Question I make: How does movement influence spaces that resist heteronormative values?

April 20, 2017

Question I make: How does movement influence spaces that resist heteronormative values?


According to Cynthia Novak, "the body and movement are social realities interacting with and interpreting other aspects of the culture" (1988, pp.103).

From the beginning of our lives, we immerse ourselves in social interaction taking into account sensory and aesthetics impressions. One absorbs movement kinesthetically and visually, in contrast to language which mostly works aurally. In many cases, movement is also less specific than language and therefore, more inclusive (Novak, 1998). Yet we cannot say that movement is universal because its meaning depends on the spatial context we are in and hence, this will shape thinking patterns, perception, and so our beliefs and ideals. In this essay I will explore how movement can influence spaces that resist heteronormative values.

Firstly, let's begin by clarifying that heteronormativity is the normalisation of heterosexual relationships, that can also end up being based on social classes and race, within a society. Heteronormative is a global view on heterosexuality as the most socially accepted sexual orientation within a culture (Stevenson, 2010).

In the Western culture, people grow up learning how to be a woman or a man, how to behave like the norms suggest and are pressured to do so. Practical examples of these ideas can include incentives from law making to media advertisements so it normalises ideologies. Therefore, behaviour extends to gender roles; I am sure you came across some advertisements on cleaning products where women are the target group and main character in the frame.

Similarly, we also see mostly men driving cars, doing constructing works and fixing and repairing, as they are always the heroes of mainstream stories.

Behaviour endorsements can then translate into the identification and categorisation of postural movements: we we are as we move and vice versa.

Binary notions of gender are then enforced by what is known as the patriarchal system which tell us that "things are the way they are because they have to be, that they have always been that way, that there are no alternatives and that they will never change" (Crunk Feminist Collection, 2010). It holds up the traditional, dualistic and gendered thinking of roles (e.g. women supporting, men leading) and therefore, there is a male domination in many aspects including visibility in a community. We can also witness the perpetuation of other types of oppression such as racism or homophobia. Nonetheless, it is relevant to point out that most of the times, patriarchy is "(...) not an explicit ongoing effort by means to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously" (Zale, Cooper, 2011). This might translate into the fact that people of different gender identities can actually perpetuate patriarchy, even if not unintentionally.

The fact that mere exists a 'preferred' sexual orientation in a society it means that whoever does not fit within these standards, such as the queer community, are then excluded from equal rights and freedom of expression.  

On the other hand, the queer community has come a long way in the Western world. In terms of law making and equal rights, for instance, new policies such as same sex marriages in some countries, same sex parenting and adoption have been implemented.

However, there is still a long way to go in order to achieve equality. As capitalistic minds and patriarchy run most of the globe, where economic wealth is at the centre of their dogmas, and this is imposed above anything else, it is almost impossible to find equality until these systems are extinct.

From my point of view, individual power is possibly the strongest long-term strategy that one can adopt as a counter-response and tackle inequality related issues. By this I mean that living by example, for instance, being who you truly are, through your work and and your decisions, your way of living is what can actually change the world.

And I consider Julie Cunningham someone who is doing the aforementioned. Julie Cunningham is a choreographer and a dancer who was born in Liverpool, England. The dance artist trained at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance in England and who went on to be part of Merce Cunningham's Company in New York. In 2014, J. Cunningham was awarded Outstanding Modern Performance at the Critics Circle National Dance Awards for her work with the Michael Clark Company in London.

Her latest work entitled Double Bill was presented in March 2017 at the Pit Theatre, Barbican Centre in London, in a cast of four dancers including herself. And as the title indicates, the choreographer presents two different works: Returning and To Be Me where both "explore the dissolution of binary notions of gender" (Jennings, L., 2017).

The first part, starts with Bjork's Atom Dance track, where "I am dancing towards transformation" it is part of lyrics. In one of the parts of the show, the audience listens to Anohni's spoken word track Future Feminism. Anohni (from the previous band, Anthony and the Johnsons) is a singer, composer and also visual artist as well as the first transgender performer to be nominated for an Academy Award.

On the other half, the artist uses The Man Tiresias, a spoken word poem by Kate Tempest as the background sound. In this poem, Tempest approaches the greek myth about Tiresias.

According to Jennifer March's book "Dictionary of Classical Myths", Tiresias was a man who was transformed into a woman for seven years and turned blind.

However, two stories are told as the causes for Tiresias' curses. The first says that he went blind when he came across the goddess Athena bathing naked with his mother, and at once the goddess struck him blind and offered him gifts in reparation. In the second version (despite its varying details) Tiresias saw two snakes coupling, struck out them and was turned into a woman. Seven years later whilst encountering the same snakes, he struck out them again and turned back into a man.

The experience of being in two different bodies offered him a particular insight into the natures of the male and female form, so when Zeus (King of Gods, weather-god) and Hera (Zeus' sister and wife and also goddess of marriage and childbirth) were arguing about which of the sexes would find more pleasure in the sex act, they asked Tiresias for the answer. He replied that a woman's delight was way higher than that of a man's, and this won Zeus argument. Hera was furious and turned Tiresias blind, while Zeus awarded him with longevity and prophecy (March, J., pp. 457).

These versions of Tiresias' story can indeed offer various perspectives on how women were portrayed: either sexually objectified (when he encounters Athena) underrated or mean.

As Lillian E. Doherty mentions in her book "Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth", we can not really separate the connection between gendered meanings and practices in our world, as she calls this a gender system (pp. 23). Once the gods of classical myths were humans, they were conditioned by the human existence and sometimes escaping the boundaries by possessing miraculous gifts, their stories represent the cultures that created them by disparity as well as by a blunt reflection.

Not trying to deny her past,  J. Cunningham's movement approach embodies a clear blend between Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark's choreographic signature. In her own words "I'm definitely influenced by my past (...) but I'm also trying to ask myself 'What else? What do I want to see?" (2017). One can witness ballet-trained dancers very precisely hopping, sharply articulating their hips and spine, their high-framing arms floating through the space and fully extended bodies crossing the floor.

J. Cunningham is appropriating classicism with a twist, not only by raising such relevant political matters nowadays but also through the way she choreographs, organises space and creates relationships between the dancers on stage in an unpredictable way.

By expressing her ideas, the emerging choreographer is offering the audience chances for interpretation and reflection. The artist is other source to a different perspective on this subject. As audience members who witness this work, we can then be encouraged to think through, not to mention again the richness and various influential music artists one comes across when watching this dance. Julie Cunningham is creating a space that resists heteronormative values, by questioning them and exploring the boundaries of gender fluidity.  






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Barbican Centre (2017) Barbican Meets: Julie Cunningham & Company [Youtube] Available at: (Accessed on 20/03/17)


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Crunk Feminist Collection (2010) Dear Patriarchy. Available at: (Accessed: 31/03/17)


Doherty, Lillian E. (2001) Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth. London, UK: Gerald Duckworth & Co. LTd.


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Jennings, L. (12th March 2017) Julie Cunningham & Company review - words get in the way. The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 14/03/17)


Jennings, L. (5th March 2017) Julie Cunningham: ‘The traditional duet always has the woman reliant on the man. I’m sick of it’. The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 14/03/17)


Jonze, T. (26th February 2016) Oscars 2016: Anohni boycotts 'degrading' ceremony. The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 29/03/17)


Kate Tempest (2014) The Man Tiresias. Available at: (Accessed: 29/03/17)


March, Jennifer R. (2014) Dictionary of Classical Mythology (3rd Edition) Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books.


Serres, D. (No date) Why Patriarchy Persists (and How We Can Change It). Available at: (Accessed: 29/03/17)


The Encyclopedia Britannica, Kuiper, K., (1998) The Encyclopedia Britannica - Tiresias, Greek Mythology. Available at: (Accessed: 29/03/17).


Zale, C. (22th June 2011) Defining, Perpetuating & Challenging Patriarchy.

Available at: (Accessed: 31/03/17)



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