Return of the hidden woman

Martha Graham’s much-quoted reflection on death and dancing had no gender attached to it. The loss of self that accompanies any dancer bidding adieu to the stage may not bear the finality of a coffin, but it is most assuredly a dying of the light for all concerned. And in this sense, dance is a more egalitarian artform than some. Every female star of the screen who has dared to seek work past 40 bemoans the lack of decent roles, while their male counterparts continue to remain poster boys. So too in the world of popular music, where an ageing male rocker faces little if any of the castigation thrown at women seeking to strut their stuff over 50.

Dance, however, is a whole other proposition. The ability to act and, to a certain extent, sing is afforded the human body for many, many years. Whereas any professional dancer over the age of 35 – male or female – is strongly advised to lay out the paving stones of a new career path. Over 40, and questions about agility, flexibility, muscle strength and speed all start coming into play. Which, of course, prompts a whole other debate on exactly what constitutes dance. Does it need to be fast, muscle-powered and high-legged to be worthy of the term? Of course not, but that’s for another essay.

Meanwhile in the everyday world, where those mean-spirited twins, misogyny and sexism run the show, women over 50 in most walks of life suddenly find their volume has been turned down and they’ve disappeared from view. So when a Venn diagram brings those two factions together to create that most elusive of creatures, the middle-aged female dancer, it’s an opportunity to show the world what it’s been missing on both fronts. This year’s Spring Forward festival bestowed two such gifts on us, in amongst all the wonderful young talent. Floating buoyantly in a sea of 20 and 30-something dancers, we found Lauren Potter and Lovísa Ósk Gunnarsdóttir taking centre stage in two very different shows.

A former dancer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre and founder member of Siobhan Davies Dance, Potter in a performer of impeccable pedigree. And, without question, remains a dancer whose movement draws – and retains – the eye. But her solo show, Because I Can, created by choreographer Eva Recacha and sound artist Alberto Ruiz, left me cold, frustrated and at times, bored. Supposedly a celebration of ageing, the piece was peppered with text that felt insular and self-absorbed. The ‘I’ in the title says it all – who knows how wonderful a piece entitled ‘Because We Can’ might have been.

By sharp contrast, Gunnarsdóttir’s When the Bleeding Stops was a gift that kept on giving, until the stage was filled with presents. As the name suggests, the piece focusses on the menopause, touching on the lack of information, research and knowledge that accompanies this life-altering phase affecting half the world’s population. But although Gunnarsdóttir speaks at length about her own experience, so much of what she says is universal (to those who will, are currently or have been through it – and to those who may find themselves supporting them).

It’s the show’s denouement, however, that threatens to burst the theatre wide open with middle-aged joy. Having asked members of a menopause-related Facebook group to film themselves dancing, Gunnarsdóttir then shares these videos on the stage walls. One by one, the women state their name and age, then hit ‘play’ on a favourite tune and start to move. The pleasure on their faces as they let go and express themselves is a sight to behold – even more so when some of the women run onto the stage and continue dancing. The standing ovation this show received spoke volumes, not just about the performance but about life itself and the need for everyone regardless of age, gender and ability, to be visible and cherished.

Kelly Apter