Body in Motion: Climber Natalija Gros in Le Tango Vertical

The human body is capable of impressive feats. Is there an artistic and creative element present in athletic accomplishment?

When Natalija Gros retired from competitive rock climbing in 2012, she was recognized as one of the finest climbers in the world. The Slovenian athlete made it to the World Cup podium an astonishing 23 times during her career, also carrying off a silver in 2004 at the European Championships and a gold in 2008 in Paris at The European Bouldering and Combined Championship. She won the coveted Serre Chevalier Master in both 2004 and 2009.

Rock climbing isn’t a glamorous sport. Hands, elbows, shoulders and knees get scraped, wounded and calloused. Even with hooks and ropes, climbers regularly find themselves jerked into the air, swinging painfully against rocks. This doesn’t even hold a candle to what can happen without equipment. This short film by Jure Breceljnik called Le Tango Vertical, or The Vertical Tango, shows a completely different side than most climbing videos: artsy, sensual and alluring.

After a swim, Gros comes out of the ocean in her bikini and proceeds to climb, completely unaided, a rock formation along the beach. Granted, it isn’t the Alps nor Yosemite, but it isn’t safe either.

There are two main forms of rock climbing: aid climbing and free climbing. Aid climbing involves the use of ropes and pegs in the rock to pull the climber up the face of a cliff. Free climbing may also include the use of ropes and pegs, but only to protect the climber in case of a slip or fall.  Free climbers prize the sense of achievement and artistry that come from developing a close relationship to the vertical surface. This allows them to compose a route that traverses that surface, called a line. This route is unique, suited to their own body and skill set.

Climbing, like life, is never without risk, never completely safe. Ropes can break, pegs can become dislodged. Gros has chosen to forego such gear completely, feeling that she can handle this formation without them. And she can. What amazing physical strength and confidence! Watch her stomach muscles to see how much squeeze she maintains while holding on, thinking, and moving. She possesses unbelievable core and arm strength. I don’t know about you, but I’d be jelly up there.

Still from Le Tango Vertical

Still from Le Tango Vertical

Le Tango Vertical is an apt title. Like a tango dancer, Gros moves in a practiced, sensual way, sometimes slowly and smoothly, sometimes aggressively and decisively, feeling her way across the stone shelves. She must know them intimately in order to gauge that they will hold her weight. She must also know the limits of her own body to avoid overextending herself.

This isn’t the only film of Natalija Gros. She is the subject of Breceljnik’s documentary Chalk and Chocolate and was also featured in his documentary New Dimension, which delves into urban bouldering in Argentina. Amazing work from both artists.

Natalija Gros being filmed by Jure Beceljnik for Chalk and Chocolate. This portrait was commisioned by Mladina weekly. © Borut Peterlin, used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Natalija Gros being filmed by Jure Beceljnik for Chalk and Chocolate. This portrait was commisioned by Mladina weekly and is designed to poke fun at the contrast between climber and artist, thus the comfy red chair. In reality, both the climber and artist had to do some crazy things to get the footage they captured.
© Borut Peterlin, used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Sadly, Jure Breceljnik died two months ago in 2015. If you would like to know more about this talented man, a graduate of the Film and TV School of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, please read this tribute from his friend and colleague Borut Peterlin.

Comfortable in Her Own Skin: Tradition, Modernity and the Dancing of Irina Akulenko

The society we live in shapes our understanding of body image and self. How does dance influence that understanding?

Video via WorldDance NewYork. Irina Akulenko plays the blindfolded character of Justice as pictured in the Tarot.

Irina Akulenko bases her life as a dancer, teacher and choreographer in New York City, touring both nationally and internationally. As soloist and collaborator, she has been part of Bellyqueen Dance Theater, Bella Gaia, Alchemy Dance Theater and  BALAM Dance Theater, to name just a few of her credits. Her style is a fascinating blend of several traditions with its foundation in belly dance. As a child, Akulenko was already exploring ballet, piano and voice, as well as drawing, when she had her first taste of belly dance. She was quickly addicted and sought out teachers who could show her the intricacies of this expressive art form which originated in the Middle East. Her background lies in Egyptian Cabaret and American Tribal style belly dance.

 Photograph of a ghaziya (1906)

Photograph of a ghaziya dancer in Egypt(1906)
TIMEA with CCLicense

Egypt has one of the oldest traditions of belly dance, stemming from social folk dances that were performed by men, women and children. These were later refined and embellished to be performed for Ottoman rulers, who kept troupes of dancers, both male and female. There were actually periods of time in which the Ottomans banned women from dancing and men, known as zenneskept the tradition going. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, dancers supported themselves by working cabarets or night clubs, donning sequined and revealing costumes that showed off the impressive torso and hip articulation that is the hallmark of belly dancing. It was at this time that belly dancing became an almost exclusively female profession, since there were no clubs catering to women and homosexuality, which was fairly common among the Ottoman nobility, was no longer tolerated. Much of the seediness and stigma attributed to belly dance comes from being relegated to night clubs in Cairo, where the women who danced were seen as little more than prostitutes.

The Egyptian Cabaret tradition persists, although there are tensions in modern Egypt. Dancers, singers and performers in general are not considered respectable in conservative Islamic society. Bare midriffs have been banned since the 1950s and women who show their bodies are considered haram, mortally sinful and abhorrent. I recommend this article from Daily News Egypt to anyone who desires to understand the challenges and intimidation belly dancers face there. Egyptian Cabaret style is much less restrained in the West than in its homeland.

Dance has a way of speaking clearly without language. Even without the historical stigma, it is understandable that some people, westerners and easterners, religious and non religious, find fault with the sensual movement of belly dance and the empowerment women find in it. This reaction probably has more to do with the viewer’s lack of comfort with their own sensuality than with a lack of modesty on the part of the dancer, who has simultaneously become powerful and vulnerable. Thoughts can be scary, even when they don’t lead to action. How do we learn to simply allow something, or especially someone, to be authentically and naturally sexy without becoming possessive?

Provocative and beautiful, belly dance has traveled all over the globe, fusing with other forms, evolving and preserving itself. American Tribal Style (ATS) was created by the fascinating Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman, inspired by folk dance from the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and India informed by modern flourishes and sensibility. It has a heavy emphasis on group improvisation and communication through dance, returning belly dance to its roots while also taking it somewhere new.

Irina Akulenko at White Sands, New Mexico, USA © Irina Akulenko from her website

Irina Akulenko at White Sands, New Mexico, USA
© Irina Akulenko from her website

Irina Akulenko’s desire for inspiration has led her to study and integrate other forms of folk dance into her style as well. Flamenco, from Andalusia, in Spain, is a bold, expressive and modern form, famous for its powerful, percussive elements and use of props, while Odissi is the oldest form of dance in India, characterized by delicately stylized head and limb gestures. Belly dance, Odissi and Flamenco all use well articulated body movement to express emotion in an improvisational format. By using all three, she widens the emotional and technical range of her work. What an exciting thing to be so comfortable with your own body!

Video via WorldDance NewYork. Akulenko reveals a gentler sensuality in this performance which recalls the Odissi tradition of India.

Akulenko also holds a degree in Political Science and is drawn to women’s issues and visual art. If you like, you can learn to belly dance from her series of instructional videos at Howcast on YouTube. Her talent for blending styles reveals an openness to finding similarities between cultures and a need to express herself to a wide audience. Anytime we express something, we risk being evaluated and judged. True artists like Akulenko know that the expression is worth the risk. Brava!

Quote for Today: Walt Whitman

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Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset–earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow’d earth–rich apple-blossom’d earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Sensuality of Texture: Geology of Shoes

Machines are so essential to daily life that we often fail to appreciate what we can make with our hands.

Statue of a Cordwainer in Watling Street, London Image © Metro Centric with CCLicense

Statue of a Cordwainer in Watling Street, London
Image © Metro Centric with CCLicense

A cordwainer is a person that fashions luxury footwear from soft leather by hand, designing, cutting and shaping shoes into objects of beauty and usefulness. The term is derived from the same word that gives us cordovan, a soft leather that originated in Cordoba, Spain and has long been used in the trade of making shoes.

The Cordwainer’s Technical College of London has an illustrious history of training world class artisans. Famous fashion designers like Jimmy Choo and Patrick Cox trained there. In 2000, Cordwainer’s was folded into the London College of Fashion. Barbora Veselá, the immensely talented artist featured in this short film by Petr Krejčí, is a recent graduate. Combining techniques that have provided beautiful results for centuries with a modern creative flair, she’s inspiring to watch and her shoes are fantastic. There is a certain peace and comfort that settles over me when I’m watching an artisan at work.

Video via Petr Krejčí on Vimeo.

Krejčí’s exceptional film captures the magical textures and sensuality of Veselá’s work. The shoes featured in the video are inspired by the colors and contours of geological maps, hence geological shoes. The creative process is refreshingly slow and careful compared to that of objects made entirely by machine, as leather scraps of different colors are cut and assembled on a shoe tree, sanded and cut again to become shoes. The punching of the leather for laces is a supremely sensual moment– so delightful!

If you are interested in looking at more shoes, or perhaps even ordering some from Veselá’s shop in London, please take a look at her website.

Quote for Today: Catherynne M. Valente

© Indy Kethdy with CCLicense

© Indy Kethdy with CCLicense

Squeeze your eyes closed, as tight as you can, and think of all your favorite autumns, crisp and perfect, all bound up together like a stack of cards. That is what it is like, the awful, wonderful brightness of Fairy colors. Try to smell the hard, pale wood sending up sharp, green smoke into the afternoon. To feel the mellow, golden sun on your skin, more gentle and cozier and more golden than even the light of your favorite reading nook at the close of the day.

Catherynne M. ValenteThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Synkroniciti has quoted Catherynne M. Valente before here.

Quote for Today: Rainer Maria Rilke

At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.

Rainer Maria Rilke

© B. Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net with CCLicense

© B. Monginoux / Landscape-Photo.net with CCLicense

Synkroniciti has quoted Rilke before here.

Quote for Today: William H. Gass

© Finalrobo101 with CCLicense

© Finalrobo101 with CCLicense

The word itself has another color. It’s not a word with any resonance, although the e was once pronounced. There is only the bump now between b and l, the relief at the end, the whew. It hasn’t the sly turn which crimson takes halfway through, yellow’s deceptive jelly, or the rolled-down sound in brown. It hasn’t violet’s rapid sexual shudder or like a rough road the irregularity of ultramarine, the low puddle in mauve like a pancake covered in cream, the disapproving purse to pink, the assertive brevity of red, the whine of green.

William H. GassOn Being Blue

Undercurrents of Sensuality and Aggression in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

The most famous of vampires is Dracula. Why are we mesmerized by this character created more than a century ago?

We owe our acquaintance with Dracula, a figure who has laced himself through western culture and has been portrayed on film more than Sherlock Holmes, to the mind of Bram Stoker, who wove him from legend and his own imagination with daring skill. Stoker was known during his lifetime chiefly as the personal assistant to actor Henry Irving and the manager of Irving’s theatre, the Lyceum, in London. It is ironic that his name would eclipse that of Irving, only to be overshadowed by his greatest creation, the aristocratic vampire known as Count Dracula.

Origins of a Monster

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula

Stoker spent seven years researching vampires before writing Dracula, with particular attention to the strigoi, or undead, of the Balkan peninsula. The strigoi were peasant men and women who came back from the dead to feast upon the blood of their own kin. Although he was excited by the animal ferocity of these creatures, who often transformed themselves into wolves or bats, these folktales were not completely satisfying to Stoker, who wanted to create a character to be played by his own employer, Henry Irving, a regal and noble presence who often played impressive villains onstage. Much to his delight, he ran across the history of a Wallachian prince of Transylvania, now a region of central Romania, renowned for his unspeakable cruelty and bloodlust. This prince was called Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler, after his habit of impaling his enemies on long wooden stakes, but not while he was within earshot. His title was Vlad Dracula, son of the Dragon, after his father who had been knighted into the Order of the Dragon and was thus sworn to keep Christianity safe from the invading Ottoman Turks. In fusing the strigoi with this infamous historical warrior, Stoker produced a menacing and enduring personality who contained both aristocratic and uncivilized elements.

A Shadow of Victorian Values

800px-Dracula_1958_c

Christopher Lee as Dracula

Contrary to what we often see in movies, Stoker’s Dracula is not charming and seductive, nor does he seem susceptible to romance. He is a violent and methodical predator who is capable of taking what he requires by overwhelming and out-thinking his victims against their will. Although he cannot enter a home without being invited in, he has, over centuries, amassed techniques for tricking the inhabitants into doing just that. Thus he uses Lucy’s sleepwalking to trap her and his power over the insane Renfield to gain access to Seward’s asylum and his guests.  With the exception of a quick glimpse on the street, neither Lucy nor Mina ever meet him in a normal social situation.

© Il Fatto Quotidiano with CCLicense

© Il Fatto Quotidiano with CCLicense

If he is not conventionally seductive, why are Dracula’s victims women and why do they end up under his power? Here lies a deep shadow. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula the push for women’s rights and universal suffrage was beginning, hence there are many references to the “new women”, usually spoken by Mina or Lucy in a pejorative fashion that belies considerable fascination. In addition, Sigmund Freud was promoting his ideas about sexuality and the subconscious. Victorian blood was beginning to boil. We see the men in Stoker’s novel trying to protect their women from the vampire while seeking to retain the proper distance and decorum between genders that was required by society. This strategy very nearly gets them all murdered and the ladies turned into immortal killing machines. It is ultimately Mina’s coordination and communication across the gender divide that provides hope for overcoming Dracula, not the overprotective schemes of Van Helsing and his crew, who consistently make quite a mess of things. These men are crippled by their own refusal to see women as complete beings and their idealization of the feminine. Unfortunately, it is usually the women who pay the price for their ignorance.

374px-1800-jumprope-pinup-Sophia-WesternShe is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble, so little an egoist – and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish. 

–Professor Van Helsing, speaking of Madam Mina, Chapter 14

The Victorian lady was presented with few options: she could retain an innocent, angelic personality and show childlike devotion to a husband whom she would regard worshipfully without lust, she could become a spinster on the edge of society who would always be dependent on male relatives and regarded with some suspicion, or she could become a lady of ill repute. Female sensuality was taboo and any woman who admitted to enjoying sex, even within the bonds of wedlock, was not considered wholesome or healthy, although mothers were revered. There is a sense in Dracula that, rather than see their women as sexual creatures, these men would see them dead and their bodies desecrated. Are they engaged in battle with a vampire, or are they victim to their own fears and imaginations?

The unfortunate Miss Lucy has three suitors. In her letters to Mina, she expresses dismay at having to choose between them, admitting to having the scandalous thought of marrying all of them. Later, in an attempt to keep her alive, she will receive blood transfusions from each of these suitors, as well as one from old man Van Helsing himself. Is it this underlying sensuality which condemns her, and if so, are the men guiltless in this regard? Perhaps Dracula is terrifying because he lies at the intersection of female sensuality with male aggression.

Dracula in the 21st Century

Dracula takes place in a culture where women are not permitted to make choices vital to their own survival and where they are stigmatized for their natural sexuality. Old habits die hard, because these issues are front page news these days, although women have many more options and a stronger voice than they did in the Victorian era. Maybe we can put a stake through the heart of misogyny some day in the future.

© FICG.mx with CCLicense

© FICG.mx with CCLicense

Dracula may seem like your grandfather’s vampire, but there is life in him yet. A foreign invader possessing skill, intelligence, and animal sensuality, he remains a persuasive argument against eternal youth at a time when our culture seems ready to embrace it as a path of little risk. Come to think of it, maybe the vampires of the 21st century are more frightening. Would anyone want to spend eternity as a sparkly teenager?