The Filipino body and labour capital

Marlyne Sahakian: Interview (2014), Eisa Jocson, Dancer

Eisa Jocson, Host

Eisa Jocson, Host

Eisa Jocson, Host

In an unlikely underground bar on the outskirts of Geneva, as part of the 2014 Antigel Festival, contemporary Filipina dancer and artist Eisa Jocson delivered Macho Dancer, a solo performance based on her study of male macho dancers, a distinct breed of performers who haunt Manila’s gay bar scene. Trained as a visual artist and with a background in ballet, Jocson investigates representations of the body. I sat down with the artist to discuss her views on exposing gender biases, the politics of seduction and what constitutes Filipino identity.

In your solo Death of the Pole Dancer, first performed at Odin Teatret’s 2011 Transit Festival in Berlin, you portray a sensual female dancer, moving vertically up, down and around the pole, with almost mechanical precision. In Macho Dancer, however, you completely transform your body movements into those of a man. How did you learn to dance like this?

For Macho Dancer, I often visited a bar called Adonis close to my house. This club became my macho school where I asked macho dancers to become my mentors. In the beginning, when I invited them to teach me in my house, they would bring a back-up person with them. They did not really trust my request and indeed, it is strange for a young woman to ask for macho dancing lessons. I would also study YouTube videos and recordings of my macho lessons at home. I copied the movements and practised every day, recording myself on video and reviewing what needed to be improved.

Your rendition is incredibly accurate; the audience sees a young man dancing on stage with cowboy boots and shorts. How did you achieve that degree of control in your facial expressions and body movements?

I went to the gym! That made a huge difference in how I approached macho dancing. I became aware of my muscles and how to engage them in movement. I learned a whole new body language—posture, stance, walk, gestures, gaze, ways of gyration and undulation—all through the physical quality of my body and my muscles.

How did this develop into the Macho Dancer theme?

It was only when a foreigner friend pointed out that he had never seen this kind of macho dancing before in clubs outside of the Philippines that I started to take an interest in macho dancing. I became more and more fascinated by the physical quality and vocabulary of this type of performance and started researching how it all began.

Macho dancing is performed by young men for both male and female clients. It is an economically motivated language of seduction that employs notions of masculinity as body capital. The language is a display of the glorified and objectified male body as well as a performance of vulnerability and sensitivity. The music used in macho dancing is mostly power ballads, sung by artists such as Mariah Carey or Celine Dion, as well as rock like Metallica and Scorpions.

These love songs from the 80s and 90s are heard everywhere in Manila, when riding jeepneys or on the radio. What is this fascination with nostalgic music?

Yes, this music is pervasive in Metro Manila. I find that the movements of these dancers are really dictated by this type of music—they physicalise a kind of limbo state that is neither here nor there. Their bodies move through thick nostalgia, seemingly in slow motion and stretched over time.

At one point in your performance, the music and smoke machines turn off and we just see and hear your body physically pounding the stage as you throw yourself onto your knees and gyrate. It’s very different from pole dancing, isn’t it?

It’s quite the opposite. Pole dancing is vertically oriented and works with the illusion of lightness and grace, while macho dancing is horizontally oriented and works on the illusion of weight and volume. It’s more compact.

You have also created sketches of your Macho Dancer work, which were presented at your recent show at the Jorge B Vargas Museum in Metro Manila. Can you tell us more about these?

The sketches were made for the “Philippine Macho Academy” exhibition and are a first draft. They are straightforward and didactic, and help illustrate and break down the physical principles of macho dancing. The process of deconstructing the movement vocabulary by text and illustration helped me to clarify and define the physical principles in macho dancing that I experienced.

The Philippine Macho Academy is a fictive structure or institution that serves as a classroom where the principles of macho dancing are fleshed out and conveyed. The exhibition is a documentation of my research and an articulation of the vocabulary of macho dance movement. It comprises artifacts, texts, drawings, video, installation and performance. I offered introductory workshops every Friday of the exhibition at the museum. Approximately six to eight people showed up each time.

You have worked with other dancers in the past; any upcoming collaborations? What themes will you be working on next?

Currently, I’m researching the japayuki phenomenon in Japan, where exported Filipino entertainers perform in what are known as “salarymen clubs.” I’m thinking about naming this piece The Hostess and it would become part of a trilogy, after Death of the Pole Dancer and Macho Dancer. [The completed work is now titled Host; the trilogy is part of the Performance Space Liveworks program. Eds] All of my work converges around this theme of the Filipino body and its labour capital in both the local and global entertainment industry.

Alongside performances of her trilogy Death of the Pole Dancer + Macho Dancer + Host for Liveworks, Eisa Jocson will conduct a choreographic workshop and be interviewed as part of the In Conversation series.

Performance Space, Liveworks, Eisa Jocson, Death of the Pole Dancer + Macho Dancer, 4, 5 Nov, 9pm; Host 6, 7 Nov, 9pm; Carriageworks, Sydney

RealTime issue #129 Oct-Nov 2015 pg. 6

© Marlyne Sahakian; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 October 2015