Philippine pole-dancer performance artist Eisa Jocson. By Kate Holden.

Dancer and choreographer Eisa Jocson

Again and again on a sunny beach in Ostend, Belgium, a day of air and horizonless sea, a slender satin-brown woman ascends. She climbs the pole as if she steps on air, and she hangs there from it, a leaf from a twig, a stream of silken hair from a head, and she steps higher until she reaches the top. She is a bow curve, elation. A twist and she steps higher. Her black mane flows in the breeze, her long legs clamp the narrow pole, she arches away in ecstasy. You cannot see the sand blowing in her eyes or the strain in her thighs: she is only ease. But the pole ends. The only way the woman can continue her destiny to ascend is if she first slides to the ground to begin again.

As a metaphor for art, the filmed performance work Up is as elegant as itself. Eisa Jocson, Philippine pole-dance performance artist, former ballet dancer and student of visual arts, is an elegant woman. When she made that work in 2012, her project of investigating “the labour and representations of the dancing body in the service industry” was beginning, and critics were discomfited. Why was she dressed in leather pants? The bare brown midriff: why so sexualised? Ironic sex-club kitsch, yes; but is it art?

“All the instigations of personal experience come from certain tensions or discrepancies or conflicts in the social norm, so I guess one encounters, personally, and one questions. It’s a whole network of social, economic, cultural, historical reasons why things are the way things are. So…” She breaks off, because this is abstruse and true but getting wordy and I am nodding too solemnly. She laughs. “It’s a bit… vague concepts, huh?” It’s evident that she has written all the exquisitely serious commentary on her portfolio herself. She arrived in Melbourne from Manila the previous night; I sense she is tired and trying hard, the way I do, to sound as smart as she is. I ask about the filmed work of her online portfolio. “Filmed work,” she says, momentarily bemused. “I actually have filmed work, do I?”

When I mention sensibly that she has a beautiful body, she is modest, surprised. No make-up on her flattish young face, and her rippling inky mane is tied back in a simple ponytail. A slim purple top, a colourful scarf, black jeans. Jocson speaks with forceful erudition. She uses terms such as “marginal spectrum”, “body capital economy”, “gendered movement category”. After a pause to choose the perfect term, she always lands a sentence, like an acrobat. She will inspect the stage of Melbourne’s State Theatre shortly and, pensive, she will quietly contemplate the space as others chat, and she will move away, unapologetically absorbed, to the back of the stage to imagine her own form balancing here on a catwalk podium yet to be built, where at this moment there is only air above an invisible audience.

Jocson has come down to Earth in order to ascend new projects, and her recent work, to be shown in the Asia TOPA program, is all about weight. She chooses a few adjectives: “grounded”, “animalistic”. Macho Dancer is all flexion, contraction, clench and claim, swinging low to the ground. She loves its twists of implication, tight as the coils she makes with her body: in Manila, this dance is done only by men who are perceived to be diminished by performing in clubs, who pose hard to power ballads and aggressively police the form of the dance, whose sullen masculinity is seized now and embodied by a lithe, intelligent woman who exposes her body to the gaze, and so maintains, as the copy says, the status of an objectified woman as “the performance thus generates a ‘gender loop’ in which the performer and audience are entangled”. Her various works quiz gender, postcolonialism, transcultural embodiment, alterity, movement discourse, and beauty.

Jocson is transformed by her macho dance. With heavy-boned, thickened limbs, she crunches biceps braided by veins and tilts a meaty shoulder, sleeks her hair and slowly spreads bare thighs with menace, twists and rises as if to a taunt. When she strides closer, chewing gum, it is with the threat of cock, her long hair a gangster’s vanity. “How you like my cut?” demands musician Peaches in a video featuring Jocson’s poses: “cut” might be “slit” here, the air is so sweaty and sexual, but there may be a knife in the pocket, too. When Jocson gives a final contemptuous glance to the camera, her face – how has it broadened, coarsened, become a different beautiful? – has the implacable insolence of a young man with a solid body, a lidded primate stare, proud thickness between his legs. It is electrifying.

The complete opposite of pole dancing or ballet. “In ballet,” Jocson says, “it’s the illusion of weightlessness and grace and lightness and flying – a kind of anti-gravity performance – while macho dancing is the illusion of weight, volume, tonicity, formidability… It was an interesting way for me to encounter gender.” I tell her it scared me and aroused me. I watched it several times and showed it to friends. “There’s a stubbornness on my part to make these things visible: to be confronting. Most of the time it’s invisible…” She hesitates, thoughtful. “The guilt of objectifying a woman is heavier than the guilt in objectifying a man. I try to be open. I don’t know. I guess there’s a constant reminder of humbleness: that you have to treat every performance as a precious moment that you’re given.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2017 as "Macho libre".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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