Le Panoptique

Perspectives sur les enjeux contemporains | More Perspective on Current International Issues

Pointing the Way: Lalala Human Steps and the Performing Body

Publié le 1 novembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

Télécharger l'article au format PDF

Feminist scholars have recently argued that both ballet and modern dance inscribe restrictive definitions of gender on the body. Is formal dance irredeemable as a mode of feminist expression? The Canadian dance troupe Lalala Human Steps, under the direction of famed choreographer Edouard Lock, challenges the normative gender types of traditional Western dance. Dancer and feminist scholar Caroline Lamb explores Lock’s oeuvre as a radical critique of the female body in motion.

Ballet Stretch
Tommy Wong, Ballet Stretch, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

As a performance medium, dance is heavily invested in the presentation of the body, and harbors the potential to both reaffirm and contest its perception in society. Feminist dance scholars identify classical ballet as a major contributor to shoring up asymmetrical gender relations and reinforcing damaging physical ideals for women. Yet modern dance, which was once thought to liberate the female body from the punishing demands of the balletic mode, has also come under scrutiniy for essentializing the female form. In dialogue with these critiques, the Canadian dance troupe Lalala Human Steps presents a body which is neither idealized nor essentialized. Both the early and late works of the troup’s artistic director and choreographer, Edouard Lock, attempt to redefine the way in which bodies materialize onstage. He refuses to collaborate with norms which assign the body stable aesthetic and functional roles in performances. Useing androgyny and redeploying classical balletic techniques, Human Steps perform the body anew, while foregrounding how dance has worked in tandem with hegemonic ideology. Their work critically engages with the regulatory ideals governing the female body as it takes its place within a performance.

The aesthetics of ballet etherealize the ballerina’s body. In contrast, Lock’s early works like Human Sex (1985) or Infante, C’est Destroy (1991) feature a decidedly material aesthetic. Dance scholars Janet Wolff and Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull note that ballet requires a ballerina to subordinate her body to the demand for “weightlessness, lift, and extension” (1) so that she can project an illusion of effortlessness and “airiness.(2)” This fabricated ethereality denies the female body a tangible weight and presence onstage, effacing the effort in executing demanding choreography. The ballerina’s body does not sweat or struggle and its thin physique subordinates the body to the aesthetic concerns of lines, shapes and geometries. On the other hand, Louise LeCavalier, the principal dancer in Lock’s earlier works, seems to be all body. Her muscular energy, working in concert with his emphasis on horizontal and strongly grounded movements, brings heft and presence to the dancing female body. Whereas the dynamics of ballet are oriented vertically, towards weightlessness, Lock’s style is rooted and weighty. He employs throws and catches that stay close to the ground, highlighting the force of gravity and the body’s interaction with it. In this respect, Human Steps’ dances bring attention back to the body’s presence rather than attempting to negate it.

LeCavalier and Lock’s revival of the corporeality denied to the ballerina is significant because it attributes agency to the female dancer and promotes a healthy physique. The strong, athletic female body in Lalala Human Steps enacts dynamism of its own, and pulls its own weight (so to speak). While the ballerina aspires to be gossamer-like so that she may be lifted, tossed, spun, and carried by the physically dominant male dancer, LeCavalier’s body allows her to assume an integral role in the work, as she lifts, drops, and often overpowers her male partner. Rather than being a balletic “plaything” (3) that acts as an aesthetic accessory or a maliable object, she is a tangible force demanding recognition as an autonomous, rather than subordinate, component of the dance.

Not only does LeCavalier deploy agency onstage, but her physicality seems to reverse the terms of the balletic contract whereby the dancer’s body conforms to the aesthetic dictates of choreography and technique. Indeed, as Randy Martin points out, the effect of established genres and styles, whether balletic or otherwise, is to “colonize” (4) certain bodily articulations and models of kinesthetic motion. Thus, a dancer moving in a way recalling movements by dance pioneer Martha Graham is said to perform “Graham” technique. This prevailing model of dancer-choreographer relations endows the choreographer and their technique with sovereignty over the dancer’s body. In contrast, Lock’s choreography seems to conform to LeCavalier’s body, privileging the performing body over the predetermined movement sequences which would ostensibly circumscribe it.

LeCavalier’s dominant role, however, is not a reductive inversion of gender relations of the kind feminist performance critics like Jill Dolan take issue with because of the tendency to continue to “think within the binary opposition of sexual difference.(5)” The decidedly androgynous presentation of LeCavalier’s body is crucial to Lock’s redeployment of the classical pas-de-deux (a step for two), a staple of the ballet genre. Frequently costuming her muscular, angular physique in a tutu -the trademark of the classical ballerina- paired with running shoes and kneepads, Lock and LeCavalier create an onstage body which scrambles the masculin/feminine duality ballet holds dear. Gone are the stable gender-based categories defining the pas-de-deux as a dance between a man and a woman. In their place we find a re-configured dyad between two functionally and physically androgynous dancers, liberating a plurality of possible subject positions that do not read easily within the tradition. When LeCavalier lifts her partner above her head and throws him, she destabilizes our assumptions: is this a woman dominating a man, a man dominating a man, or a man dominating a woman? The deliberately slippery dynamic foregrounds the asymmetrical power relations of classical dance, while suggesting new positions for female and the male bodies to assume within the performance.

Yet because they break significantly with the company’s earlier works, in that they feature dancers on pointe, Human Steps’ works Salt/Exaucé (1998) and Amelia (2002) evince a problematic attempt to critique classical ballet and its sexist ideologies. While his androgynous aesthetic overtly contested the marginalization of the feminized body in classical dance, Lock’s decision to use pointe technique fails to fully account for the ideological baggage accompanying a pas-de-deux on pointe, a balletic mode Daly describes as “an emblem of classical gender asymmetry.(6)” Pointe is liberating in that it “help[s] Lock achieve his aims of disorientation” (7), since dancers can be rapidly spun and moved on pointe shoes. Lock, however, overestimates what he believes is the essential neutrality of pointe; in an interview he boldly states, “pointe is a technique, nothing more. A technique which is neutral(8).”Lock characterizes his pointe pieces as subversive rearticulations of classical ballet. His continued reliance on the pas-de-deux, coupled with his use of pointe and LeCavalier’s departure from the company in 1999, results in a style which does more to reaffirm normative dance ideologies and gender couplings than it does to subvert them. Furthermore, in his claim for the neutrality of pointe, Lock seems to blithely disregard the influence of the balletic genre he cites and its ability to exert ideological pressure on the spectator. Although she does not specifically cite Lalala Human Steps, Ann Daly seems to refer to Edouard Lock when she talks about “formerly experimental choreographers” who are now “turning to toe shoes and arabesques for their inspiration.” She says that “in borrowing from the classical vocabulary, choreographers […] are not being subversive or transformative […] it is essentially the traditional ballet and its ideology borrowed whole, particularly the romantic pas de deux.(9)” Indeed, Lock’s choreography for the female body in his pointe pieces does not significantly break with classical ballet; even though he eschews narrative structure and explores modern angular shapes. In both Amelia and Salt, we witness similar manipulations and displays of the feminized dancer by her male partner, characteristic in the pas-de-deux. If Lock continues to use pointe to accelerate his choreography and jar the spectator’s perception, he does so at the expense of reintroducing the traditionally gendered partnership he once openly subverted.

Lock’s androgynous reworking of the classical pas-de-deux in his early works calls into question how the gendered ideology of classical dance intersects with “Western” ideas of movement and femininity. In “decolonizing” the relationship between the choreography and dancer, Lock’s early corpus speaks to more global concerns about the body, which straddle feminist, queer, and postcolonial critiques. In his willingness to let the dancer act collaboratively with the choreography, Lock shakes the dancing body free from established Western patterns of corporeal articulation. Even in later works like the filmic version of Amelia, Human Steps’ dancers are seen gesturing towards a non-Western aesthetic, breaking Lock’s characteristic speed by holding sustained poses which seem almost meditative. By contesting generic conventions, Human Steps’ heterogeneous style allows the dancer’s body to be bodies plural. Thus, Lock’s work telescopes beyond the redeployment of gender partnerships to suggest an approach to dance performance which admits multiple non-normative bodies, ones that might challenge the way the body comes to be inscribed, mapped, and possessed by categories like race or gender. Pieces like Human Sex produce relations between partners where gender and sexuality are deliberately uncertain, and thus have the potential to radically destabilize our perceptions of sexuality, race, class, and disabilities inscribed in human movement.

Human Steps invite the realization that not all performances will signify the same thing to all spectators, and that subversion in performance may not be predictable. Perhaps this difference of interpretation is itself liberating. In order for the performing body to challenge norms and offer alternative modes of presence and perception, Lalala Human Steps suggest that performers and choreographers push the body’s limits. This exploration, however, must remain open to all the possibilities of performance and must simultaneously recognize that part of the “subversive promise” of performance is that we can never predetermine or limit the performing body’s transformational effects.


(1) Wolff, Janet. “Reinstating Corporeality: Feminism and Body Politics.” Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. Ed. Jane C. Desmond. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. 81-100. 95.
(2) Cohen Bull, Cynthia Jean. “Sense, Meaning, and Perception in Three Dance Cultures.” Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. Ed. Jane C. Desmond. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. 269-288. 275.
(3)Alderson, Evan. “Ballet as Ideology: Giselle, Act 2.” Meaning in
(4) Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. Ed. Jane C. Desmond. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. 121-132. 129.
(5) Martin, Randy. Critical Moves: Dance Studies in Theory and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998. 158. Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988. 83.
(6) Daly, Ann. “Classical Ballet: A Discourse of Difference.” Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. Ed. Jane C. Desmond. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. 111-120. 115.
(7)Wyman, Max. “Edouard Lock: Showman or Shaman?” Proc. of Transactions 2004: Life, Learning and the Arts, RSC Symposium. Ottawa, ON, 2004. 6.
(8)Amelia program notes.
(9)Daly 117.

Creative Commons License
Cet article est publié sous un contrat Creative Commons.