In a few days I’ll be back at my old stomping grounds at the Asia Research Institute, NUS, for a research workshop on intimate labour, gender, and migration organised by the Asian Migration research cluster. The essay-in-progress I’m presenting is on the work of Manila-based choreographer and dance artist Eisa Jocson, whose oeuvre interrogates these very themes of intimacy, skill, gender, and the mobile Philippine body in compelling ways. Here’s an excerpt of her work Macho Dancer (2014-), featured in a music video by Canadian electropop musician Peaches:
Performing (and) the Philippine Migrant Body: The Queer Aesthetics and Craft Pedagogies of Intimacy in Eisa Jocson’s Practice
This essay discusses the body of dance works by Manila-based artist Eisa Jocson as a way to think through the challenge of producing (and interrogating) knowledge about intimate labour. Each of Jocson’s pieces presents a “Filipinised” genre of migrant entertainment labour—pole dancing, macho dancing, japayuki hostessing, and the balletic “princess” roles in Disneyland theme parks—and distills these forms into movement vocabularies, with the aim of revealing audiences’ underlying assumptions of these highly racialised and gendered dances, which in themselves blur neat divisions between sex work and service work, high and low culture, authenticity and imitation. Jocson’s practice emerges from a distinctly pedagogical logic of craft labour (close apprenticeship with working entertainers to perform the dances herself); and it situates itself in the contemporary art world’s symbolic economy of conceptual and aesthetic provocation. I thus discuss both its content and context to foreground two themes which prove instructive in the project of making sense of the complexities of intimate labour. First, Jocson’s work posits a queer aesthetics of mimicry (Berlant, 2012; Tongson, 2018) that productively entangles questions of gender and race with the skill hierarchies inherent in the performance of dance forms typically considered unartistic and exploitative. Second, its conflation of performance art with the craft labour (Sennett, 2008) of dance entertainment demonstrates a way to address the research tasks of intertwining (1) conceptual/symbolic and embodied/material aspects of knowledge production, and (2) ethical and epistemological implications of working closely with migrant research subjects. The essay draws from three sources: close readings of Jocson’s key performances of her works in major dance and art festivals from 2013-2017; selected critical performance reviews of her shows; and autoethnographic material based on my ongoing dialogue with Jocson about her forthcoming performance-work on migrant Filipino music entertainers.