How You and I Perceive Me

John T Cartwright in Perception

The idea of a durational dance piece seems both obvious and enigmatic. The concept of duration relates to time, right? But how does one create a dance piece that embodies time while also conveying meaning and significance both inside and outside the parameters of time? This was the struggle I faced when tasked to create a durational piece for my Choreography Workshop course. 

My original concept was to make something that dealt with the struggles of aging; how my body and my relationship to my body is continually evolving as I get older. One of the most prominent changes (and the one I felt most comfortable documenting on film) is how my facial hair seemingly ages me, especially now that it is beginning to grow in with white and grey hairs. Our faces are very intimate and public superficial parts of us; they are what most people see and notice first, and they can reveal our emotions, history, and personality. From wrinkles to hair, from skin to teeth, the features of our face become elements of how others perceive us and how we judge ourselves. 

I set out with the plan to film myself for a minute each day, over the course of three months, while not shaving my facial hair the entire time. With the camera focused on my face, I would improv gestural phrases based on the concepts of vanity and arrogance with an undertone of self-loathing and timid reserve. Over the course of this experiment I found myself becoming conscious of the perceived connotations of the gendered stereotypes my gestures embodied. The short dances I was improving took on layered meanings more and more, and I soon realized that this wasn’t just about how I perceived my aging face, but how I perceived the natural way my body wanted to move. 

Over the course of my career, at times, I’ve been told that I dance too effeminate, too flowy, or too gay. Then there were times that I was told my dancing was too stiff and too rigid. I struggled with finding the balance and my people-pleasing demeanor made it mentally and physically exhausting to get it right. But what is right? What is right for one choreographer is not right for another, and what is right for me doesn’t always have to be what everyone else wants. 

Through the dailiness of making this durational work I found a meditative practice that allowed me to relish in my own movement, free from outside voices. This allowed my inner voice to speak through my gestures and postures. In the end, the growth of my facial hair not only marks the passage of time but also provides a layer of gender perception in contrast and coordination with the movement. I’m still self-conscious about the greying and the aging, but becoming more comfortable in my natural movement performance makes it more understandable and acceptable because it’s all me.

Perception from John Cartwright on Vimeo.

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