The ASTRonaut Has Landed

Welcome to Baltimore!

That’s what I’ve been saying to people all day.

Yesterday, I flew home, saw my parents for a minute, then headed downtown where I’m attending my first ASTR (American Society for Theatre Research) conference. Which just happens to be here. The conference goes until Sunday, and then instead of flying back to Madison I’ll be staying on here for another week to do Thanksgiving with the family.

ASTR has a very different feel than ATHE so far. Same people, for the most part, plenty of familiar faces, but I don’t really have a “crowd” yet; I guess it comes with being a newbie. But so far it’s been pretty exciting.

The opening session was a plenary with four fantastic presenters from all over the world. I sat and listened near the front with two other conference newbies from London who are in Baltimore for the first time, and we commiserated between speakers.

I learned a lot from each speaker, but the one that affected me the most was a woman from Dartmouth called Maral. At the start of her presentation, someone wheeled on a coat rack with three orange and black costume pieces hanging from it. Before she took the podium, she did a short dance clad all in black.

Her topic?

“Politics of National Dance Dress in 21st Century Jordan.”

Even with no prior knowledge on the subject, her presentation style was unreal. She set the scene at a state event involving a traditional dance performance, and described how the costume designer imagined the dress that was to be worn by the dancers. Only it ended up sounding like two different outfits: one more conservative and one more “European” and “orientalistic” with a slit and long, open sleeves. She spoke about how the concept of “national dress,” though stemming from the traditional abaya, is a fluid concept of Jordan. She talked about it in terms of “temporal continuity of monarchy,” showing the “collective victory of Hussein” down to today, and the connections between costume and economic stability. The dress performed as an embodied entity, to create image, identity, and marketability. The silk and chiffon fabrics and orange coloring echoed the “mystical desert sands” of an Orientalized idea of “Arabia,” and how the ballet slippers that the costume designer insisted the dancers wear on their feet “because bare feet are so primitive and passe” interrupted the Orientalism to endow the outfit to a wider audience, a “globalization on their feet.” Donning the dress, she then repeated the dance, and then speaking about the dress as an “invented subject,” she did the dance a third time, now with interpretation a la “open up, attitude, Martha Graham Martha Graham (that got a giggle from the audience)” and talked about the form and flow.

Overall, her point was that the dress performs subjectivity, between tradition and modernity, in the neoliberal regime. She then returned to her original outfit and gave sort of a reflective summary of her work, which was kind of unnecessary since we just heard it but I guess it communicated her methodology more clearly in case anyone was curious.

I really liked her presentation style, on the whole; the dance and the costume added some jazz to what could have been a boring topic.

Now that I’m really excited about semiotics and phenomenology and performativity and pedagogy, time for bed, of course, to dream about all those things.

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