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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Give Me Wings: Dance Dance Danseur and the Craft of Gender

The anime Dance Dance Danseur dwells on the angst of conforming to standards of performance--of art, and of gender. Why does its protagonist seek out the pain of classical ballet training?



"I want you to look at me... I'll dance, so please, give Rothbart--give *me*--wings."

Dance Dance Danseur opens with a young boy, bored in a dance recital, suddenly transfixed by a male classical ballet dancer's sparkling performance. It ends with the boy as a teenager dancing on a rain-drenched floor, desperately trying to prove himself to a teacher that has shown him nothing but derision. In structure, the show feels a bit like a sports anime: Jumpei, the boy in question, is a fish out of water, naturally talented but needing extensive work in order to catch up to peers that have been practicing all their lives. There are a series of physical hurdles to overcome, setbacks and achievements, and it's all tied up in wider social drama the characters encounter.

If it's a sports anime, though, it's decidedly one in the tradition of other recent shows like Yuri On Ice or Sk8, which tangle their athleticism with narratives that come juuuust right up to the edge of being explicitly about gender and queer sexuality. Where Yuri on Ice focused on a rather sweet romance between the central characters, and Sk8 embraced high glam rock drama of a kind of contest between the protagonist and villain for the heart of their love interest, DDD juggles a few different plotlines, dealing with Jumpei's school life, his struggles to prove himself as a dancer, and perhaps most significantly a love triangle between himself, pianist and dancer Miyako, and the talented but traumatized Luou.

The extent to which Luou's backstory and drama take over the narrative is honestly kind of funny. Jumpei's taken great care to turn himself into a manly meathead, and so sometimes the story feels like this shonen anime protagonist has just bumbled his way accidentally into Revolutionary Girl Utena and everyone else is really annoyed about it. (Come to think of it, that's kind of the role of Utena takes on in her show, too.) The tone of the show is fascinating because of this. Jumpei seems to have this narrative gravity that tries to pull everything in a lighter direction, while everyone else in the show is dragging it towards drama and angst.

What fascinates me about the show is precisely that angst and the two key forms it takes: angst over gender performance, and angst over performing a classical art form. These two sources of anguish for the characters are tangled together remarkably tightly and honestly. I don't think I've seen something capture quite so well the struggle to navigate "classical training", and the show also, while never outright identifying the characters as queer, feels astonishingly open to trans readings.

I don't think it's a reach or premature to link that performance of a particular kind of artistic excellence or craft with performance of gender here. Not when the anime is so explicit about it. Jumpei's core conflict early in the series revolves around masculine performance and his need to be the "man of the house" following his father's tragic death. No one forces Jumpei to "man up" exactly, it's just that when his father, a Jeet Kune Do instructor, has a sudden fatal heart attack, a bunch of casual incidents--his father fretting that with long hair people already "mistake Jumpei for a girl", his uncle awkwardly consoling him at the funeral by dubbing him the Designated Household Male, friends making fun of him for his interest in ballet--congeal into a subtly toxic masculinity, a belief that there is one way for Jumpei to be male or *be at all*.

"Not manly equals not cool.

"I want to be cool."

What is "Classical Training," exactly?

I'm a classically trained artist which means I know some stuff about measuring and holding my pencil and laying out a composition and anatomy--and also means I know about the golden ratio in excruciating detail and how art schools are run by a cabal of liberal postmodern perverts who don't know how to draw and all my former instructors opinions on what body parts Toulouse-Lautrec sucked at drawing because Toulouse-Lautrec spent too much time studying horse anatomy and not enough time on humans. The instruction, when it wasn't nakedly crank ideological, focused on strict mechanics.
Draw a straight line without a ruler.
Do it 100 times.
Draw these three bottles.
36 times.
Take this sphere and develop it geometrically, slice it apart into rings and wedges.
Turn this plant into a series of geometric relations.
The line of the pose drives straight down from the head to the center of the earth;
now find the disposition of the ribcage,
now the hips,
now the dominant leg.
Tombé-
Pas de bourrée-
Glissande-
Jeté-
Tombé-
Pas de bourrée-
Glissande-
Jeté-

Excluded from the education was touchy feely nonsense like "inspiration" or "motivation" or "vision". All of that was sort of beside the point: you were there to build an impressive portfolio to gain impressive scholarships, which, in fairness, I did get some of based on the strength of my art and my writing.

I muddled through my time with this education, moved on to other institutions, and barely drew for pleasure or really at all again for several years.

Jumpei first struggles between two different pulls in terms of gender performance, the cool martial artist or the queerness of ballet. I don't think there's a point in dancing around it. He's treated as betraying his friends in aligning himself with ballet in a way that should be familiar. Moreover, Luou, in a harrowing scene, is forcibly feminized and put on display in front of the school by the same male friends that Jumpei breaks with in order to pursue ballet. Luou's bullying is a queer hate crime; Jumpei's betrayal is treated with homophobically coded disgust. He can stick to his beliefs and be open about his desires, or conform to the standard of masculine behavior, not both.

That's the first half of the show, though the segments do overlap. The second half of the show deals with a different standard, a conflict between adhering to rigid codes of technical mastery, a rigid performance of *craft*, vs adopting a more free form and expressive modern approach. On this axis Jumpei struggles to reconcile his desire for the sparkle and shine of individual expression vs the exactitude of executing particular established choreography which by nature suppresses the individual. The two parallel but orthogonal conflicts are connected in part by the tension between a desire to master external codes vs forge an individual identity.

The show ends on a great big question: why, in the context of everything else the show expresses about the rigid and destructive nature of systems, does Junpei choose to submit to the most rigorous instruction he can find, from a teacher that has treated him with nothing but scorn?

Here's a weird tangent: have you heard about the Guilty Gear character Bridget? The character has long been a gender bending icon, though one that's frustratingly associated with transphobic channers, a "boy" raised as a girl who dresses as a nun. People are very, very horny for Bridget. I bring the character up specifically due to the analysis of her development as a character offered by Renata Price of Waypoint Radio (also written up on the website, though I recommend also listening to her discussion on the podcast). She describes how Bridget's development in a previous game focused on her quest to prove herself as a fighter, in order to achieve a kind of affirmation of masculinity. This seems to be reversed in the current edition of the game, where, to make a long story short, Bridget comes out to herself and the audience as a trans girl.

Price describes this as mirroring a particular queer experience: people who throw themselves at a particular field and attempt to master it, with the presumption that they're making a bargain that will destroy their bodies. She describes having friends who wanted to "prove a very specific form of masculinity... the kind of masculinity that leads you to burning bright and burning short." The quest to demonstrate artistic mastery then join the 27 club turns out to be suppressed general feelings of dysphoria. Bridget's narrative thus represents getting to the end of your quest (or realizing the quest is unachievable), and realizing, fuck, what do I do with all this self loathing I've been directing into the quest for mastery?

A tumblr post did the rounds recently comparing a cis woman's perspective on ballet with the furor over kids and teens being allowed to socially transition, and even access puberty blockers. The post, almost more of a short essay, eloquently notes that "When I said I wanted to be a dancer at six years old, adults took that to mean I’d want certain permanent alterations to my body." Ballet is, from this perspective, a radical body modification allowed to be done to children. Might we extend this to other areas? Contact sports? The highest tier of competitive video game playing? Skateboarding?

Luou's grandmother shapes him from a very young childhood, monstrously transforms him, into a machine for ballet dancing. When Luou tries to do to Jumpei what his grandmother subjected him to--forcibly stretching and extending his leg muscles by *physically standing on him*--the normally aloof instructor Oikawa is visibly horrified, intervening immediately to prevent injury. Luou not only has undergone extensive body modifications, he seems in some ways unaware of how violent those body modifications were.

This is probably no surprise. He was, after all, largely locked up in a shed for most of his childhood. Do you see what I mean about the show having an energy that often feels more like it's responding to Revolutionary Girl Utena and its like than to traditional sports anime? Luou's childhood is depicted as a fairy tale, the young prince held captive by the wicked witch. Miyako is cast explicitly as an Utena figure, incapable of playing prince herself, and forced to recruit Junpei from a regular sports anime to fill the role.

This puts Luou in a narratively feminized role, a damsel in distress. Fitting: his grandmother explicitly seeks to mold him, maliciously, into the ideal dancer that she could not make her daughter, Luou's pop idol mother. By the end of the series the old woman is revealed to now be senile, incapable of seeing Luou at all as anything *but* her daughter.

So the angst of performing gender and the angst of performing Craft are messily intertwined in Luou, down to the root. Luou's monstrosity is transfem coded, a perversion, an intense program of body modification that has rendered him incapable of fulfilling the role of the prince. When he finally embraces all the anger and pain of his experience, he becomes beautiful and terrible: the very avatar of the demon of Swan Lake, Rothbart. Having cast down Odette (played by Miyako) and the Prince (Jumpei) he finds himself bereft. There is no more external object for his anger and self loathing.

He takes up his grandmother's shawl.


He gives himself, the demon Rothbart, wings.

I like that this moment of revelation and triumph is incomplete in the show. It twines together his need for individuality in performance of his craft explicitly with his personal identity. There may be "no need for individuality in classical ballet" but Luou recognizes that he needs to be seen, needs to embrace an expressive form that breaks from his rigid and dehumanizing training, and needs to forge his own identity. But he can't make his grandmother see him. She is, tragically, too senile to see him as anything but her absent daughter. A moment of hesitation costs Jumpei his chance to console Luou, and instead the young dancer, anguished, is left to be comforted by his cousin and aunt.

Developing his identity for his own sake rather than for hers will take time and work. And possibly an estrogen and progesterone prescription.

Jumpei, meanwhile, races off after his own quest: recognition from the rigid classicist Oikawa.

Classical training is sort of by definition training to a rigid, established standard. What it means to play classically, or draw classically, or dance classically is to fit "classical" definitions of how you move your bow across strings, or your charcoal across paper, or body across the stage. The pitch for this is that once you master the basics you have a framework from which to deviate. You've mastered the rules, now you can figure out how to break them with much greater control. Or, you can be just the absolute best there is within the context of the rules. You can master them with such aplomb that your inner desire for expression shines out through the minute control of your skills. It's this ability that first draws Jumpei to ballet, the excellence and control that allows a master of dance to express something astonishing within an established convention.

But the flip side is that classical training is uninterested in the individual. It is a craft, a mastery of procedures. There's something a bit mechanical about it. I memorized drawing techniques like they were mathematical formulae. Not just
The ratio of head to body,
Of sternum to breast and breast to bottom of the ribcage,
Of chin to nose to brow to hairline.
But also more abstract formulas--
If the "gaze" is in this direction, you leave *this* much space on that side of the canvas vs the other side.
The dominant angle of the ribcage can be drawn between these two points on a grid with the ratio of 1:√3 on a theme of quarters.
Light comes from 45° to the side and angled up.
Rembrandt lighting.
Reflected light comes in here,
And the core of the shadow across this third of the object,
Which is a sort of
Sphere or
Cone or
Box--
An elemental shape.
Tombé-
Pas de bourrée-
Glissande-
Jeté-

So there's a bargain here. Or maybe more like a wager, a wager with the demon of classical training. You bet that you can master the system so that you ride the demon, so that you can come out the other side with some expressive capacity intact, an ability to say what it was you wanted to say in the first place when you made the pact. And the demon of classical training wagers that it will train out of you that "wrong idea" we see exacting practitioners of classical ballet deride in Dance Dance Danseur: that you have any value as an individual beyond your capacity to express the formal rules of the system.

I'm not going to describe what happens when Jumpei, soaking wet from running to the studio in the rain, just barely in time to audition, attempts to dance for Instructor Oikawa in order to win the coveted single scholarship slot in her elite class. In a sense, it's beside the point of my question.

Why would Jumpei want this?

The show presents no easy answers. The show isn't a straightforward trans allegory and doesn't have a straightforward moral about whether classical instruction is good or bad. It's an awful lot messier and more ambiguous than that, which these days I'm finding to be much more productive and relatable to my own life. Certainly it's an awful lot more fun to write about than just transcribing whatever the moral of the story is.

There is a sense, that Jumpei stumbling tries to articulate to Oikawa, that it's precisely because he doesn't fit in at Oikawa studios, that he fits in with Godai's more open ended approach to dance, that he feels so drawn to Oikawa. Jumpei and Luou are conditioned to be inverses of each other. Luou is almost mechanical in his dancing, and needs to find his individual humanity again. Jumpei craves a kind of refinement that he can only get from submitting to the demon of classical instruction.

I don't... regret my classical instruction. I think. I feel frustrated sometimes with the rigidity of my drawing style, with how hard it's been to practice because I had to teach myself how to draw for the pleasure of drawing not as a rote exercise that I am, bluntly, not disciplined enough to force myself through. I feel envious of peers who are much better at cartooning, at expressivity, at achieving work that looks like their own. But I have a solid base from which to study, now that study is less painful for me. I can examine the body, in particular, as a mechanism.
I see the contours of the legs defined by the adductor group sweeping down from the pubic bone
And the sartorius wrapping around the masses to define a kind of box and wedge
And the arm, raised,
Pectoral stretching,
Deltoid curved behind the swell of the tricep,
And latissimus dorsi swooping in from below
A triangle that gives the torso an almost angelic silhouette.

It might be reading or projecting too much to say that Jumpei envies Luou, despite Luou's horrific abuse. Yet: Luou has a command of fundamentals that Jumpei is totally ignorant of. When he finally is forced, by Miyako and Jumpei, to fully express himself and his desire, when they fully give him permission to be a little fucked up and evil, to become Rothbart, he has a terrible power because of his command, because he has this foundation of seeing his body as a tool for pure expressivity. I think it's that capacity that Jumpei desires, and the show seems to recognize that there's no moral conclusion to draw about that craving for mastery. It's content to instead explore the agony and ecstasy of that process.

The human body's muscle groups are common to most vertebrates. The bones and the flesh might be stretched around a bunch to fulfil different evolutionary needs, but the armature and the mechanisms used to drag bones around are remarkably similar. Wings and arms are full of analogous structures. If you look at a picture of a bird, you can imagine a pose for a human (maybe exaggerated a bit, maybe requiring the wrist be trained into a new position, the muscles of the back accentuated) where the arm takes takes on the same contours and movements.

You can give a human wings.




This Has Been

Give Me Wings

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