Dance the pain away

Published

Credit: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Blair Cunningham
Theatre Editor

Have you ever wished you could externalise a gnawing emotion, and by doing so, get some temporary respite? Let the mind rest like the morphine dream of a broken body. Could you make others understand the unexplainable excruciation of a mind at war with itself? This is the crux of many therapies and pseudo-therapies; think of screaming, or smashing up a car, or watercolours. There is one form of self-expression more direct than any other. It can open up opportunities for the most radical and personal performances you’ll witness.

Interpretative dance has hit the forefront of character development this year. In the record-breaking blockbuster Joker, Arthur Fleck, often while donned in his signature clown outfit, expresses his deep and unbearable inner-crisis of identity and purpose through an eerie dance. Often his arms seem gracefully suspended as if in water, drifting around his space; then they suddenly jerk in a staccato response that underpins his anguish. It is however, not a performance for others; it’s a moment when the world makes sense to him, or at least that’s the only guess one can make when the meaning is by and for the performer. The expression here is art for the artist before anything else. Perhaps the unbearable thoughts that race around his head can be dissipated through the whole body with dance; it gives him the respite he craves. Or perhaps it gives some meaning to meaningless and irrational anxieties?

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has always been an irreverent and dark comedy. One such example is the mockery of Mac (Rob McElhenney) and his repressed homosexuality. Amongst raillery on the other characters’ learning difficulties, scoliosis, drug addiction, and poverty, it didn’t seem that out of place, and the idea they would ever address it without gags, goofs and a cruel punch line seemed impossible. They defied expectations. No one was ever as homophobic as Mac himself, especially thanks to his strict Catholic beliefs and hyper-masculine ideals. When he is forced to accept his sexuality, he too must face the identity crisis that has gripped his whole life in the season finale Mac Finds His Pride. When he explains to the less-than-understanding Frank (Danny Devito), he describes it as a battle that’s been raging his whole life between his devotion to God, masculinity, and his repressed sexuality. The episode culminates in an explosive dance routine in front of a prisoner-audience, complete with rain machine, spotlight and intimate routine between Mac and his co-dancer representing God. This performance is art for the beholder as he tries to come out to his father and let both Frank and himself visualise is identity crisis. The scene is full of painful expressions of self-hatred and hopeless conclusions; it ends with Mac in the foetal position, overwhelmed with the world and the questions in his own mind. His father rejects him, but Frank finally understands Mac’s conflict, a rare moment of hope and empathy in the otherwise dark and satirical show.

Arthur and Mac’s questions of identity and their place in society speak to many, if not most of us, in varying degrees of similarity. I, personally, have always struggled to reconcile my own masculinity and sexuality as well. Even as society ostensibly becomes more accepting for men to be “less than straight”, it takes more than that to make individuals totally comfortable with who they are. In the vast majority of film and television, male action heroes are depicted as undeniably, aggressively, straight. It wasn’t usually an intentional denial of bi/homosexual identity, but when the internalised feeling I got was that masculine meant being attracted to women exclusively, it created an incompatibility. The acknowledgement of my own bisexuality forced me into questions of identity. Who in mainstream media can I identify with? What are my stereotypes? How should I present myself to others? The conclusion that every individual is no one exact thing takes time to arrive at, and whatever society, your friends and your own rational thoughts tell you, there can still be subconscious battles, especially if we find our meaning in a world of identity politics and repression.

We all need to express conflicting emotions. It can be through dance, or it can be as simple as talking about them – or, as I have done, writing about them. You can never comprehend how many smiling people walk under the same dark clouds as you.