“Mother, you have to love your children!
You will sacrifice yourself, you will have to improvise, you will organise…
You have to know where everything stands and you will put every single thing in its place.
You have to know that it all makes sense.”1
The most difficult, the most rewarding, the most unrewarding, the most unpaid job in the world is being a mother. The performance entitled Dancing Mom sby dance artists Ivana Kalc and Mila Čuljak focuses on the combination of their intertwining identities – private and business, maternal and artistic – in a political gesture of re-examining the way society approaches both spheres. In a humorous manner, although not without brazenness and bitterness, the artists deconstruct the myths of femininity and motherhood, touching on artistic creativity and porous institutionalisation of (dance) art. As a meeting point of the said spheres, the artists emphasize precarity, implying that there is inherent uncertainty and a lack of institutional support both on the (more or less) independent art scene and when it comes to motherhood in the present day context. The dance work itself begins with the song I Dancedby Adam Semijalac, a Croatian blues musician known under the moniker Bebè Na Volè, whose music plays an extremely important part in the performance, introducing the audience from the very first beats and accompanying lyrics into an ode to dance, a bitter-sweet promise of dedication and love, persevering no matter what:
“I danced against the odds
I danced with time running out
I danced through the lies
I danced with and without expectations.”
Despite Semijalac’s occasional cynicism, the lyrics convey a utopian impulse, a (failed) belief in the transgressive power of art, or at least an irrational stubbornness untamed by the broken system oppressing it:
“I danced so there would be no leaders
I danced as an illusion
I danced for ideals
I danced for pity
I danced for pity
I danced against all odds
I danced so I don’t dance
I danced so I can re-earn my right to be an
in this whole charade.”
However, even more interestingly, the song ends with existential concerns, grounding a euphoric march into a manifesto of independent and dependent artists who realise that, despite the assumption that art should persevere in the face of all troubles, challenges and in all circumstances, living for art does not guarantee living off art. Moreover, living and surviving on the independent scene entails a dedication that sometimes goes beyond the limit of common sense, sacrifice and a constant feeling of uncertainty, a capability of manoeuvring worthy of strategic geniuses, multitasking, whereas only rare tasks belong to the sphere an aspiring artist would fantasise about. Artists are burdened by organisational and production-related demands which by far exceed the imagined agonies and ecstasies of artistic creation, moreover, sometimes the productions disappointingly prove that creativity took a backseat under the pressure of existential conditions required to create a production in the first place. However, Dancing Moms is not one such case; throughout the performance the dancers seem like women on a mission, with a clear project and statement, creating an outline of the described pressures, and bravely mocking them, as well:
“I danced so I can earn money
I danced so I can apply
I danced as a seal and a signature
An envelope filled with hope
I danced so I could proudly wear a clerk suit someday
I danced till I lost all signs of being a human being
I danced so I could be rated
I danced for a fee
I danced so I can fill a quota
I danced over, and over, and over again
And it was never enough
I danced so I can justify the money given
And I danced!
And I stopped!”
super-heroines – women muses and women mothers
The performance is arranged as several recognisable scenes in a sequence, its message and expression direct and simple – the piece combines mime and dance, lip sync, and purposeful and unpurposeful repetitive actions, and a great part of its unimpeachable value lies in perfect timing for the realisation of such a concept and the impression that the performers are having a very honest and contagious good time in the process. The space is almost empty, and in the background of the dance square is a table with two chairs and several objects hinting at a child’s birthday party – a “Happy Birthday” sign above the table, colourful plastic cups, an opened pack of chips and a rubber horse. At a certain point the dancers will rearrange these objects around the stage and then put them back in place, then repeat the process faster and faster in a comical depiction of Sisyphean household choreographies known to everyone. Interestingly, the textual and verbal dimension of the performance is of utmost importance: three texts in English, translated in the booklet, denote and analyse the issues important for the piece. Moreover, these segments occasionally greatly surpass other aspects of the performance, turning it into a full-fledged performative manifesto. The part (re)creating a TV show about natural history, bearing the apt title of Endangered Species, describes a Mother in her natural habitat, her habits and characteristics, expounded by a suffused male voice, which seems to be coming from a hidden position of a scientist-observer, speaking about the Mother in the third person:
“She is a mix of inspiration, delight and freedom… but she is also a mix of darker worries, such as survival, fear and money. She tries to be efficient… After all, her life is depending on it. There are also other people depending on it. People depending on her.”
The phenomenal demagogy which with astute irony describes women as mythological creatures – household heroines – who know everything and keep perfect command of it, has a flip side to it: the fact that nothing of this is socially appreciated in any relevant manner. Just as women’s eyes used to be averted from their slavery by giving them a chance to decorate their prison cells, today occasional flattery should compensate for the effort and hard work invested by women in maintaining their families and the proverbial three corners of their homes. By juxtaposing the scenes reminiscent of the famous images from masculine art history and the already mentioned rearrangement of things on the stage, Kalc and Čuljak encompass the identities of a woman as a Muse and a mother, in all their dramatic varieties as well as comical and everyday banalities. The text focuses also on the experience of sharing one’s body, not only with the child, but much more widely, since a female body is in the patriarchal imagology crucified on every corner, turned into a symbol and fetish or object of governmental policies and political bickering, lately particularly expressed in our close environment:
“Every day she exposes her body, every hour, every minute, offering it selflessly to others. Her body is no longer just hers. She has a great responsibility. Other people affect her body, and some even make decisions about it.”
of institutional responsibility
Although announced as a tribute to motherhood, the dance work treats the theme with critical self-awareness and a healthy sense of (self-)irony, hardly leaving an impression of glorifying the subject matter. A large portion of the problem lies specifically in the institutionality of the institution of motherhood, which is imposing certain forms and outlines, but also very successfully avoiding any institutional responsibility. In paradoxical social manipulations, motherhood does not respond to authorities other than the mother’s body, whose sovereignty is still systematically contested; it is both supposedly the most valued and significant role a woman can play, a duty to the country, no less, but the woman is granted with no special respect or any kind of compensation. Even though feminism largely won the battle for women to be more than just mothers, tied to the private household domain, our society is still pretty far from helping women strike a balance between work and family duties, not to mention the indispensable free time for maintaining elementary mental hygiene. Since it has already been several years that the regressive fascist rhetoric of conservative socio-political fractions is leaning on the proclaimed ideal (of a nationally specific heteronormative traditional) family as the central value, considering the feminist re-examination of gender roles a toxic ideology, Dancing Moms really hit the spot in choosing the right moment to ask their questions. While the focus of the described right-wing propaganda is on turning women into submissive incubators whose duty is to raise the birth rate in this tormented country, due to massive emigration and unemployment, for reasons hard to understand, the same caring organisations and their supporters in comfortable political seats do nothing to stimulate young people to have a family or help mothers to perform their chosen roles and professions in a satisfactory way. And as enlightened Scandinavians are introducing a six-hour workday to provide their citizens with a better work vs. private life ratio, in Croatia many over-precarious workers are losing their free time between scattered jobs and information hyperinflation, which conditions the never-ending birth of new, albeit empty and useless content. Countries which systematically strive to achieve a maximum level of gender equality make their best to create options to include fathers in childcare as much as possible, whereas our public trembles over the frightening prospects of working mothers, imagining children forced to raise themselves and straying off to God knows what sinful paths.
“Mother of steel. The indestructible force. Every moment now something could interrupt her. She is used to such interruptions. Mother Nature has taken care of that, by giving her the ability to multitask... to switch quickly from one thing to another, or to perform several tasks at the same time, even during longer periods of time. Multitasking is the most precious tool she has, besides her ability to love unconditionally. She is not alone. There are others like her.”
of the body
The dancers skilfully parody the mystifications of motherhood and hint at the traditional connection between femininity and nature. According to the radical queer feminist theorist Judith Butler, in the western patriarchal notion the body is always marked as female. In her study Gender Trouble, Butler writes that the male epistemological subject is “abstract to the extent that it disavows its socially marked embodiment and, further, projects that disavowed and disparaged embodiment on to the feminine sphere, effectively renaming the body as female.”2Bodily mediated, assumedly unbreakable bond between woman and nature is only one in the series of patriarchal manipulations aiming to confine a woman into the private family sphere – simultaneously removing men from it – and strengthen her secondary position in a culture that traditionally overestimates the (pseudo)rationalist thought, to which dance by its nature often resists. In that sense, the parallelism achieved in Dancing Moms by juxtaposing linguistic expression and the mentioned persiflage of the masculine discourse and its dominant corporeal expression is very interesting. Besides, the text also describes a fascinating, but to a certain extent necessarily traumatic moment of radical physical changes to the body, which definitely intensely resonates in an activity which uses the body as the primary instrument of artistic (and professional) expression:
“She is trying to connect to nature. Trying to find her true nature. Because her body has changed so much over the years, and now she needs to get used to this new body. But time brings constant change, so her efforts will remain constant as well. There is no stillness for her.”
Historically, 20th century women artists delved into experiments in new forms, such as performance art, video art and contemporary dance, mainly because these were young traditions, unburdened (or significantly less burdened) by the masculinity of the existing notion and tradition of Art. Also, these media and forms did not pose large production demands, they were not expensive nor did they entail many people – often the works came down to what the artist made herself or in a smaller group – which did not, naturally, deprive them of conceptual opulence and value. Nevertheless, the phallocentric world of art often judged these works as lacking and second-grade precisely due to their relative formal simplicity and self-reference. The artists’ aspiration to narrate their gendered experience in different ways served only as an additional argument to reduce their value based on the criteria of (pseudo)-universality boasted by the existing tradition. And although the “female” tradition has already been established and contemporary women artists can easily look behind and find valuable and significant predecessors, and relative political correctness and performance of progressivity preclude open mistrust against the value of art works focusing on the “female” experience, it is nevertheless evident that neither audience, nor critics are yet ready to fully embrace such productions. What is almost a century of feminist progress in art to thousands of years of patriarchal history, which in our social awareness still defines both the perception and the actions of the majority?
In Croatia, the Dantoian artworld never truly bloomed, although it is clear that a relatively small scene creates conditions for an easily established hierarchy and tireless reaffirmation of always the same people, interlaced with political demands du jour, and frequent attempts of trying to keep track with more western trends in art. Henceforth, the Croatian art scene has not fully managed to jump the general wagon of profitable commodification of artistic products and it would assumedly have done so if it had had the chance, but we have also picked up plenty of this system to exist in its paltry and confused variety. Performance arts, in general, resist commodification thanks to their ephemeral and intangible nature, even though the Marina Abramovićs of this world have proved that even one-off performances can become quite a mind-numbingly profitable business, however, our art scene is light years away from this and – if we are feeling idealistic – we would say, luckily so.
Resistance, irony and crushing taboos
It is also clear that the space of contemporary dance is populated by quite an impressive amount of women, but it is equally clear that this is the only artistic domain still fighting for its legitimacy and autonomy. It strikes as symptomatic that an art practice which mostly attracts women and traditionally contains a feminist spark of resistance to the masculinist authority of choreographers and of the liberation of the female body from artistic delimitation, has not been able to make progress, no matter how slow, towards independence, equal to other artistic activities. It is henceforth even more important to keep insisting on projects such as Dancing Moms– projects standing on the crossroads between the private and the political, between the individual and the collective, knowing that love does not exclude but rather requires criticism, irony, provocation and constant struggle for improvement. Many women artists and theorists have found ways to examine the subject of motherhood in their works; at the last Improspections festival artists Jana Jevtović and Célina Larrèrović offered their view on motherhood in the project Choreography, BABY!; a series of different performance episodes focusing on the invasion of overtheoreticising in dance discourse and meant as a sort of “exorcism of the conceptual demon”. Episode six bears the title Hail Mammary and puts on the stage the offspring of three dancers, demonstrating not only the simultaneous duality and inseparability of their roles, but also the ways the two bodies learn from each other. Kalc and Čuljak offered something similar and yet different, performing as entities separate from their role of mothers, but not fully. Interestingly, both dance works share humour and irony, as well as a wish to crush certain taboos, silent prohibitions and customs of social decency.
“You have the right to decide if you want to be a mother. Take it!
You will cut your fingernails. You have the right to go to the bathroom. Alone. You will be patient!
Mother, you need sleep, but first you have to learn how to sleep again. You will need time for yourself. You will need extra pair of hands.”
The third text used in the performance bears the title of Mother! A Manifesto and is spoken out loud by Ivana Kalc to a rhythm beaten by Čuljak on her own body, while Kalc makes a humorous point by firing a sequin pistol. Shouting out witty slogans with a straight face, the authors’ manifesto again highlights the backbone of their work, whose crucial aspects are the already elaborated social criticism, as well as the tangible female-mother solidarity, a shared experience not addressed enough in the public space, and the endless and indisputable love they feel for both their roles as mothers-dancers.
“Mother, you carry the future. The future is unpredictable. You are mortal. And you have the right to be happy and satisfied.
Mother, you will not be afraid of anything or anyone.
You will play different roles. You will be Batman, Spiderman, Superman and Wonderwoman. You will be a role-model.
You have to know that small children mean small worries, and big children mean big worries.
You have to remember what your mother told you. And she told you so.”
Dancing Momsis first of all an intelligent and entertaining work, made with love and a sense of humour, with lively self-irony and with due seriousness in approaching quite an important subject. Capturing in a single stroke the issues of precarity and invisibility of emotional labour left to women, household work and artistic work, Kalc and Čuljak address the issues systematically neglected in our society and, judging by the performance I myself attended – sitting literally alone in an empty auditorium (!) – these issues will remain neglected. The intimate variety of the performance however did not scathe any of its aspects; dancing momsplayed it with energy and dedication, telling their story, invoking empathy and change… However, like many times in the history that brought us to where we are today, their voices echoed around a painfully empty space.
“You will not be sick. And you will be available 24/7.
You will forgive and you will forget. You will work. You will play.
You will fight.