All the World’s a Stadium: Katie McMillan on the performance of masculinity in A Dance Tribute to the Art of Football

I frigging love winning. It is quite plausible that I get this quality from my dad who, rather than taking it easy on his eight year-old daughter during nightly Cribbage games, would do the exact opposite; he would sing and dance a song that went something like, “I won, I won, I won, I won, I won/I beat the little pants off you, I won, I won, I won.” Since then, he has unsurprisingly raised three incredibly competitive adults.

I also credit my dad with my love of sports. I’m pretty sure he taught us how to throw a football before we could walk. He coached our basketball teams. He celebrated the wins and was always there to tell us what we could have done better. Although I’m an avid NBA fan and invest a significant amount of time and energy into willing the Lakers to lose, this is the first year I have played organized sports since high school. I joined a co-ed rec basketball team – likely one of the least competitive of all organized leagues across Toronto. And guess what? I still love winning.

Anyone who has experienced these sentiments will appreciate A Dance Tribute to the Art of Football, but I have a conflicted relationship with my love of sports; I am, after all, an artist focused on social justice, which is somewhat contradictory to my love of competition. Regardless, they are two significant parts of who I am, and though I rarely feel comfortable admitting my love of either one to the other community, the similarities between the world of live performance and professional sports are undeniable. Think Usain Bolt’s lightening stance. Think Lebron James throwing chalk in the air. The nicknames are essentially character names. The practices, rehearsals. The lights, the audience, the spectacle, the celebrity, the reverence of the human body – there are more likenesses than we may be ready to admit. The etiquette of the performing arts audience may seem contrary to the drunk, yelling, fighting fans, but in fact, this used to be the reality of live performance. It seems absurd to think of booing actors or even speaking during the performance, but this was commonplace for Elizabethan audiences. Can you imagine today’s audience hissing at Helena as she pursues Lysander? Or whistling at a hunky Macbeth? Probably not. But it happened.

The subject matter of Jo Strømgren Kompani’s production explores the similarities in the performance of art and sport, but it also addresses the performance of gender and sexuality in stadium culture, raising questions about who is included/excluded within this culture and how boundaries may be crossed. This is what I found to be the strength of the piece, and what made it relevant, humourous, and compelling. Although it’s called a “Dance Tribute”, the style of the work was theatrical and funny; I actually forgot I was watching dance throughout the majority of the performance. The characters played by the dancers were recognizable and distinct and the structure of the work seemed more like sketch comedy. Divided into a series of very funny vignettes, each scene seemed to comment on some aspect of football culture. These included practice (repetition of movements, routine, coach’s motivation), pick up games (cleverly drawn out on the theatre stage in chalk), violence (enacted through a fabulous series of tableaux illustrating various players being given red cards), hilarious player introductions, and many more.

katie post image2One of my favourite scenes focused on what I interpreted as the ‘now or never moment.’ Despite the collective feelings of the team, there is often a moment in the game when a player realizes they have an opportunity to make a difference. Maybe it’s a breakaway. Maybe it’s an open shot. Maybe it’s a free throw to send the game into overtime. If you make it, you’re a hero. If you miss… you can’t even begin to think about that. When I was a kid, the only time I ever prayed was on the free throw line (I suppose I was a fair-weather believer). This moment of the performance was the most familiar to me, and one of the most dramatic. Blinded by the stadium lights, the dancers moved in slow-motion, the noise of the crowd hollowed, the community of the team and the arena faded, and I could feel the solitary moment, the pressure, the ‘make it or break it’ in each of the dancers. If you have ever watched or performed improv, you know the feeling.

What I found most poignant about this work was not the familiarity of the chants, jeering, camaraderie, injury, or vanity; these things were to be expected. The moments that really had me thinking critically were those in which someone didn’t quite fit in. The power of professional sport culture is a beast. Kids want to be Michael Jordan. Hell, I want to be Michael Jordan. I use basketball as an example because it’s more in my wheelhouse but kids also want to be David Beckham, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, the list goes on. So what happens when you’re not? What happens when you don’t quite fit in?

Choreographer Jo Strømgren interrogates these “outsider” identities by bringing them in contact with the hyper-alpha-masculinity of sports culture. Strømgren plays with the notion of sexuality by asking, how gay is too gay? As of yet, not one athlete in the four biggest professional sport leagues in North America (NBA, MLB, NHL, NFL) has come out during their career. Is that because athletes are inherently heterosexual? Of course not. It’s because professional sport culture is still uncomfortable performing anything but macho-heterosexual masculinity. There was a fabulous moment in the show when two of the dancers were celebrating their victory, hugging each other… and then it happened. One guy went too far. How did we know? We just knew. Where do these codes come from? By spotlighting moments such as these, Strømgren seems to be playfully questioning the performance of heterosexuality.

This happens again when one of the ‘bros’ is revealed as a woman. And I have to say, they really got me. I knew the dancer was female from the start but she wore a hat to cover her hair and performed masculinity throughout. I remember at one point thinking: why wouldn’t they just make her look like a girl? Are they trying to say girls can’t like sports? Are they trying to alienate the entire female audience? I was starting to get pretty angry about it, until her ‘true’ gender was exposed during an extended jersey swap including shoes and shorts that leaves the players in their underwear. And then I got it. Strømgren was not alienating women. Strømgren was not saying “no girls allowed.”  Maria Henriette Nygård’s performance of masculinity was the only way she could participate in this culture. Just like the performance of heterosexuality, the performance of gender was a demand made by football culture, and this demand is what was being staged and interrogated.

I’ve watched many football games in a room full of guys. I’ve adopted postures and catch-phrases that help me to fit in at basketball games. I have performed macho just as every male athlete has performed macho. A Dance Tribute to the Art of Football exposes these performances by drawing connections between theatre and sport. When it comes down to it, we live in a competitive world and both the art and sport communities are embedded in it. Coincidentally, my basketball team is playing in the finals tonight, and regardless of my gender, sexuality, and my involvement in the arts, I really want to win.

Wish me luck.

 Katie McMillan is a director, writer, and appreciator who serves as the Theatre Criticism Correspondent for World Stage 2013. She also works for Abilities Arts Festival, promoting inclusivity in the arts and producing an array of work by professional artists with disabilities.  In her spare time, Katie writes short fiction and performs original comic songs for her cats (and anyone else who might be listening). @KatieMcChillin