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3, 5-1: Stereotypes of Stereotypes
The Gaps in Alpert's "Images of Women"
By Vanessa Manko
Copyright 2002 Vanessa Manko
NEW YORK -- Mrs. Cleaver, Barbie,
Wonder Woman, Rosy the Riveter, Charlie's Angels, and illustrious Vogue models
are just some of the "Images of Women" that make appearances in Valerie Alpert's
work of the same name, which premiered on Alpert's company this past weekend at
the Joyce Soho. The piece explores women's difficult relationship with consumer
culture and the mass media and how that relationship affects the more intimate
and personal one between themselves and their own bodies.
The work delves into the terrain
of anorexia and bulimia, lipo-suction, plastic surgery, women's sense of self
in the face of near perfect -- our cultural standard of perfect, of course --
and images and ideals of women. From the bevy of television and magazine advertisements
that open the piece, to the more light-hearted act of choosing an outfit, "Images
of Women" presents the myriad of emotions women can go through when dealing with
the vicissitudes involving their bodies. It attempts to reveal the lengths women
will go to attain the ideals perpetuated by the larger culture, how that striving
can affect them, and their relationship to the world and each other.
"Images of Women" opens with just
that: a splicing together of television and magazine advertisements and other
recognizable scenes and faces from the mass media and entertainment industry.
And, here, Alpert has done a nice job of immersing her audience in the seemingly
endless standards of beauty a woman can be confronted with. They range from late-nineteenth
century corset advertisements to the more modern-day commercials for Botox injections.
The piece moves into a sort of affirmation in the section that follows. Entitled
"I AmĚ," it reveals dancers entering clad in simple white leotards. The space
is suddenly stripped of the clutter and cacophony of mass culture and the dance
Three cylinders are equidistantly
placed across the stage. Dancers pose on these pedestals as if for a fashion shoot,
but this is a more introspective moment in the work, one of affirmation and inner
strength. At least that is what Alpert seems to be trying to express here. The
dancing is strong and almost animalistic, the tone of the section in stark contrast
to the video that preceded it.
As the piece continues, Alpert explores
more issues -- the hunger and loneliness of eating disorders, the bonds of female
friendship, the coming to terms with one's self, both internally and externally,
and continually tries to reaffirm women's sense of internal strength. The work
ends with the phrases "Empower Yourself" and "Accept Yourself" fading in and out
of the video screen. It's a little too precious of a conclusion and could have
just as easily been omitted as the work and choreography literally screams this
message across in and of itself. Sometimes less is really more.
Other sections are more playful.
For instance, one scene spoofs GAP and J-Crew underwear advertisement in which
women in pastel bikini tops and briefs arrange themselves into playful, sensuous,
seductive, and kittenish poses. In yet another section, a woman is struggling
to pick out an outfit for the day. She flails around and gets into and out of
clothes, and is nearly strangled to death by a pair of uncooperative jeans. While
she changes from one outfit to the other, she glances in the mirror, which is
rigged to reflect the thoughts in her head. Her rear becomes that of an elephant,
her face grows wide, her stomach expands, and she grows old. This is both funny,
pathetic, and tinged with sadness. (It helps that the fact that the young dancer
in this piece actually fits into all the clothes.) The work concludes with childish
games of leap frog, patty cake, and ring around the rosy. There is skipping and
joyfulness and I'm not sure what Alpert has meant to end with here. It's as if
the women, in baby pink, blue and yellow capri pants and tank tops, are free and
safe and carefree during childhood and only then.
What is most obviously missing in
this work is any indication of what is known as the "male gaze," that overarching,
patriarchal force or vantage point from which women have been scrutinized and
judged for centuries. What we seem left with, then, is a feeling that the beauty
culture of America is somehow solely a women's world -- created by women, imposed
by them, and something meant for women only to suffer with. There is no nod to
who set the standards, or the fact that men themselves are now dealing with the
results of the ubiquitous six-pack toting, male model. Unfortunately, "Images
of Women" hits upon too many cliches. It is territory that has been well-mined
in recent years, and one is left with the feeling that the work is sort of superficial,
lacking in what is just below the surface, what is beyond the din of the consumer
culture. For instance, what are the real reasons that individual women (not just
women as a whole) are effected by body image issues?
Alpert does try to take a stab at
challenging the larger cultural ideals of what a woman should be and look like,
but perhaps it would have been more interesting and challenging if she had pushed
her message a step further by presenting dancers of varying body types instead
of dancers whose body types are relatively the same as those one is likely to
see in advertisements. What is difficult with this proposition, of course, is
that maintaining a certain physique is par for the course in dance. It is also
no secret that dancers themselves are notorious for severe body image problems.
If not in the whole piece, then why not in a section or two present the normal,
everyday female body? The one who wakes up and goes to work, takes care of children,
works out on the elliptical, walks a dog, eats what she wants, takes yoga, karate,
body builds, or does countless other things that shape her body into something
very different from a Kate Moss clone, a Victoria's Secret model, or one of Charlie's
Angels. Then, and only then, will we have a real grasp of the true, real life
images of women.
The cast of dancers, who gave fine,
open and lively performances, included Kimberly Davis-Wallace, Brooke Franklin,
Jennifer Torres, Pei-shan Tsai, Jenna Wilayato, Liz J. Zamora. Lighting design
was by Andrew Meyers, Dan Prowse, Jr. was the sound designer, and video was by
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