to carve my place in a world where the wage gap in Australia is the biggest it has been in my lifetime – took away from the piece: a curtain of very real fear and sadness.  A jubilation for it being expressed on stage: so openly and by artists so young.  But I couldn’t possibly describe the production as lighthearted.

Similarly, the Advertiser article on the production seems to have spectacularly missed the point.  By Patrick McDonald, titled Vanity is a hop, skip and triple-jump, the article is so preoccupied by the fact Fowler was once a model that the intent of the work, and the work itself seems to have almost gone out the window.  Reading it, we know more about Fowler as a model than as a dancer, as a creator, as an artist.  In an article about a production over fixations and preoccupations of women as a stereotype, as a form rather than a person, it manages to reduce to these things quite neatly.

In his review for the Advertiser, In step with changing world of the woman, Peter Burdon states: “we have housewives with floral aprons and bird cages as representations of confinement and limitation.  A bit of lateral thinking wouldn’t hurt,” which I feel both misses the point of the metaphor of Frye’s work, and how Fowler strained to give this a visual representation.  A choreographed view of how things may be seemingly meaningless and independent: it is their summation that has impact.  A birdcage is used for this representation because of it’s everyday place, because it is an image we can all understand and respond to: taking this idea of discrimination, that barriers can be small but are many, and placing it into a readily identifiable context.

For Theatre People, Darren Hassan says the work “is not to be mistaken for an angry feminist social statement, as it also shows how the quest to be perfect has contributed to insecurity and the unrealistic confines, which society and some women have inadvertently placed upon themselves” (emphasis mine), which of course misses the root of these problems: a patriarchal society and a media obsessed with image.

While men can certainly be feminists, I’m questioning if men are in a harder place to understand the questions, the struggles, the themes of both feminism and art works that comment on that?  Are men in a harder place to fully commentate? And I feel they are certainly in a much harder place to criticise aspects – which is different than criticising the cause.

I’m asking why none of these publications sent a woman to review the show.  The marketing campaign placed emphasis on the work’s feminist themes, so it seems to me that should be taken into consideration.  I’m not denying anyone their opinion on a work: everyone has a right to see and say what they want over any piece.  What I’m asking is: for publications with multiple critics at their disposal, is there a responsibility to send someone who is most likely to relate to the themes?  Particularly something which has had such a tumultuous past (and present) as feminism.

Sexism is seeming to have a resurgence in recent times: from the Australian Defence Force Academy in another sexual assault and harassment scandal to Barnaby Joyce being both disgustingly homophobic and misogynistic when he said “the best protection for [my daughters] is that they get themselves into a secure relationship with a loving husband” in his defence against same-sex marriage.

This week, while I was writing and thinking about Myth, a speech by Sophie Cunningham entitled Why We Still Need Feminism at Melbourne Writers Festival was given and posted in full online.  It is the basis of Frye’s metaphor and much of Fowler’s direction: but here given in facts and figures.

Because of these struggles, art which explores these issues is not only pertinent, but gratifying.  It is an acknowledgement and appreciation that not only are you not alone in thinking about these issues, but other people are so involved, are so invested that they have invested their art to talking about it.  That’s what I got out of much of the work: a love that someone else is saying these things too.  Which, getting back to my criticism of the criticism: did any of those men feel this?  Did any of them feel thankful someone was saying this, feel disappointed there is so much work for us as a society to do, feel disappointed that Fowler’s work didn’t go far enough, feel that they hope Fowler goes on to develop this work, because it is exciting and important for young artists to be saying these things?

I can’t speak for Fowler’s particular politics or her particular branch, thoughts, ideals, issues with feminism: but what Myth did was bring  my thoughts to the forefront.  It didn’t happen all at once.  Rather, they swirled and grew over several days, culminating in a rush of free-prose when I sat down to write a review.  It is too often that these thoughts can come to the forefront after seeing a piece of art because of its inherent misogyny: to come to the forefront because of inherent feminism is all too rare.  For that, I am incredibly grateful for this piece.  For that, I have hope.

Erin Fowler and Nexus Multicultural Arts presents Myth, concept and direction by Erin Fowler.  Choreographed and performed by Fowler, Jessie Oshodi, and Mikaila Roe, design by Jess White, sound and lighting design and operation by Catherine Connelly, text written by Erin Fowler and spoken by Patrick Clements.  Season closed.

Photos by Chris Hetzfeld.