Dance used to discuss body image
Two mirrors leaned against the edge of the Levin Ballroom stage, close enough to the four rows of chairs that the audience could almost see their reflections. “Rise Above: An Exploration of Dance and Body Culture” is one of the many ’DEIS Impact events this week. Maria Kulchyckyj ’20 and Olivia “Liv” Molho ’20 enlisted fellow dancers Emily Cohen ’17 and Joanna Martin MA ’18 to help dance and choreograph works that express ideas about body culture. Kulchyckyj and Molho choreographed the first dance, Martin choreographed the second, and all the dancers assisted in the third.
The event opened with a clip of “Ms. Baltimore Crabs” from “Hairspray,” a song whose lyrics about size discrimination in dance set the tone for the following two modern dance performances.
In the first piece, Kulchyckyj and Molho started the dance by posing in front of the mirrors. Turned away from the audience, they stared into the mirrors while pulling at their clothes, as if their reflections made them uncomfortable. The dance’s goal was clear from the outset: as the ’DEIS Impact website states, “the first dance is focused on body standards and the detrimental mental and physical effects they can have on us.”
As Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” played, Kulchyckyj and Molho’s actions reflected Iver’s lyrics. When Iver sang “staring at the sink of blood and crushed veneer,” Molho responded by sliding her arms up her torso, then extending her arms out and away from her shoulders, wrists facing the ceiling. When the second verse asked “Cut out all the ropes and let me fall,” Kulchyckyj fell to the floor and did a spin on her knees. The movement was so fluid that the audience barely had time to register the change in height before Kulchyckyj was back on her feet.
Falling became a theme in the dance, with both dancers rolling onto their toes, collapsing over their ankles and breaking their falls with their hands. In the quieter moments of the song, the pair looked out towards the audience. As the song picked up, they looked at each other and launched into a series of jumps, only to fall again and return to the floor. The dance ended the way it started — both dancers by the mirrors — but with Kulchyckyj standing where Molho stood and vice versa.
Martin’s dance was next, set to Andra Day’s “Rise Up.” Martin’s choreography took the understated pain from the previous dance and made it explicit — she smashed her hands from one side to the next, as if hitting down imaginary walls. Martin sliced a hand toward her stomach and doubled over, repeating the movement three times. She covered her mouth and let out a silent scream, the force of the air sending her hands forward and propelling her into a lunge position. As she mimed her scream, Martin looked both trapped and as if she were finally breaking free from something. These actions seemed to recreate the violence against Black bodies that society imposes, not only through body culture and normalized beauty standards but also through more explicit and violent means, such as police brutality.
A theme in Martin’s dance was that of a raised fist, historically a symbol of the Black Power and Black Lives Matter movements. Martin repeated the move several times with different intonations. First, her fist shook, as if she felt fearful; then, Martin turned the symbol into a forceful act that sent her head reeling away from her fist; in a powerful choice, Martin also ended her dance with this symbol.
According to Molho, the third dance was “focused on working to rise above this societal pressure to conform to a certain body standard and accepting the way we look.” Molho, Kulchyckyj, Cohen and Martin danced together, weaving in and out of inventive formations and ending with the four women staring defiantly out towards the audience.
The performance ended with a talkback session. In the talkback, Kulchyckyj recounted how “women are told that their beauty and their body are their number one tools for success.” Molho recalled quitting ballet for hip-hop in second grade, recognizing at an early age that while all bodies belonged in hip-hop, ballet was more exclusive. “[Ballet is the] most shameful when it comes to body standards, because the whole point of ballet is that everybody looks the same,” expanded Molho in response to a question comparing the two genres. When asked about strategies to cope with these pressures, Martin chimed that “self-love is vital, no matter if you are five, 15 or 50,” and stressed the importance of positive body-talk and compliments for people of all ages.