Eisa Jocson speaks about gender performativity, choreographing the gaze, and much more in an interview with dance scholar Clare Croft.Clare Croft (CC): I wanted to talk about the choice to put these two pieces, Death of a Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer, together on one program. They have, I suppose, obvious potential links as physical performances of gender and sexuality. Is it interesting for you to have them both on the same program?
Eisa Jocson (EJ): The two works are situated in the same marginal spectrum of night work in the Philippines, but at the extreme opposite [ends of that spectrum] in terms of many things, mainly because of their clients [and] the gender relations [between dancer and client]. [Pole dancing usually features a female dancer with male clients, whereas macho dancing features a male dancer with both male and female clients.]
CC: You came to pole dancing as a hobby in a fitness studio, and you came to macho dancing as a spectator. How did it shape your process of creation to come to one form of dance as a participant and another as a spectator?
EJ: With Death of the Pole Dancer, the work came about because of my experience with pole dancing as, first, a hobby. In the Philippines, I was one of the first few women to take the pole-dancing class. Eventually I was also teaching, and eventually I was also kind of a co-director of this pole dance academy. I think that during that time there was a lot of stigma during the beginning of pole dancing in the fitness [studio] or in the dance studio. [What] was very interesting for me [was] the shift from the strip club to the fitness studio—the space, the context. Somehow this shift didn’t happen immediately in society: [this] acceptance and awareness of how [pole dancing] could be appropriated as something else by women outside of the club–that it could be actually used to empower [women], or as a hobby, or for fitness. [What pole dancing means] depends on where you’re coming from and what your intention is.
Death of the Pole Dancer was not actually about the movement vocabulary of people dancing in general, but it was more of an investigation of how we’re seeing the way we’re seeing. You have a universal stereotype of a pole dancer. Somehow it interests me how much I can deviate from [that stereotype], and how much general perception can’t make the shift, too. With Macho Dancer, the challenge for me was to actually embody the movement vocabulary. I did not have the movement vocabulary of macho dancing prior to working on it.
CC: How did you go about acquiring the movement vocabulary of macho dancing?
EJ: I went into macho dancing because I wanted to challenge this embodiment of the female vocabulary that I’ve learned through this fitness space–pole dance for fitness. [I wanted] to actually force myself to embody the complete opposite [of pole dancing]. In this way, [I set out to] learn a gender performativity that is situated in an opposite context of pole dancing.
Learning [how to do macho dancing] was definitely [a] more difficult process. There wasn’t any macho dancing school to begin with. It wasn’t something that was being taught—just performed in macho clubs. What I did [then was to] go to macho clubs on a regular basis and really scout for the good [dancers] and ask [them] if they could actually teach me macho dancing.
In the beginning, when I was first asking if this was possible, the macho dancers would say, “What would a girl do with such a dance?” They didn’t take me really seriously. They thought I was trying to build the relationship with them for other reasons. When they saw that I was actually serious, most of them appreciated that they were being acknowledged for their skill. And [then] the relationship with the macho dancers became more of a student/mentor relationship. I found that quite endearing in a way. This relationship could exist outside of the macho bar.
At some point I decided to go to the gym, and when I went to the gym I realized that—or at least I felt that the movement made much more sense in my body—because I found the awareness of muscle groups, the form that you actually accumulate when you go to the gym. Gym culture is actually part of macho dancing. [It’s] basically choreography of muscle and form and showing off, and it’s a lot about narcissism—appreciating your own body.
My first entry point to macho dancing was this fascination with the movement and what were the conditions that actually made this dance possible–culturally, socially, and economically. What notion of masculinity are they [the macho dancers] performing? It’s very specific to their clients, who are male and female. In the beginning, their clients were more gay, and eventually when the economy started to become more liberated and women in the Philippines started to occupy higher positions, the clients became more equalized—so now it’s more men and women. And so what is being performed is actually, I guess, a projection of a certain notion of what it is to be male in Philippines society—to be desirable as a man for that clientele. The movement vocabulary itself says a lot about the condition of the Philippines context.
CC: What has it been like for you to be exploring forms that are so explicitly economically motivated? You’ve spoken elsewhere about how these forms have a relationship with the Filipino economy and the feminization of labor in the Philippines. Hearing this, I thought about how many forms of performance have an economic exchange, but we separate the performance from the monetary element—you pay for a ticket and then go to another room, whereas other forms of performances—often those seen as less “highbrow—don’t make that separation. The economic exchange is very explicit: someone in the audience has money in hand.
EJ: The exchange that [usually] happens in contemporary dance is definitely not [about] prioritizing economic exchange. The exchange that is constructed in contemporary dance is more in the level of discourse and the level of many [other] things: I would say [its] more [of a] multi-dimensional exchange—not just economic, not just cultural, not just social. Contemporary dance doesn’t favor one layer of exchange.
The language [in Death of a Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer] is appropriated from its original context, and then placed in a different platform. The signifiers of the language shift: what does it mean for this body to move this way? It actually opens up the contemporary dance form to give space for a new discourse about this language and not just to see it as the language of dance by macho dancers. What does [macho dancing] tell beyond [its] situation? Can you actually locate it in the global discourse of economics and not just look at it in that [macho dance club] context?
CC: What has it been like to perform the piece outside of the Philippines where are less likely to have the referent of the macho dancer?
EJ: There have been stages and different ways of seeing, especially if it’s one culture to another. Even though they don’t know the language itself, it’s so stereotypical that basically you can recognize small traits or forms and positions in popular culture.
[It’s] been very interesting to tour both works. They don’t really come as a package most of the time. Macho Dancer has toured more than Death of a Pole Dancer. So, I have more feedback with Macho Dancer. Put together in a double bill, both works shift meaning as well. It really depends. I think Death of a Pole Dancer by itself poses more of a problem with people because somehow my physical appearance clearly fits the stereotype of the pole dancer. Then with macho dancer I have more of a distance from the actual image of a macho dancer—being a woman, not having the physique of an actual macho dancer, [etc.]. There’s more space between me and the vocabulary. Somehow people can somehow reflect on this absurdity [more readily]. With Death of A Pole Dancer alone—without Macho Dancer—it takes people sometimes longer to break the stereotype that is being presented, or [they] can’t separate the performativity and the actual visuality of the body.
It really depends on the individual, [and] on the feel of the festival where it’s being presented. It’s been read in so many ways—especially Macho [Dancer] because it’s been touring. The work and myself matures and grows with each performance. I’ve been touring Macho Dancer for 2.5 years, and each time I perform it I realize something new with the work. Sometimes I have these revelations. I actually feel like I get the work now after touring it.
CC: Most American audiences who’ve seen your work have seen it programmed in the Queer New York International Arts Festival in New York. Do you think of Death of a Pole Dancer or Macho Dancer as “queer”?
EJ: I never really framed the work as “queer” or “not queer.” [Thinking about this work among] the [contexts] of dance, performance, –visual arts even, [these works] kind of escapes a certain framework. They might fit nicely into dance or theater or visual art performance, so in a way that’s a strength of the work. It can really go from one [area] to another. But, as well, it cannot be put in a box. A lot of dance programmers would not say it’s a dance work, but a lot of theater people would say it’s a dance work. A lot of dance people would think it’s a theater work. It really depends on who’s talking.
For the queer context, I think it’s the same. It’s a framework that’s placed [around the work]—a way of seeing into the work. I’m not actually familiar with what a “queer” framework should be. I guess “queer” is a bit of a definition defying [word].
CC: I think that’s sort of both the pleasure and the problem of the word.
EJ: This is probably the same with the work. Maybe the work shares the sense of vagueness of what it means to be queer, because it’s a work that doesn’t fit nicely in one genre. And of course you can say [these works] tackle gender performativity, and what is normal, and what is a stereotype, and what is fixed and what is changing.
CC: Watching Macho Dancer, I was so struck by your gaze. I’m thinking specifically of you walking downstage, chewing gum. There’s some about you walking towards the audience and almost receding at the same time. How do you think about the gaze in this piece?
EJ: I think that the gaze is one of the most interesting elements in both performances. It’s a choreography of gaze. In each section of the piece, the gaze shifts and, of course, the relationship also shifts with the audience. There’s always this gazing “in relation to.” It’s a very powerful element within the work—I would say even central for both. It’s this act of seeing, how you position yourself, and the way you see what you see.
Death of the Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer