Roderick George's "F.E.M. Queen"

30 October 2017 Published in News and Announcements

School of Dance Assistant Professor Kate Mattingly discusses Roderick George’s latest piece F.E.M.Queen, which will premier November 2nd in the Fall Utah Ballet Concert:

When someone says the word “ballet,” most people don’t think of a pack of wolves, a game of chess, or a radical view of what it means to be spiritual. Yet all three elements are vital parts of the new creation by Roderick George. His piece, called F.E.M. Queen, will be performed this weekend by six students in the ballet program at the University of Utah. George’s choreography is informed by ballet technique but does not subscribe to gender roles that traditional ballets portray. It’s about reclaiming feminine power and possibilities.

Born in Houston, Texas, George studied at the Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy. This was a defining moment in American ballet: Lauren Anderson, one of the first African American ballerinas promoted to the highest rank in a major company, was dancing while George was a student at the school. George would go on to receive awards for his performances, including a prize from the Youth American Grand Prix competition in New York City and a designation as Presidential Scholar of the Arts. His professional credits include dancing as a member of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Theater Basel. He was a guest artist with the GöteborgsOperans Danskompani, and, most recently, a member of The Forsythe Company.

When I watched a rehearsal of F.E.M. Queen in October I noticed elements of William Forsythe’s methods, but brilliantly reconfigured and distinctly applied. There’s an investigative quality in the students’ dancing: they move as if they are marking territory with their bodies and their confidence. They are both sultry and in total command. George’s choreography disrupts a tendency for women to be showcased as objects of desire and instead presents these women as powerful and multifaceted dancers. There is a palpable sense of camaraderie that emerges through their unison phrases, but with this feeling of solidarity there’s also a sense of individuality, evident in the way they approach the movement with their own nuances and subtleties.

George says he was inspired by the behaviors of female wolves that are willing to put themselves into dangerous positions to protect their kin. This sense of command and fearlessness is also visible in the role of the Queen on a chessboard: she dominates with her hypermobility. Gestures that symbolize a crown cleverly appear in George’s creation.

One of the dancers, Savanna Hunter, says, “All of us in this piece have classical backgrounds. There was a good deal of discussion about how ballet dancers are expected to look and behave, and how we all break those stereotypes in some way. We’re also breaking stereotypes by attacking the movement and using all of the strength developed in technique class to be as powerful as possible onstage.”

I was intrigued by the title’s “F.E.M.” which sounds like “femme” and conjures images of people who subvert traditional or normative roles. To me, the word “femme” is about avoiding gender binaries and challenging the conflation of gender with sexuality. When I asked George what inspires him to create performances, he spoke about the importance of spirituality. Then he added that his creations are not about a specific religion, but rather the possibility that our thoughts and actions can make the world a better place. As the women in F.E.M. Queen take ownership of their sexuality, they are resisting a notion that powerful men can grab them or violate their bodies. Their actions evoke the words of a congresswoman who recently said, “Reclaiming my time,” when a politician tried to deflect her questions.

Another aspect of George’s choreography that captivates me is his ability to bring me kinesthetically into an experience that combines sound with motion and affect. Rather than separate performers from audience or display his movement for a watcher’s consumption, George creates a multidimensional and enveloping atmosphere.

This inclusive environment distinguishes George’s performances from aesthetics of “whiteness.” The film scholar Richard Dyer notices that these aesthetics dominate our dance, film, and art canons: Dyer writes that whiteness emphasizes “heterosexuality,” “cleanliness,” and “godliness.” All of these descriptors emphasize separation: separation of genders, separation of clean from unclean or “primitive,” separation of divine from human, and ultimately separation of embodiment from knowledge.

So many of our noncanonical dance forms emphasize ritual, connection, spirituality, and interconnectedness, including Indigenous rituals, social dancing like swing and b-boying, and martial arts disguised as dance like Capoeira. When George describes his work as emphasizing a world that’s co-created––visually, acoustically, and kinesthetically––to make a bubble or sphere for dancers, I notice that all these noncanonical forms emphasize a circle or cipher. George’s use of the word spirituality signals the ability for dance to transcend barriers between divine and human, and to challenge barriers between people marked by identity or class.

If I believe that artists and performances have important contributions to make to changing how we see our communities and our world (and I do), then this is a time when it’s more important than ever to make work that allows for both our different points of view and our interconnectedness, our ability to think and feel differently, and our ability to co-exist.

Don't miss F.E.M. Queen's premiere on stage at Utah Ballet, along with original works from School of dance faculty and a special performance of Bournonville's classic Konservatoriet staged by Jeff Rogers.