The politics of smiling

On the stages of the 2019 edition of Spring Forward, dancers often appeared with radiant smiles. We could just raise an eyebrow, move on, forget about it and focus on the works’ political messages, instead of lingering on what might seem like an insignificant sign of emotion. If you take a closer look at it, however, it is – in most cases – a choreographed gesture, and it’s worth wondering what’s in a smile. What if smiling was also a political act?

As intimidating music played in the background, Enrico Ticconi and Ginevra Panzetti raised their arms in a fascist salute, confounding the audience with this forbidden gesture. In their piece Harleking, the tension is palpable yet they’re able to dilute our anxiety with a knowing smile. When you manipulate loaded gestures associated with propaganda, it’s better to be precise – and these two talented young Italian choreographers are. They use diabolical smiles to control the situation and allow a political question to emerge: what kind of ideological violence can a smile hide? Alessandro Sciarroni asks something similar in Augusto, a piece based on forced laughter. When a man repeatedly slaps a woman, their smiles and laughter reinforce the violence of that gesture. Watching them, most of us won’t smile, because there is something astounding about it. Like a commedia dell’arte mask hiding real-life feelings, smiles are meant to reassure us: everything is OK. Everything is going to be OK. A smile can be a plaster, a patch, or a tool of control.

Neither Flora Detraz nor the Collectif ÈS (Emilie Szikora, Sidonie Duret, Jeremy Martinez) hide a deep malaise when they’re smiling: instead, they are here to make us smile. And they do. On the one hand, Muyte Maker takes joy as its starting point. Four prankster-like creatures or mocking elves dive into medieval songs, their mouths wide open, a twinkle in their eyes, with generous gestures – their entire bodies smiling. On the other hand, with Jean-Yves, Patrick et Corinne, the Collectif ÈS offers a high-powered performance, which mimics 1980s aerobics workouts with an energy that is both communicative and joyful. They are happy; we are happy. This is happiness therapy, or maybe a dictature of happiness. If smiling makes us happier, is happiness a social injunction? Are we all forced to smile and condemned to be happy? In that case, smiling feels more like an order.

In her piece Seeking Unicorns, Chiara Bersani’s smile is of another kind – deeply soft, affectionate, comforting. The audience sat on the floor of the MAC VAL ( Val-de-Marne’s contemporary art museum) and she moved slowly towards us and looked us straight in the eyes, one by one. Time after time, she turned away her gaze with a dreamy smile. She didn’t judge us for looking at her short, physically weak and rare body and in turn we didn’t judge her. Like a gentle, dream-like unicorn, she brought us into her world, into her fiction. And we acted as allies. Smiling, here, was a gift that could help build an empathetic society. Don’t despise a smile: it may sometimes be a weapon, but it can also be a path to alliance, political as well as emotional.

Léa Poiré