DanceEast hosts BEAUTiFUL celebration of female desire

Dancers from Sally Marie's production of BEAUTiFUL, an exploration of female sexuality, which is bei

Dancers from Sally Marie's production of BEAUTiFUL, an exploration of female sexuality, which is being staged at DanceEast. Photo: Dominic Farlam - Credit: Archant

From Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils to showgirls on the Las Vegas strip, much of dance has been about focusing on male desire. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to choreographer Sally Marie who is bringing a new show to DanceEast which she hopes will redress the balance and start new conversations

Dancers from Sally Marie's production of BEAUTiFUL, an exploration of female sexuality, which is bei

Dancers from Sally Marie's production of BEAUTiFUL, an exploration of female sexuality, which is being staged at DanceEast. Photo: Dominic Farlam - Credit: Archant

Desire is a powerful emotion. It helps define who we are and how we see the world. It can be joyful, passionate, liberating, exhilarating but sometimes dark and dangerous. Frequently, it is a heady mix of all these things.

Traditionally, the arts – and narrative theatre especially – has restricted its gaze to male desire. Now, choreographer Sally Marie and her dance company Sweetshop Revolution are looking to redress that situation and explore female sexuality and desire in a new production called BEAUTiFUL which opens at DanceEast on the Ipswich Waterfront this week.

Sally Marie, who brought a sell-out performance of I Loved You and I Loved You to the Jerwood DanceHouse in 2016, handpicked five young dancers to explore love and sexuality from the point of view of women in the 21st century. During the rehearsal process they talked about and sort to express through movement what is fantasised about, desired and permissible within the complex web of social structures, expectations and social history.

As Sally Marie says: “With issues of female inequality and sexual harassment at the forefront of the public consciousness BEAUTiFUL will celebrate the solidarity of women and look past the pressure to conform.

Dancers from Sally Marie's production of BEAUTiFUL, an exploration of female sexuality, which is bei

Dancers from Sally Marie's production of BEAUTiFUL, an exploration of female sexuality, which is being staged at DanceEast. Photo: Dominic Farlam - Credit: Archant

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“More than ever I believe that it’s vital for women to communicate “the female gaze” creatively. The five extraordinary performers in this show plunge us into their private worlds, slicing through the tissued layers of elusive truths and false assumptions by which many of us live. We’re driven to look seriously and humorously – but always closely – at how women are objectified on stage and in the wider world. Our collective purpose? To generate outrageous pleasure, inspire insight and provoke debate.”

She says that much of the content of the show was suggested by the lives and ideas suggested by the performers as much as it was by Sally Marie and her research.

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Sally Marie will also host a talk at the Jerwood DanceHouse for International Woman’s Day on Thursday to invite discussion on women’s experience and relationships across the last 300 years. Audiences are invited for a free glass of wine and a chance to hear some of Sally’s research findings.

I caught up with Sally as she was putting the final touches to the performance. This is our conversation.

Dancers from Sally Marie's production of BEAUTiFUL, an exploration of female sexuality, which is bei

Dancers from Sally Marie's production of BEAUTiFUL, an exploration of female sexuality, which is being staged at DanceEast. Photo: Dominic Farlam - Credit: Archant

How did the project come about?

I was hosting an audition about four years ago and I asked the women in the audition if they could make solos about someone they loved. I never realised when I set them this task that something extraordinary would come from it but it did. They danced some incredible solos and what I realised in that moment was that they were dancing about something that mattered to them.

A lot of the time dancers are employed to dance to someone else’s ideas, so, when I watched what they had come up with, I saw all these layers of vulnerability and strength. For some reason I imagined a great wall of porn behind them and I realised that men have such a limited idea of what women’s sexuality is all about. Largely it’s all plastic Barbie and bottled blonde, but here was a piece about women’s desires that wasn’t about being objectified. So in BEAUTiFUL, this new piece, we play with the idea of objectification but in a strong way and in a way that men, who see the show, don’t feel they are being hit over the head or being attacked but given a different view point. I wanted men to enjoy the performances and offer them a new way to look at and interact with women.

It sounds a complex and somewhat daunting topic to tackle?

“One of the things that I am really proud of is the honesty of the intimacy of the piece and I love watching the men’s reactions to this. The piece has a lot of different moods and situations and it’s fascinating to watch men respond to these.

“I spoke to one man after a performance and he said that he had never seen women depicted like that on the stage before. These are young women: 21, 23, 25, 28 – we have five in total – and I think it is important that young women are given a voice. It’s a really powerful experience.

I bought about 40 books for the research as well as collecting all the articles on women I could find from the weekend magazines. I also viewed a documentary film called Hot Girls Wanted, about the porn industry, which was an eye-opener, but the biggest influence on the piece was a book called The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, she asks the question: ‘What is woman? Does woman really exist?’ I think that was my favourite out of all the things I read. It asks: ‘How much are women a construct?’ It explores centuries of constraint and control.

“Until recently women weren’t allow to run marathons, they weren’t allowed to own property, if they got divorced they lost their children. For example, closer to home, my mother wasn’t allowed to keep her job after she was married. She worked for the foreign office, travelled all over the world and was enjoying herself and suddenly all that was taken away.

“We talk about feminism and equality and we have to recognise that the fight is not over – just look at the pay gap. In the piece I also confront my own powerlessness as a woman in the dance world. I am not a powerful figure in the dance community. Dance is filled with women and yet the vast majority of decision makers and heads of companies are men. So I am also examining what feminism means for me and what it means for men. It’s a big subject and it’s been a complicated piece to make.

How typical is this of your work? Do you like to bury yourself in weighty issues?

“It’s quite a departure for me because my work is usually lighter with a strong comic element. I was brought up on Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine but this is something I wanted to explore in some depth. And I took a deliberate decision to cast five of the most beautiful women I have ever met and yet they too have body image problems because we live in such an image obsessed world, where all images of women in magazines are photo-shopped and retouched to standards which are impossible to live up to.

“I wanted to work with women that really clicked together. I also wanted dancers that were very sensual. I wanted sensual women who were fascinating, mysterious and utterly beautiful.

The other thing I was very careful about was not to moralise. I wanted to put this piece on the stage as being of itself. I wanted to give these young women a chance to speak. It’s been a particular hit with young people because it gives them a chance to hear their experiences being represented in a way that is rarely heard.

It’s unusual for young women to be given an opportunity to express their sexuality.

“Absolutely, because I remember when I was their age I spent all my time trying to live up to what I thought men wanted from me. What they thought was a sexy woman. In my early 20s I cared an awful lot about what men thought about me. All I cared about was whether men fancied me and wanted to be with me.

“I trained in classical ballet and dancers are incredibly strong and very focussed and yet here I was still worrying about men. Now, I am in my mid-40s and I can see things a lot more clearly. Feminism shouldn’t be about putting up barriers or putting people down, it should be about promoting equality. Dance studios are filled with women – 80% of people in dance studios are women and yet 80% who run dance companies or venues are men – that can’t be right.

So Beautiful has been something of a labour of love?

“Absolutely. It’s been the biggest fight of my life to get the piece made. I spent £11,000 of my own money because funding was so hard to come by. I gave my time for free which would have cost £22,000 in any other situation. I spent months and months doing research, then rehearsing and then booking a 15 date tour but I did it because this is something I really believed in. I had to make this piece. This year was a 100 years since women got the vote and gained their political voice. Here was an opportunity for them to voice their thoughts about sexuality and desire. It was a chance to talk about their needs and desires and to take the focus of women’s sexuality away from porn.

So did you come to rehearsals with ideas ready formed or did you work with the young dancers in a collaborative way?

“I always work with the dancers but, having said that, it was a very difficult piece to make. It’s nothing like I have ever seen before and I like that. Me Too and Time’s Up have brought an urgency to the debate about what is feminism and I think it is very much about getting the men on board rather than pushing them away. With men on board, behaving responsibly, then it is more exciting for everyone. As a man do you want a woman sitting at home doing embroidery and having nothing to say or do you want a wife or partner who is going out into the world, interacting with society, making a difference and having something to contribute to a conversation? It’s much better having a partnership based on equality.

“Men and women have got to have different conversations but they have to start talking. I was having a conversation with someone I know at the Royal Shakespeare Company recently and he said that the atmosphere in the rehearsal room was really strained, nothing was really happening, because everyone was really nervous, no-one wanted to offend anyone, there was no sexuality in the room, it was all rather anodyne, so nothing was happening. I think conversations will start again but at the moment everything is a bit clunky.

So did your dancers feel they could have a conversation about their feelings and what you were trying to achieve?

“We had long conversations in the rehearsal room. It was made very much in collaboration with the dancers. We had long talks about various issues. It was much less directorial than many of my other pieces. I had to persuade them to do a couple of pieces. For example, in part, I wanted them to be Las Vegas showgirls, and they really didn’t want to do it because they felt that was continuing to encourage objectification but I explained that we would start the show with a real wham bam showgirl routine, everyone would think that they knew what sort of show they would be getting before we turned everything on its head and gave them something more meaningful. It was at that point they got it.

“Also, I wanted to celebrate all women but I also wanted to let them say what they wanted to say in their own way. Also there’s not a lot of nudity in the show, which there easily could have been, and the show is not supershocking, which is really nice, so people can bring their older teenagers and people need not be embarrassed when they are watching it.

So, it’s a show everyone can enjoy and get something from?

“Absolutely. It’s show all about communication. It’s about striking up a dialogue with the audience, starting a conversation about who we are as sexual beings, what are our wants and needs, how we see relationships and how we see ourselves as people. To be honest I have only scraped the surface and I am looking to do another piece later this year marking 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage, using 100 dancers, and I will using some more of the material that I wasn’t able to it into this. For me feminism is about inclusivity and equality, that’s what is important.”

BEAUTiFUL is at the Jerwood DanceHouse on Friday March 9. Tickets are still available but the show is not suitable for under 16s. Book tickets at

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