On the surface, heterosexual masculinity can appear to be the simplistic, most self-contained gendered state. The world has been moulded to suit men’s needs, physical strength is on their side, communication is expected to be goal-orientated, action is desired, emotion is dispensible: go forth and conquer.
Well, perhaps that was the case, sort of, a few decades ago, but feminism has put masculinity in the spotlight, and the cracks are clearly visible.
Far from being a fortress, masculinity is an insecure state. Femininity is far more whole, more self-contatined. And so, just as the bully hides their insecurity by dominating his or her peers through violence and the threat thereof, so men have constructed a patriarchal system to hide their inherent frailty.
Thus tenderness, communication of emotion and feeling, is shunned as weakness, with physical strength, logic and a straightforward solution-based approach to life favoured as the means to obtain and wield power (economic, political, domestic). But men know, consciously or not, that their deficit of emotional intelligence, the lack of effort invested in understanding their own feelings and those of others, leads to a superficiality in relationships and thus places their achievements, their very persona, on shaky foundations. Masculinity is worn as a mask to hide the vulnerability of being human. Wear it long enough and the mask is all you have. You end up being, in modern parlance, a douche.
Heterosexual masculinity has been explored in a number of productions lately. There was Mamela Nyamza and Nelisiwe Xaba’s The Last Attitude at this year’s National Arts Festival, as well as the Zimbabwean Tumbuka Contemporary Dance Company’s Portrait of myself as my father. Masculinity was also explored in Sylvaine Strike’s sublime Tobacco and the Harmful Effects Thereof with Andrew Buckland and Toni Morkel. There was also Richard Linklater’s Golden Globe award winning film Boyhood.
Douche, a very well choreographed and performed physcial theatre and dance work by Sandisile Dlangalala from Rhodes University, is the latest addition.
As they take their seats, the audience, particulaly the women, are flirtatiously greeted by Dlangalala himself as he leans suggestively against the balustrade and smirks lasciviously while on stage Masixole Heshu watches with barely concealed contempt as Ryan Napier keeps trying to psyche himself up to an acceptable example of masculinity while, sitting on an amplifier surrounded by beer cans, Geoff Smuts or Steven Ellery (they are both credited as musicians in the work but only one was on stage and I don’t know which) plays rasping, deep throated chords on that most phallic of instruments, the electric guitar.
Dressed uniformly in grey pants and white wifebeater vests, we see Napier experiencing crisis as he struggles to gain acceptance from the pack, which is joined by Jonathan Georgiades and engages in a camaraderie of violent and lascivious gesture which leads us into a narrative in which the fourth performer, Georgiades, is challenged and outcast when he ‘lets the side down’.
There is a worthy and engaging attempt to deconstruct masculine gestures, rhythms and movement but the deconstruction remains quite shallow. The chest beating, pelvic thrusting, chin cocking and pectoral flexing are recognisable choices that need to be interrogated further as movement statements that deconstruct the dynamic of those gestures, rather than just their overt signification. I want the gestures to transform so that I can see them at play, with differences, changes, interpretations.
The ensemble (pack of douches) works well to establish shifting power dynamics between the four but the interrogation of delicate interactions and partnerships, the tenderness of camaraderie, and duets of power or loss thereof don’t reveal the depths, so often – too often, hidden. The stereotypes are not sufficiently examined. The performers are not being challenged to get to the core of the physical qualities of their movements.
Rather, the choreography, which is well composed, takes precedence to commitment. The dancers were convincing in terms of a dance but I wanted more than that. I wanted blood, or the threat of it at least. Perhaps that’s because I had just been watching the rugby. I wanted collission, I wanted the sweat on their bodies to not be all their own.
There was the sense they were not really finishing movements, finding the beginning, journey and end to each. In their defence, the relatively small stage on which they had to move probably didn’t help, they needed to be able to stretch fully, to risk overstepping without hitting the back curtain. A larger stage would probably enabled them to better embody each movement, not just its shape.
That being said, the movement choices and the music support the world that is suggested but there could be greater change, the polarities of violence and tenderness are not reached, and the unexpected was not delivered.
Yet despite these criticism, I enjoyed the work, it is good, it is a solid foundation, I would like to see it go forth and conquer.
— Steve Kretzmann and Jenni-lee Crewe