- Yes? No! Maybe . . . Seductive Ambiguity in Dance
Emilyn Claid's Yes? No! Maybe . . . Seductive Ambiguity in Dance is an approachable book that relies on established theory to investigate spectatorship, representation, and identity in British dance of the last half of the twentieth century. Claid takes the reader on an engaging journey through her personal experiences as a young, earnest ballet dancer and then into an exploration of feminism and a reimagining of how to be a woman on stage in a new era. She discusses the role feminism has played for dancers negotiating their relationships with the audience, other dancers, choreographers, and with dance itself as a means of expression and communication. Claid resolves her work by taking ideas and information from those disparate worlds and then embracing queer theory as an alternative. For Claid, queer theory provides a fluid conception of identity that allows freedom of expression in the creation of dances and also in the audience's interaction with performance.
Claid's great contribution to current dance scholarship is her clear articulation of the power dynamic inherent in classical ballet. Her analysis of the teacher/student relationship leads compellingly to an understanding of the tension between the spectator and the performer. Outside eyes constantly impose themselves on ballet dancers; the gaze is strong and powerful to the point that its presence is felt even in an observer's absence. Ballet dancers inhabit the eye of the critic and set unattainable expectations for themselves as they strive toward perfection. The relationship is fraught because of the dancer's constant need to please and the [End Page 101] acknowledgement that nothing will ever be good enough.
Another intriguing aspect of this dynamic is the ballet dancer's negotiation of pain. Pain becomes rewarding because ballet dancers are taught that through pain comes achievement, through pain comes pleasure. Claid makes use of Foucault to examine the sado-masochistic relationship between teacher and student by noting that pain is not simply imposed upon a dancer by the teacher. Rather, the ballet dancer is engaged in the creation and nourishment of pain: "the power system perpetrates the dancer's desire: that which will bring the reward of success, with the dancer imposing the pain upon him/ herself. The dancer, now a tool of the system, supports the system through a cycle of self-inflicted pain, inducing the power, which brings success" (40). The ballet dancer is a willing participant in the pain/accomplishment/ power cycle.
After illustrating ballet's fascination with unattainable perfection and beauty, Claid relieves the reader by rejecting such notions and embarking upon an exploration of feminism and how dancers began to portray femininity in the 1970s. There is an absorbing discussion in this section about the use of parody as a means of questioning and destabilizing common practices. Claid has faith in parody's ability to help sabotage normativity, but she cautions, "for feminists, there will always be the danger that parody simply perpetuates the systems it tries to displace through its strategy to install and subvert. Postmodern use of parody requires complicity with the past and, although the techniques to install and subvert canons and conventions are clearly disruptive, the complicit conditions limit the extent of radical change urged by feminist politics" (64). In order to weaken the power of tradition, feminist performers may challenge outward displays of conventional femininity by contesting the exhibition of thin, petite girls that flit lightly through space and becoming "strapping, strong, angry and outspoken bodies" that take on what are typically regarded as masculine movement characteristics (65). In re-imagining what is seen on stage and who does the looking, Claid encourages spectators to play a keen role in the parody. Their new role is to desire a performance in which women take equal space beside men.
As Claid developed as a performer and dance maker, she coveted an active and engaged audience that made an effort to understand and suspend conventional expectation. Yes? No! Maybe . . . takes issue with traditional spectatorship...