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Doran George — Can We Have Sex? Michael Turinsky’s Dancing Against Compulsory Ableism

Introduction by Neha Choksi

Doran George kinks the love letter, presenting not a romantic subject but a body in heat thinking about being in heat, desiring sex. This heat is in reaction to a performance, My body, your pleasure (2014), a heat which plunges through the dancing bodies to desire a specific body, that of the choreographer Michael Turinsky, whose work addresses his own cerebral palsy.*

Turinsky’s figure is integral to the substance of his work in the same way that the margin holds the center. His anomalous embodiment is physically peripheral, his figure lingering in the very corner upstage left. He leaves that spot twice, briefly: once stutteringly pushing a wheelchair center stage for the pink-bikini-clad Asian female dancer to sit on and deliver a monologue, and a second time wheeling himself seated to stage center to voice joyously some barely comprehensible words related to fucking. But his body remains in the dance because the dancers at different points reproduce his body’s capacities, his body’s movements, his body’s challenges to the temporarily able-bodied. Turinsky has choreographed this precisely to evoke his own body and his—and your—pleasures. My body, your pleasure wants to dislodge sex and disability into a public provocation, available and visible.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposes that to have a body is to locate it, to engage in a spatial act. George’s letter extends Turinsky’s use of bodies as “staged(d) environments” (to use a phrase of Petra Kuppers, the disability culture activist and scholar) to stage George’s own pleasures. George mentions staring at Turinsky. Staring is usually what the able-bodied do when faced with the physically disabled, theatricalizing disability as a public performance. Is the work of the letter to translate that staring into an erotics, a multivalent economy of seductive gazing and sexual desiring? George’s letter and Turinsky’s body, both full of desire, teach us how to resist by embracing each other.

—Neha Choksi

Doran George PhD is a cultural historian writing on sexual culture, avant-garde dance, and performance. They are also a performance artist and choreographer who deconstructs socio-political identity categories, stages work that builds micro-communities, and cultivates radical practices of intimacy. George’s artwork and scholarship is represented in art books, Oxford University Press anthologies, and journals. George currently lectures in Disability Studies and LGBTQ Studies at University of California, Los Angeles, and teaches erotic work in both art and sex-positive contexts.

Neha Choksi is an artist and a member of the editorial board of X-TRA

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February 3, 2017

 

Dear Michael,

You are hot and I want to have sex with you. I’m revealing my desire because your dance, My body, your pleasure, which I saw at Germany’s oldest integrated disabled and non-disabled arts festival, challenges how bodies marked as disabled get de-sexualized. Declaring my attraction isn’t rhetorical; as a sex-positive artist working in the academy, I consciously resist the exclusion of the erotic from intellectual discourse. My embodied response to your dance challenges the belief in absolute objectivity that would require a disavowal of the body. Observing you in your dance from a safe distance turns your body into an object, and well, voyeurism isn’t my thing. By letting you and my readers know that I want to get in your pants, I’m foregrounding my lust to reject intellectual detachment, which I see as part of the will to absolute knowledge that we inherit from European colonialism. This letter thus consciously opens up pleasure, sensation, and desire as strategies for thinking—or should I say feeling—about dance, disability, sexual culture, and social power.

Yes, I am making a pass at you. By doing so I’m questioning the middle-class protocols by which art and educational institutions have embraced the political aim of cultural diversification, wanting or needing to affirm their inclusion of marginalized voices. Your dance reminded me of how, in the absence of a working-class “call a spade a spade” sensibility, language and behavior get regulated through professionalization, which, since the late twentieth century, has been increasingly infused with identity politics. I’m happy that we see greater diversity in the arts and education, your and my position in those fields are probably in part a result of this process. But middle-class propriety invariably leaves marginalized folk carrying multiple dimensions of the body that are unsettling for professional culture, including the erotic and its discontents. As you put it when we sat talking in Mainz Staatheater’s canteen after your show, in contemporary dance, bodies marked as disabled get fetishized for their intellectual capacity and creativity while being robbed of the pleasures of being sexually objectified. You want to be sexually objectified.

The problem of professionalized diversity is also evident in the way contemporary dance covets the kinetic difference that disability offers. Choreography that includes disability validates the art form’s rejection of compulsory ableism, affirming that contemporary dance is progressive. But some key elements of that ableism get left in place. Historically, classical and modern dance, the precursors to contemporary dance, idealized versions of elegance and capacity in ways that purported to evacuate eroticism from the body and excluded disability from the concert stage. In the late twentieth century, disabled bodies began achieving visibility in contemporary dance by presenting themselves as uniquely elegant and capacious, while complying with the exclusion of sexuality.

The British company that I danced for, CandoCo, and Oakland’s Axis, broke new ground in the 1990s by staging a unique movement language built through kinetic cooperation between disabled and non-disabled dancers. Yet, in line with your frustration at not being sexually objectified, the choreography made disability available for dance viewership while tending to assure its audience they wouldn’t have to confront their erotic attraction or repulsion toward disabled bodies. In order to gain access to concert stages, disabled performers had to comply with the prevailing conceit of chasteness in contemporary dance. This sustains a pattern of desexualizing disability, rooted in the infantilization of disabled people, which is partly based upon an assumption that they can’t or shouldn’t reproduce, let alone experience sexual pleasure. Choreographers and dancers that are marked as disabled are fetishized for their intellectual and creative prowess, while the price of their inclusion in contemporary dance is a constant pussyfooting around sex. The dirty secret that is never acknowledged is that their bodies are constructed as not only undesirable, but also devoid of desire.

But by focusing on these terribly earnest reasons for talking about sex, I’m diverting my intention to proposition you, and I am sanitizing my desire. I found you arousing as we sat drinking and talking post-show, and had hoped we might go back to the budget hotel together. Maybe I’d see the inside of your room, leave fingerprints on the accessible bathroom grab bar. But I have to admit that, along with your looks and your body, your intellect was beguiling. You engaged eagerly as I probed beneath the surface of your choreography. While conceding that my undressing of the dance might reveal one dimension of an image or action, you insisted that others were at play, and thus disrobed your dance for me further, drawing me into its undergarments.

Our discussion of the moment, in My body, your pleasure, when an East Asian dancer appears holding two plates of wobbling jello overhead, exemplifies our intellectual intercourse. The bright pink jello exceeds the color of any fleshy breast, the body part to which I assume the quivering desserts refer, while conveying the commercial sex-industry’s idealization of white female availability. But the dancer’s race draws attention to the exotic alternative that Asian femaleness signifies in the same context. Manaho Shimokawa, the jello holder, sits in a wheelchair I’d imagined was meant for you. The intensity of her sexual objectification lubricates your first entrance onto the stage. Enjoying the comfort of anonymity in the darkened auditorium, I want to gawk at your disabled perambulation, something middle-class prohibitions on staring would never allow. But the pink bikini, hackneyed smile, and accompanying physical language of Shimokawa, instructs me to focus on her.

In hyperbolic seductive tones, using continental philosophy’s vocabulary, she delivers a diatribe on art and intimacy, but then dismisses anyone’s interest in her intellect, charging: “Are you open-minded enough to seriously consider me as a potential sexual partner? Do you have the balls to do it with me?” Now I see Shimokowa as a surrogate for you, her sexualized image thwarts our association of her scholarly discourse with her, which is analogous to the difficulty we might have taking in what you say because our idea of your disability masks your subjecthood. So convinced was I of this reading that my project of propositioning you was fueled by Shimokowa’s sexual invitation. Yet while you confirmed some of my suspicions, you also insisted she symbolizes your desire to be sexually objectified. A pink bikini-ed Asian woman struggles to claim intellectual prowess, but it is sexual objectification that eludes your disabled body. Yet I suspect this symbolic surrogacy works because of the complex web of race and gender that European colonialism has left us with: intellectual prowess might get projected onto you as a disabled white guy in a way that it wouldn’t onto Shimokowa, whether or not she used a wheelchair.

            I took this discursive back and forth with you as our foreplay that, while intellectually driven, was also physically charged. The multidirectional, contrapuntal motion of your head, shoulders, elbows and hands, lips and jaw, beckoned me into your motile maze. Your words stretched time, and stretched across time, with verbal melody. You punctuated your ideas with surprising lurches of your voice that were in delicate accord with your polycentric bodily motion, seducing me in the process. As ideas, body parts, and tones gathered in impeccable staccato rhythm, I noticed tension in myself, an unbidden desire to dampen the motile and verbal fireworks you set off in our conversation. Was I maybe experiencing the way you were speaking as a physical struggle; one I wanted to ease? You aren’t the first person with cerebral palsy I’ve talked to, but previously my insistence on a liberal conviction that I must model equality has masked my underlying assumption that the motion and speech associated with cerebral palsy needs correcting. With greater awareness of the personal dynamics propelled by compulsory ableism, I counseled myself that any urge to make you more comfortable was probably me avoiding my discomfort. I breathed into the moment, taking in the aesthetics of your embodiment. You’d taught me how to do this in My body, your pleasure. At your behest, your dancers performed your movement, unmistakably that of someone with cerebral palsy.

The performance begins with two well-lit male dancers seated side by side in chairs downstage left, facing out. You’re upstage right, in half-light, with a laptop at your knees. The audience quiets after sustained stillness and silence, then a tremble begins in the ribcage of one of the men; movement radiates through his arm, and fingers struggle to separate as if glued together, then coming back together with suddenness.

The dancers’ skilled execution of your movement alleviates some of my concerns about your choreographic strategy. When people not diagnosed with cerebral palsy imitate the angular holding patterns and juddering shifts from intense muscular flexion to extension, it’s usually to demean those who are diagnosed. Yet rather than mocking you, your dancers demonstrate dedication to your vocabulary; the two men, who would pass as white, are joined in this later by Shimokowa and a white female dancer. However, there’s another problem. Activists criticize casting the non-disabled in disability roles as robbing disabled performers of employment opportunities over which they command experiential authority. Disagreement about Oscar winning performances are a case in point, such as Daniel Day Lewis’s rendition of Christy Brown, the Irish painter and writer with cerebral palsy, in the bio-pic My Left Foot. Are you denying dancers with cerebral palsy some of the few available roles in contemporary dance? But it’s precisely because your cast doesn’t share your diagnosis that I’m looking at the movement as dance. You’ve asserted the aesthetic value of your everyday kinetic patterns and broken with a prevailing assumption in contemporary dance that seamless able-bodied motion is a necessary foundation for choreography.

Despite the cultural gains made by having dancers without cerebral palsy embody movement language that we associate with the diagnosis, I still see a problem. By embodying your movement signature alongside perambulation and other quotidian movement that generally connotes physical normality, your dancers not only establish the aesthetic value of how you move, but also claim skill and dexterity that eludes you. The way that you’ve made your vocabulary attractive to me has moved me beyond fetishizing your intellectual prowess. But I fear my desire is for the artistic innovation that the inclusion of disability promises, the kinetic difference that I earlier suggested contemporary dance covets. The problem is that with this creative development, non-disabled bodies reassert themselves as normal, being bodies that can “do” disability when they choose, or not do disability, while the existential challenges of disability disappear into excitement about the next wave of artistic innovation. Without the explicit political critique of compulsory ableism, doesn’t disability become a kind of sublime difference, elegance powerfully reinvented, even to the point of it being inelegant and therefore all the more interesting? Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited by this artistic maneuver. But if we consume cerebral palsy for its groundbreaking artistic potential, we risk overlooking the day-to-day challenges built into a physical environment and culture that presumes a normative sensory, motile, cognitive, and emotional body.

I think this is why your sexual provocation is so important. As either a metaphor for, or a practice of, social engagement, erotic entanglement has a greater potential for mutual vulnerability than middle-class protocols that are bound up in politesse. That’s why I’ve decided to proposition you in order to talk about your work. My vulnerability is also on the table, because the question is are you attracted to me? Having sat and talked with me, you know I’m not obviously marked as disabled, so fetishization of my intellectual prowess isn’t the problem. But you’ve also tasted how I circulate in an erotic economy of attraction and repulsion. I transgress gender in ways that makes me conspicuously queer. Queeny as I am, it’s easy to value me for my humor rather than my intellect, even when I’ve said nothing funny. Bodies like mine tend to be hyper-sexualized, but struggle to be taken seriously in their sexual desire. Some straight non-transsexual women enjoy how my flaming nature signifies a lack of sexual threat for them, while gay guys are often repulsed by what they see as a lack of power in my sissyness (the prime target for schoolyard homophobic violence), even while they delight in what they see as my heroic visibility. Straight men, at least the non-transsexual variety, or let’s say cissexual, especially those raised as the kind of masculine that we inherit from European colonialism, see my gender as a threat by association. Don’t stand too close, or you might seem gay, and thus they prefer highly sanitary encounters, making me want to ooze my nelliness all over them, perhaps like you do your cripness, claiming sexualized space where it is simultaneously enforced and denied.

This explication of how my body, like yours, is marked as other than normal in a sexual economy of attraction and repulsion has a purpose. I’m launching a textual strategy to build upon your intervention in contemporary dance’s chasteness when you invite your audience to look at you as sexual fair game. Much like the anonymity of darkened theater seating, the pretension to academic detachment would normally hold the well-behaved relationship between audience and artist, non-disabled and disabled, viewer and viewed, in place. So I’m sullying this intellectual contemplation by marking myself, while perhaps also aiming to ameliorate my anxiety about how people will react to hearing me describe your movement and speech patterns. I’m breaking the middle-class code of promising not to stare and exposing my own socio-sexual vulnerability as rhetorical protection.

In postmodern dance historical terms, both of us are anything but pedestrian.

I’m thus fantasizing about the discordant sexual music we might make together: my pronounced assibilation of f’s and s’s (snakey s’s as they’ve been called) tinkling through your atonal enunciation. My frivolous hands and arms, coy tilts of my head, brazen puffed out chest, and scattergun laughter dancing in maniacal bliss with the rapid jerking joints, obtuse angles, and gamboling emphasis of your quotidian movement.

Will you enter into this erotic exchange with me? Don’t get me wrong—I’m not fishing for compliments. While I know that your soundtrack for My body, your pleasure moves from Jamaican dance hall to queer rap—from homophobia to homo-hop—I also noticed that you chose to have the female dancing bodies show more flesh on your stage than the boys, so there’s no guarantee that you would find my male embodiment enticing. I might not be your type. But I’m looking for the same kind of honesty that you demand of your audience, be that repulsion or attraction. Like you assert in your work, I’m curious about practices of intimacy as means of resistance, and in this sense, I’m calling your bluff. How about doing some resisting with me?

 

With kisses like mead wine,

Doran

Footnotes

  1. A video recording of My body, your pleasure is available at https://vimeo.com/09161478. For further information, see http://michaelturinsky.org/9-english/20-my-body,-your-pleasure-english.