Force Majeure dancers in full flight
It’s a crisp summer evening in Sydney, and Kate Champion – one of Australia’s most distinguished figures in the world of dance – is madly twerking away to Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” alongside performers double – sometimes triple – her size. Rehearsing in Eveleigh’s cavernous Carriageworks arts space, everyone smashes and sways their butts to the beat and encourages me to join in. I politely decline – no good can come of it. As one of the dancers tells me later, “You can’t twerk without an arse.”
Champion has been running these fortnightly dance workshops to help develop her final show as artistic director of Force Majeure, a company widely acknowledged to be groundbreaking in Australian dance. Co-commissioned by the Sydney Festival and Carriageworks, the show is called Nothing to Lose. Its premise is as simple as it is potentially dangerous: a contemporary dance work featuring a cast made up entirely of self-identified “fat” people.
With her classical dancer’s body, high cheekbones and calligraphic frame, Champion – who appears to have emerged from the same gene pool as Cate Blanchett – is the odd one out here, and often finds she’s the worst dancer in these classes. When she first saw video footage of her dancing alongside her XL compadres, she was appalled. “It was quite shocking to find my body didn’t look right doing it,” she says, laughing. “I looked quite pathetic. They’re doing this stuff, and I’m there with not much to throw around. It just looked a bit… wimpy.”
Tonight, a guest teacher instructs Champion and her core group of dancers – six women and one man. In previous weeks, other instructors have taught the group niche styles such as vogueing and BodyWeather, but tonight is all about twerking, and therefore, the focus is the butt. Wearing big hoop earrings, a mesh top and bunned-up hair, the guest instructor calls out the moves over the music.
“Shake it out!” she says. “Shoulders back! Like a come-on!”
Working in an inward-facing circle, the dancers give out their best hip-hop swagger, pairing rapidly rolled back shoulders with pouting lips as if to say, Come at me, bro. Hips become hinges, swinging like rapid pendulums of flesh. Still, the instructor isn’t satisfied. “I haven’t seen enough booty yet!”
If Nothing to Lose sounds potentially exploitative or even farcical, don’t worry: Kate Champion’s had these concerns too. It’s why she partnered with local artist, performer and fat activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater as a creative collaborator for the show. Drinkwater, an impressively big woman who has a penchant for 1960s secretary glasses, is as fond of making puns about the show’s title as Champion is.
“Some people have been calling it ‘Nothing Too Loose’,” Champion says, chuckling.
Drinkwater laughs and says she has already devised a marketing tagline for the show: “Nothing to Lose: Giving new meaning to ‘large-scale works’.”
Champion first started considering the possibility of a major dance performance featuring big-bodied people in 2011. Whenever she’d find herself out at clubs, she often noticed the bigger person on the floor was the superior mover. “Personally, I’ve always been interested in really good movers,” she says. “Not so much in technique.”
Throughout her career, Champion has always been fascinated by how non-normative bodies move on stage. In Force Majeure’s 2008 production The Age I’m In, she cast one dancer who was in his late 70s, and another who had cerebral palsy. “I love seeing what time or age does to a body,” she says. “Or disability. Or strength.” It was inevitable that weight would eventually get her attention too. It seemed fundamentally strange to Champion that fat people were relatively uncommon on dance stages.
“It’s still a bit rigid, the body type we tend to have in dance – even in contemporary dance,” she says. “I know dance needs a certain level of athleticism and shape – there are a lot of lifts and things – but still.” Then Champion thought, what if you had a whole cast of fat dancers? What could you do with those shapes? And how would they move differently?
Because of Champion’s own size and shape, she decided she needed a creative partner who had a lived experience in a fat body. After some online research, she came across Drinkwater, whose professional home page features a photo of her posing as a fat, Caucasian version of Grace Jones, looking both strong and gleefully hilarious at the same time. Intrigued, Champion attended the premiere of Drinkwater’s film Aquaporko! at the Mardi Gras Film Festival, which documented Drinkwater’s troupe of “fat femmes” teaching themselves how to become synchronised swimmers. Impressed, Champion asked Drinkwater out for coffee.
Although Drinkwater was familiar with Force Majeure and Champion’s reputation, she was wary at first. “When Kate first came and met me, I was thinking, ‘Hello, tiny-skinny-blonde-white dancer lady,’ ” Drinkwater says. “You wonder whether there’s going to be exploitation or voyeurism.”
However, Champion quickly won her over. “She knew – as a woman, a dancer, an artist – that she needed to find someone who understood our lived experience and movement capacities,” Drinkwater says. And in a happy coincidence, Drinkwater had secretly already decided she wanted her next project – after Aquaporko! – to focus on big people dancing.
“We both just had this cultural…”
Drinkwater pauses, searching for the word.
“Zeitgeist?” I offer.
Drinkwater laughs. “Yes! It was the Fat Dancing zeitgeist!”
Sending a public callout for “fat” dancers to audition for a public stage is a delicate exercise. What adjectives do you use when describing the body shape you want? Drinkwater might embrace the word “fat” (to her, it’s just a term that describes her body, like “tall” or “brown hair”), but she acknowledges others take offence. “Bigger” seems vague (bigger than what, exactly?), “curvy” seems patronising and “people of size” can seem overly PC. After several redrafts, Champion and Drinkwater settled on a broad swatch of words – “large”, “big-bodied”, “fat” – figuring a range would appeal to different people.
However, the fundamental prerequisite to audition for Nothing to Lose was that participants had to self-identify with these descriptions. There were no medical examinations or body mass index counts to determine whether someone qualified as “fat” or not.
“Oh, fuck no!” Drinkwater says, horrified. “Absolutely not. One of the core ideas around my body politics is there’s no wrong way to have a body. And these statistical measures of size and weight are kind of bogus, driven on an industry that profits on self-loathing and the reduction of bigger bodies.”
In the end, Champion and Drinkwater auditioned well over 50 people. Candidates sent in video submissions to begin with. Because there were no weight specifications for who could apply, Champion was surprised – and sometimes disturbed – by the range of people who identified as “fat”. She hesitates when I ask her to give examples. “Well…” she says. “Two women who are smaller than me sent in tapes.” She shakes her head. “That was shocking; it really was.”
Another thing that caught Champion and Drinkwater off-guard was how few men auditioned.
In the final core team, there are only two men, but hardly any even sent in tapes. In Sydney, of all cities, you’d think male nightclub enthusiasts would be smashing through Force Majeure’s doors. Does Champion have any theories as to why they didn’t?
“There’s more pressure on women about body shape,” she says. “So more women have to question whether they’re ‘fat’ or not. Whereas I think a lot of men can be bigger and it’s not something they have to identify with as much.”
Wouldn’t it be different in the gay community, though, which is so hyper-aware of size and shape that body type is categorised by nickname? Drinkwater reckons that’s the reason big gay men don’t identify as “fat” either.
“You’d think we’d have a million bears, right?” she says. “But no! Bears would never call themselves ‘fat’. They’re ‘bears’. They have this whole community that sexualises them and there’s pride about it: ‘The bigger the bear, the better the bear.’ You’ve got your polar bears, cubs and otters – this whole subculture that’s completely outside of this fat–obesity rhetoric.”
When the auditionees were finally whittled down to the core team, Champion started working with them the way she works with all non-professional performers. Instead of prescribing moves and asking the dancers to follow them strictly, she instead gave them what she calls “tasks”, “triggers” and “provocations”. Together, they started having deep group discussions to develop narratives that Champion then transformed into choreographed movement.
One of the first questions they were asked as a group was, What does the word “fat” mean to you? While many of the dancers were comfortable with the word and even embraced it, others said, “I don’t mind if I’m called fat, but I don’t feel comfortable saying it about someone else.”
Another exercise Champion got the dancers to do was to write down things they’ve been called during their lives. “I thought, after five minutes, they’d have about 10 names,” she says. “But they just kept writing page after page after page.” She points out not all of them were derogatory names. “But most of them were.”
As much as the show is designed to be an affirmation of size, it’s inevitable some viewers will question the politics of Nothing to Lose. Right now, Australia is a country on a par with the US for per capita obesity levels. Are Champion and Drinkwater glamorising or celebrating what is, in fact, a serious public health problem?
“I wasn’t interested in making a political statement, health message, or making a freak show,” Champion says. “But, as we’ve discovered, just putting a fat body on stage is a political statement.” She adds that while she’s aware of the data and debates surrounding obesity levels in Australia, those discussions are separate to what Nothing to Lose is about. “I know a lot of the stats and accusations around obesity,” she says. “But for me as an artist, my way into this is through the personal. So that’s what I’m looking for: personal stories, connected to them.”
It’s also Champion’s intention to make something genuinely moving. One scene in Nothing to Lose was devised from a discussion about how impossible it can feel to buy garments in clothing stores. To represent this, a dancer ties masses of red Lycra around her flesh, to form something akin to sculpture. “It’s weirdly beautiful,” Champion says proudly. “And no other body could do that.”
Strength is another key component of the work. After all, Drinkwater says, “There’s an unexpected strength from having to carry around this bulk every day. We have this strength in our bodies that quite often people wouldn’t expect us to have. I resistance train every day, if you want to look at it like that, but people don’t necessarily equate the two.”
Still, there is another fundamental conundrum in putting on a show such as Nothing to Lose. It seems a performance like this sets out to do two things: shock an audience with the presence of big bodies on stage; and normalise big bodies by showcasing them on stage. But one cancels out the other; surely Nothing to Lose can’t do both. And if there are funny moments in the show – and Champion says she’s never laughed so hard during rehearsals – doesn’t that play into the horrible cliché of an audience paying money to laugh at fat people?
“I don’t like prescribing,” Champion says. “The audience is not one person.”
“But surely you have an intent, though?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “I want to provoke – if anything – more questions. Like: ‘Why is this unusual?’ ‘What are we seeing?’ ‘What did we think about it?’ ‘Why haven’t I seen this before?’ I want the debate, the questioning.”
Drinkwater adds, “I don’t think you can do this kind of thing without a healthy dose of ‘fuck you’. That attitude informs all of my work. And a lot of the work we’re exploring is very ‘fuck you’. We want this to be celebration of this kind of body, and otherness and diversity in bodies, and diversity in character. It’s definitely not a safe show.”
Safety, both women agree, makes for pretty dull art.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 20, 2014 as "Full flight". Subscribe here.