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Learn more about dance in Munich! In TTmag dance creators talk about their aesthetics and approach, dance formats and Munich dance topics are put under the microscope!

Orchids // Teaser from Léonard Engel on Vimeo.

Conversations about pieces
Léonard Engel: Orchids

Léonard, your piece "Orchids" is about the search for a new masculinity beyond patriarchal expectations. What ideas of masculinity did you grow up with?

To be a man in a patriarchal system is to conform to a certain idea of what men are allowed to be and to do. The male identity is constructed around the idea that a man is first and foremost not a woman. It’s an identity that is created in negative: a man shouldn’t show his emotions, shouldn’t lose control, shouldn’t ask for help, shouldn’t take care of his body… Any behavior that diverges from this is deemed feminine and thus shameful. It’s not necessarily something that is directly taught to us by our parents, but this concept of masculinity gets engrained in boys mind as soon as they start socializing in school.
In "Orchids", I’m particularly interested on how this affects male emotions and by extension the male body, as for me, both of those things are intertwined. Emotions aren’t abstract sensations, they are directly embedded in our bodies. In the piece, the performers let their ever evolving emotions guide their movements. This creates a space that isn’t ruled by geometry but by emotions, sensations and empathy.

Apart from the social construction of masculinity, "Orchids" also deals with the question of the display of bodies in the performing arts; in other words, the way in which stereotypical ideas influence male performers on stage. From your own experiences and those of the rehearsals for "Orchids", are you trapped in this context as a performing man?

I think it’s really hard for a performer to completely separate their stage persona from the social context their grew up in. By stepping on a stage, and expose his body to the audience’s gaze, the male dancer already subverts the gender norm by taking a role generally assigned to woman. They run the risk of being objectified, which goes completely against the patriarchal idea of a male who’s active and in control. To avoid this objectification, male dancers more or less consciously develop ways of controlling or reject the audience’s gaze. This can be done by pure technique, by which the male body is seen as a tool to perform and excel, rather than an object of desire, or by using humor or extreme actions to gain or repulse the audience. But it can be even more subtle, such as choosing a particular direction in which to stand in relation to the audience, or falling into a trance-like state in which the audience isn’t included anymore. Those tools respond to a completely natural need for protection from the gaze. They’re like walls that performer build between themselves and the audience to be able to perform. A big part of the work that the performers (Tian Rotteveel, Mikael Marklund and Rupert Enticknap) and myself have done on “Orchids” was to identify those walls and to methodically destroy them, to see what happens to the body when it gradually gets more and more exposed.

In this context, I also find the question interesting that in a patriarchal system, dance and the countertenor voice would probably be seen as feminine anyway, if not pejoratively as "feminine".

I think every boy who started dance (especially ballet) at the time I did (and probably still today) faced a huge backlash at school. This is directly linked with the engrained idea that the male body and voice (in the case of a countertenor) isn’t made to be desirable. Only women are suppose to be desirable. Á man who awakes desire I perceived as suspicious: effeminate, maybe even gay. There’s a huge internalized homophobia in men. Even when they consciously have no problem with homosexuality, the fear of being perceived as gay is still present.

In "Orchids" you work with a very heterogeneous cast, with the countertenor Rupert Enticknaps standing out in particular. How did you work choreographically with someone who has no dance background, or how do you combine the individual skills of the performers into a whole?

When I met Rupert, he had just started his journey to move away from the world of classical opera and into a more alternative performance scene; a trajectory similar to my own, as I started my career with ballet. He has since then been really busy with using his body in different ways, so he wasn’t completely new to the world of dance when we started rehearsals. I think the piece works precisely because the three performers are so different, and come with different abilities and strength. But also because the three of them have agreed to consistently put themselves at risk in this process. I’m really impressed and thankful for the work they’ve done.

Looking back at your previous works, a major theme is the (impossible) disappearance of the body, which you have worked on once for an adult audience and once for children - in "Orchids", on the other hand, the body seems to be almost over-represented...

The main focus of my work has always been the body. I’ve used the attempt to make my body disappear as a way to develop a new understanding for it. I come from ballet, and I used to always say that I knew my body. What I actually meant was that I knew how to control it, but I had no idea what my body could do, let alone what it wanted to do. When I started choreographing in the free scene, I became really interested in the uncontrollable aspects of the body: the shivering, the noises, the emotions that are directly embedded in our anatomy. What started as almost unconscious research in my early work has clearly become the main focus in "Orchids": a body that is there to reveal to the audience an ever-evolving emotional space that is itself affected by the exposure to their gaze.

The body is also exposed in its nakedness.

The nakedness in "Orchids", comes from my interest to show a male body that could be naked and sensual without being sexual. This is a response to the homophobic patriarchal idea that intimacy between men can only equate to homosexuality. The performers from the piece get really close to each other, both physically and emotionally. Yet, sexuality is never a question on stage, and we forgot really fast that they are actually naked, because it doesn’t matter. They develop a space directly coming from their emotions, by which they expose themselves way more than by being naked. Which is why when they eventually put the costumes designed by Magdalena Emmerig, those don’t hide but rather enhance their body, as a physical extension of this emotional space.

Also one of your recurring themes is your fascination with the animal world and its strategies; mimicry/mating rituals etc. In the animal world, males are usually the ones with the beautiful 'jewelry'. In humans, on the other hand, the jewelry, the make-up, the sparkle and glitter is usually attributed to the woman - you also play with this in "Orchids".

"Pavane" (2019), my first solo, that I sadly didn’t get to show in Munich, was directly inspired by the mating rituals of different animal species. My original intention was to work around the idea of art and dance from a non-anthropocentric point of view. As the piece was done, I realized that all that time I had been making a piece about masculinity. I see "Orchids" as an evolution of Pavane, as a lot of the ideas I started exploring in that first work get much clearer in this new piece. And while the performers aren’t directly quoting animal mating rituals as I did in “Pavane”, through the process of improvisation, some of those references reappeared in very surprising ways.

"Orchids" is a piece that explicitly deals with the theme of cis-men + 'new' masculinity, which also includes intimacy, tenderness, beauty, gentleness and doubt. You also worked with non-binary drag performer Olympia Bukkakis during rehearsals.

A cis-heterosexual man could go all his life without having to reconsider the patriarchal values around which his personality was built, as there isn’t any direct need for it. Queer and trans people don’t have this option, and are faced very early with a (non-)choice: to conform to patriarchal expectation and keep their place as men in our society, or face social suicide in order to be who they are. I was interested to work with Olympia as an outside-eye not only because she’s been directly concerned by this situation (a non-choice that she calls a chance), but also because of her knowledge of gender studies and performance in general. She’s an amazing voice to have in a studio, and her remarks and suggestions have been really useful in the development of the piece.

„ Orchids” will take place January 19. – 21., Friday + Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 6:00 pm at schwere reiter: >INFO

More about Léonard Engel: Website

The interview was conducted by Simone Lutz, January 2024

Tanztendenz Munich e.V. is sponsored
by the Munich Department of Arts and Culture