There is something endearing about male dancers’ clumsiness. It proves their normativity – women dancers are generally more precise so that men’s almost unintentional clumsiness somehow shows that they’re just men. At the same time, this clumsiness constitutes a failure to live up to the unachievable ideal that men are somehow conditioned to think they should strive to attain. That ideal, of course, functions to maintain normative white heterosexual privilege. Clumsiness can undermine this, and can point to the persistence of other ways of performing masculinity. Sorry for this long, theoretical introduction, but this for me is the context for my response to Simon Mayer’s Sons of Sissy. Much of this piece is so odd that it is difficult to discuss it without first giving some description of it.
While some of the dancing that Mayer and his three male fellow performers execute was sometimes a bit rough and clumsy, their musicianship was immaculate. It began with them singing and playing Alpine folk music on two violins, an accordion and a double bass.
Mayer was wearing an ambiguous costume that could have been a folk costume skirt and blouse but also read as female drag. There was something very slightly exaggerated about the way they played with each other, an edginess that hinted that Sons of Sissy would be more than just folk music. And sure enough, this section ended in discord and some moderate trashing of their instruments.
Each subsequent section also ended in discord. Each built slowly, taking its time to gradually become more intense: lots of stamping precise rhythms; pirouetting that was actually quite beautiful but somehow seemed clumsy because of the harsh shouts that served as cues to start them.
Deliberately messy to hide their artistry. Traditional dance steps, folk rhythms, but with an underlying tension that eventually snapped when one of the men fell to the floor. A second moment of discord.
All four were by now tired and out of breath and took their time changing at the side of the stage, pausing before going on. At the end of this they were all naked and remained so for the rest of the piece.
Four white naked men danced a traditional-looking circle dance. To this was added body percussion whose repeated slaps on upper thighs and abdomen left these glowing red. While the folk rhythms hinted at mountain peasant culture, the spanking hinted at metropolitan gay tastes, nothing explicit, just hints and ambiguities. But when it became obvious that two of the men – standing closely face to face – were going to embrace one another, the audience became very quiet and alert. Soon another moment of discord arrived with whips, ropes, chain, and a bunch of Alpine cowbells dropping with repeated crashes to the floor.
Then back again to the violins accordion and double bass, yodelling and more syncopated body percussion. This time it seemed ridiculous when performed by these sweating, naked bodies. And more ridiculous too when two of them men started doing little vigorous jumps that had been carefully devised to keep their penises bouncing up and down in rhythm. Then at the end, the four men, instruments put aside, faced each other in an inward facing square, singing quietly in close harmony.
I don’t think that Sons of Sissy mocked Alpine folk culture. What might have seemed normal in a straightforward, traditional dance and music festival was definitely queered. In doing so, for me it posed questions. With the fortress that the European Shengen area is in danger of becoming, what is the place of these white male rituals that seem to have survived within traditional dance? Why do we hold our breath when we think we are about to see two naked, sweating men embrace? Why is it so painful when these male rituals end in discord, in men in physical or emotional pain?
Clearly Sons of Sissy is about masculinity, and sexuality. But I think it is also resonant because it draws attention to what, for some, might represent an uncontaminated source of European cultural identity. Sons of Sissy manages to make this source seem very strange indeed.