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Falling in step with the Deer Dancer

In autumn 2017, I was delighted to be awarded an artist attachment with Magnetic North to develop Deer Dancer, an interdisciplinary project investigating the mimesis of deer, specifically, representations within traditional dance forms.

Hanna after taking a turn at the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, September 2018. Photo by Lydia Honeybone

The attachment has enabled me to take time with my research – a rare opportunity in a production-focused art world – allowing me to follow the seasonal nature of the traditions, guided by the deer. I've made numerous field trips to observe dances, interview practitioners, and learn steps directly from tradition bearers. This has further been informed by experiential research: observing deer in their habitat(s), animal tracking in the Sonora desert and deer stalking at Trees for Life rewilding estate.

White-tailed deer tracks, Sonora desert, July 2018

In a nutshell, my focus has been to examine how the imitation of deer behaviour within dance constructs ideas of 'wilderness' as the site for the cultivation of hetero-masculinity and, informed by posthumanism and eco-queer methodologies, I have also been exploring aspects of 'technology' and 'costume' as practices that extend the body and expand perception within 'gender performance'. I plan to realise the resulting body of work in two stages, firstly as an audiovisual installation, incorporating music, costumed choreography on film and visual scores, to be exhibited next year, and then, eventually, as a live performance.

Three dances and their wider ecological and mythopoetic contexts form the roots of my research: the Deer Dance of the indigenous Yaqui of Sonora, Mexico, and their Pascua Yaqui descendants in Arizona, USA; the Highland Fling of the Scottish Highlands; and the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance of Staffordshire, England. Each dance is mimetic in some way, with movements that imitate (or are said to imitate) deer behaviour and gesture. Another common feature, is that they are (or were) all traditionally performed by men and, with their displays of muscular strength and athletic endurance, they are all thought to have their origins in (or associations with) hunting ritual practices.

Pahkola and Yaqui Deer Dance (archive image)

Held during the Easter fiesta, the Yaqui Deer Dance enacts the wilderness world through a series of songs that address the deer. Beginning at dusk and ending at dawn, a graceful and athletic dance unfolds. A single deer dancer becomes the spirit of the animal, emerging as a timid fawn and growing into a virile adult male. Wearing a stag headdress and carrying rattles that represent the front legs, the dancer's gestures imitate the various movements of a white-tailed deer.

Red deer antler frontlet found at Star Carr, The British Museum

Similar antlered headdresses to those worn by the Yaqui were discovered at Star Carr – a Mesolithic site in Yorkshire. Archaeologists have suggested that these red deer frontlets were worn as part of costumes within hunting rituals, allowing the wearer to harness antler effects and gain access to the perspective of the animal-in-action.

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, September 2018

This prehistoric practice finds echoes in the ‘modern’ Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, a Staffordshire folk-dance believed to be a memory of a medieval celebration of villagers’ hunting rights in what are today the remains of the Royal Needlewood Forest. Like the Yaqui dance, it is mimetic: six men bearing mounted antlers at shoulder height move together in a parallel walk, and lurch head-on, as if rutting. Other characters include the Hobbyhorse, Bowman, Fool and Maid Marian.

The Highland Fling, first step for gentlemen, from the Illustrated Guide to the National Dances of Scotland, Donald Richard Mackenzie, 1910

Rutting is also said to have inspired the Scottish Highland Fling, thought by some to have its origins in an ancient warrior’s dance of triumph, imitative of deer. Legend tells of a boy who encountered a stag. When his father asked him to describe what he saw, lacking words, he danced the animal instead, his movements emulating the capering animal, his hands held aloft for antlers. Though there are records of similar mimetic dances, such as black-cock lekking, this origin story for the Fling is disputed, and it is more likely that the dance was invented by a Lowland dance teacher in the 18th century, as a caricature of a 'wild' highland warrior. Whatever its origins, until recently it was the traditional preserve of men and, nowadays it is the classic solo danced at modern competitive dancing events and Highland Games.

Within my research, I have concentrated on exploring the tacit and cultural knowledge embodied within the various deer dance-steps, studying the ways in which deer behaviour and movements are emulated within the choreographies. With gestures that range from iconic imitation to stylized metaphor, I have become particularly interested in how the mimesis of male deer behaviours, from the capering of the fawn, to the bravado and display of the rutting stag, inform a 'performance' of masculinity by male dancers.
The costumes and props also play a significant role, and often, but not always, feature elements of attire made from animal parts, physically extending the body, allowing the dancer to take on attributes of the stag and step into a space between male human and male deer. As traces of hunting rituals, how are these dances to be understood within a contemporary context? What are the implications of these gendered performances in society today?

At my Highland Fling lesson, Kingussie, May 2018.

In an intersection of ecology, gender and class, by bringing together and comparing these practices, I've become acutely aware of the striking relationship between our cultural perceptions of 'wilderness' and ideas of 'masculinity'. For example, in Scotland, deer and the way hunting is practised is central to the degradation of the Caledonian Pinewood ecology. Beginning with a mass cull of predators, in particular wolves, the destruction of habitat through deforestation was followed by a craze for stalking – itself a mimetic performance of vernacular hunting traditions, re-interpreted and distorted into a form of macho display by landowning classes. Across timescales and cultures, it seems our relationship with deer as a totemic and ideologically powerful animal has contributed to a construction of 'wilderness’ as an 'imaginary landscape', setting 'nature' apart from 'culture', often defining and/or impacting 'real' ecologies. Parallel to this, the idea of 'wilderness' itself has been adopted as a site for the cultivation of heroic-hetero-masculinity that appropriates indigenous cultural knowledge. Is it possible to shift our relationship to the world and renegotiate these dichotomies?

I am now at a stage where I am distilling my research and excited to be preparing to go into production. Working with processes of fragmentation and reconstruction, I hope to create a body of work that uproots and plays with deeply cemented nature:culture and gender binaries, embodying alternative ways of becoming-in-the-world through practices of assemblage and connection. So, what happens next? This weekend I will be heading up to the Trees for Life rewilding estate in Dundreggan, to begin work with a choreographer and dramaturg. I don't want to give too much away, but I can say that I am working on a series of debossed visual scores that trace the fall of the deer dancers' feet. Merging animal tracks with dance notation, these scores will form the basis of a choreography that I plan to perform to camera in the guise of different costumed characters, each one a construction of 'aspects' drawn from a male:female gender spectrum and a human:animal spectrum. I also plan to work on an accompanying vocal composition using technology to augment my voice into 'male' and 'stag' pitch ranges... so until then... watch this space and listen out for the bellow!

Debossed test print, Edinburgh Printmakers, June 2018

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Latest Comment

J. Sharp Taking A Walk
07 September 2014
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere....