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Home » Behind the Performance » Performative gender identity: Meredith Kalaman’s first full-length work, Femme Fatales

Performative gender identity: Meredith Kalaman’s first full-length work, Femme Fatales

Femme Fatales is a poetic trio for three women that blends narrative and contemporary dance to bring to light the impact of gender socialization. The work takes a thought provoking look at our history of gender defined roles and behaviours to illuminate the impact on us today. Blending pleasure and sorrow, this work dives into the heart of what makes us who we are. We asked Meredith a few questions about her first full-length work, Femme Fatales.

Femme Fatales is an exploration of gender and the impact of gender socialization. What was the initial inspiration behind this theme and for the piece in its entirety?

Meredith Kalaman: I pictured this piece as a trio of women, dressed as 1950’s women, and the exploration of themes around Macbeth. So the original coin phrase for the piece was: Wicked meets Macbeth in a contemporary dance-off. It was an elevator pitch for the idea. The more I thought about the piece and started working with Kate and Teghan (the original third dancer), we started to look at all of these qualities of women being overtaken by some force beyond their physicality. I started to realize that this brought up a lot of conversations for me around how I’ve been told I should behave and how I’ve been told I shouldn’t behave. I struggled with this conversation: Oh, I’m a girl, I have these female body parts. How am I supposed to behave and what’s expected of me, and what’s the consequence when I go outside of those expectations? So really, that was the beginning of Femme Fatales.

How did you initially approach developing this performance and how was the development process different from your other bodies of work?

MK: We made the piece so fast that in the initial piece we made 11 minutes of material in 8 hours of rehearsal. I had a very limited amount of time with Kate and Teghan so I walked in and I knew exactly what I wanted from them, choreographically. I had a lot of imagery that was coming to me in the middle of the night in my dreams, while watching movies, and on the bus. I spent a lot of time on my own formulating and then I’d go into rehearsal and really, we’d build it—I’d build it out of my head and onto their bodies.

Before this piece, and before Ruminate, I’ve actually always made solos. This is a big career shift for me, working in a company format with a group of dancers and with the same set of dancers over a period of time. I know how things feel in my experience and I’m constantly asking myself, how do I communicate that? I have so many images bombarding my dreams. My visions come to me at all sorts of funny times of the day when I least expect them. The task (and the joy) has been to communicate them and to watch them translate on these really phenomenally-talented artists. I suggest an idea and then I watch for it to unfold in the dancer’s body. I listen to my experience of it and then redirect it. This is how I work. It’s a lot of trust following the movement, first watching it intuitively, listening for it and watching it form as movement in the space and then redirecting it and trusting my dancers. That’s huge for me.

Can you tell us a bit about the creative process with Femme Fatales?

MK: If someone had told me it would be three years, I don’t know if I would have believed them. I made the 11 minute version of the piece and then we performed it. It was great but then I went off to continue performing my other duet. My mind was really between two works at the time. It wasn’t until a few months later where I went back to the material, I noticed that there was something really powerful between the three of us: I had found a strength in finding three women with really distinct physicalities, qualities, and interpretations. I found a way to pull out the similarities (those you may not notice are there initially) that really unify us. I started looking at this conversation for women and how we inherit and how we behave. I noticed that with women, we have a particular nastiness. We have a way of behaving towards each other that men don’t seem to have. Men tend to fight it out and they have, in some ways, a physical expression of upset and then it’s done. When it’s done, they’re good again. They don’t take each other out in the same way I’ve seen women do, in the same way I’ve experienced women do. I’ve also been a part of doing it. So, I got interested in the history of where do we inherit conversations of who we are.

For this piece, you engaged in archival research for inspiration and material, such as nursery rhymes and even remnants of the witch-hunt era. How was that experience and how did you translate those texts into your performance?

MK: When dramaturge Gabi Beier from Berlin joined the process, following my receiving the 2015 Chrystal Dance Prize, she requested I keep a workbook. Once a week for 2 months, I would email her a poem, picture, video, or article that related to the theme of the work. This activity created a clarity in the material and vision. We began to see the conversation for gender identity and roles show up everywhere. It made the piece come alive for us and rooted the work in relevance and importance on what the world was conversing about in relation to this topic. Doing this research together unified the message of Femme FatalesWe then further unpacked these message altogether in the studio. Historical and literary references were so much fun. We physicalized movement around these stories, phrases, sayings, and ideas. It was really cool to look at where they inherit in our body, asking: Where do we carry tension? Where do we carry suppression? Where do we carry expansion? Where do we carry joy? Part of our creative process was embodying these logical conversations and these wordings.

During your research for the piece, was there a particular story that stood out to you or changed the direction of how the piece was to be constructed?

 MK: In November of 2015, with the support of the Roundhouse Community Centre, I lead a series of gender discussions called “Envisioning a New We” and I asked the question: What was your first experience of gender? I remember one woman sharing with us that her first experience of gender was in preschool. She’d see the boys line-up and go into the school through a separate entrance and she thought ‘Well, why? Why do they go in that way and we go in this way? Why are we not together?’ And I just went ‘Wow, that’s so beautiful. That’s so it’. I’m curious about what’s the impact of that conversation and how men and women experience each other today. I’m telling this story as three women and I don’t envision it including men. So really, how does the feminine really address this universal conversation and what’s our responsibility in it?

You have performed Femme Fatales previously as a work-in-progress at the 2014 BC Buds Spring Art Fair, and then later showed a portion of it at the Dancing Edge in 2015. How has the piece, in your perspective, changed or evolved since those times?

MK: Things unfold in perfect timing and if I’d premiered the work a year ago, I think it would have been a lot heavier and a lot darker. What I’ve started to understand is that everybody has a body, whether they relate to it in the same way as dancers do or not, and that this work really has an opportunity to transform an experience for people to bring them more fully into themselves and to a self that sometimes we separate from because we don’t like the experience of our body or what it does or what society makes it mean. So yes, I would say through the different incarnations of this piece, I’m really present to the experience that I have the opportunity to leave the audience with and that it’s not so dark and dreary. It’s a beautiful thing to be a woman today. It’s a beautiful thing to be a man today. It’s a beautiful thing to be whatever gender you identify with today. Isn’t it beautiful that we get to create who we are?

How was the process of working with Kate Franklin and Felicia Lau? Did they help collaborate in the construction of the piece and, if so, how was that process?

MK: Kate has been in the piece since the inception, so that’s been a miracle—she’s been so committed to this work and so passionate about the content and really partnering with me in bringing it to life. I had an earlier dancer, Teagan, and what was really fascinating was Teagan was early 20s, I was early 30s, and then Kate is mid-30s, and it was really beautiful to have these three different perspectives. It was really neat to compare our experiences. I really relied on their personal stories—I know that the work would not be what it is if I hadn’t had such amazing dancers who were so willing to reveal their own vulnerabilities, their own struggles, their own triumphs, their own questions about who they are in this time of who their gender says they should be.

Felicia is a dancer I had worked with and a dancer I’d always admired. So the opportunity came up and Felicia stepped in. She learnt so much material so fast—she was brilliant. What’s been a gift about her is that she doesn’t have the history of the work, so she has this fantastic mirror and perspective that she doesn’t have any attachment to where we’ve come from, so she gets to speak really truly to what is in the moment.

The idea of performative gender and gender identity is a major topic in our society today, and one that is commonly being addressed in both the media and academia. How do you think your performance adds to this on-going dialogue about gender and its impact on the individual?

MK: How I think it adds to it is it gives people an opportunity to understand these concepts outside of logic. So how do we embody gender? How do we create and articulate who we are, with or without gender? You can answer those questions in language, but at the end of the day, it’s who you’re being in your body and your experience that the world sees. My hope is that this work moves beyond a conversation for language for people, and that they have a connection and an experience of whatever their inquiries of gender are and that that informs them.

Can you describe the piece in three words?

MK: I’m actually going to do it in one: other-worldlyScreen Shot 2015-09-12 at 10.17.41 AM

Femme Fatales runs May 3–6, 2017 at Shadbolt Centre for the Arts. Get your tickets here.
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Meredith Kalaman is an innovative choreographer known for creating thought provoking work. Her choreography has toured Canada, the US and China and she has presented her work at various festivals. Meredith received her training from the Ballet BC Mentor Program (2003-05) and is a two-time winner of the prestigious Chrystal Dance Prize from Dance Victoria (2015 & 2017), which will support Femme Fatales crossing international borders for presentation in Berlin in August 2017.