Witold Mrozek "Yodelling may be done naked too"
In ‘Sons of Sissy’ four dancers-cum-musicians explore traditional male rituals running deep in Tyrollean folklore. Devised by Simon Mayer, the piece caused a furore at last year’s ImPulsTanz Festival. As of late, its soundtrack has been released on CD.
Social satire, a bold comeback of what used to be seen as toe-curling Austrian folklore, or simply a hilarious gag? Perhaps all of the above? The title itself – Sons of Sissy – is a play on words oscillating between deliberate mawkishness and racy humour. Sissi was the nickname of Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie von Wittelsbach, the iconic wife of Emperor Franz Joseph and the epitome of pastel-coloured, nostalgically idyllic, as well as imperial and anachronic Austria.
But in English the word ‘sissy’ or ‘sis’ is used to informally denote a person’s sister, while also being a derogatory term describing somebody regarded as a mummy’s boy, an effeminate man, perhaps even ‘swinging the other way’. In a word: somebody who does adhere to the traditional definition of manliness.
Is male nakedness laughable, ignominious? The king is naked, the disgraced perpetrator is fleeing the scene without his pants on. Or is it imposing, athletic, commanding, belligerent, even if, on the surface, it is associated with sporting activities and peaceful rivalry, just like in Leni Riefenstahl films? Finally, is it (homo)erotic, meant for the gaze? German folklore with its apology of vitality and power will evoke negative associations for many years to come. Perhaps, once stripped of the military uniform and leather shorts, it can be rediscovered?
What programme do Mayer’s performers present? Waltzes, circle dancing, and the Gstanzl, traditional Austro-Bavarian songs mocking the powers that be and the society at large, sung by men only and bearing strong resemblance to diss songs. Leaving aside the revolutionary dramaturgy, the piece is respectful, even pietistic, towards the music tradition. You will hear the accordion, the violin, cowbells, and a whip cracking. Mayer enlisted the help of Hans Tschiritsch, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who studies historical instruments.
‘Sons of Sissy’ is a rare, yet recurring, instance of contemporary dance and performance artists becoming interested in folklore. A decade ago, Eszter Salamon, a Hungarian-born and Germany-based choreographer, created a stir with ‘Magyar táncok’, an autobiographical lecture-performance featuring spirited dance interludes with the participation of her own relatives who practice Hungarian folk art on an everyday basis. The piece presents folk dancing as a conservative art form that reflects and solidifies gender stereotypes and patriarchy, but has also acted as a vessel for collective memory, while in the communist era it was even a bastion against the Soviet-imposed version of classical ballet which was both patriarchal and authoritarian.
In Mayer’s ‘Sons of Sissy’ male performers take on roles traditionally assigned to men as well as to women, seeking to distill the dances’ inherent enthusiasm, vitality, and power, and sever their associations with machismo and violence. In Mayer’s words, the idea is to defy stereotyping and pigeonholing. The body is treated as an instrument, a living drum, a space for experiencing joy. In ‘Sons of Sissy’ instrumental technique, choreography, and vocal performance come together in a ritual that is both old and new: an attempted utopia or just a celebration of freedom?