Unsexy Science, or What is Art?
As a former classical ballet dancer, I cannot resist my desire to discuss Nancy Kress’s “Dancing on Air” (Beaker’s Dozen (1998)). Generally, I am interested in analyzing which literary, cultural, and ideological conventions the science fiction narratives under review in this course uncritically reinscribe, and which ones they subvert or revise. For example, many of Kress’s stories, like Blade Runner, rely on the formula and tropes of the detective story—the story in which an investigative cop or journalist navigates an adventure filled with unknowns, murders, and impending deaths. As I see it, the plot of “Dancing on Air” borrows the basic framework of a famous nineteenth-century narrative of sexual danger: the story of Jack the Ripper, that notorious murderer who in 1888 slaughtered five prostitutes, inspiring a detective hunt, a media frenzy, and a cultural myth that endures today. Ultimately undetected, the Ripper was known only via his modus operandi of dismembering and occasionally sexually mutilating his female victims (See Judith Walkowitz’s brilliant City of Dreadful Delight (1992) for her extensive treatment of this cultural history).
In “Dancing on Air,” Susan serves as the news-writing narrator who, like the hordes of London reporters who speculated about the Ripper mystery, investigates a slew of ballerina homicides. Caroline, “the girl who turned herself into a beautiful doll,” is not unlike a prostitute in her service to Pimp Privitera (308). Her apparent need for a guard dog underscores the constant bodily danger she risks when walking in public spaces—the very concern faced by late Victorian women, who were warned to stay in their homes lest the Ripper mistake them for “streetwalkers” and strike again. In fact, Kress’s story involves at least one prostitute among the murdered: “Nicole Heyer, the dead ABT dancer…rented herself out as a glamorous and expensive call girl. Fuck a ballerina: That was how her killer had gotten into her apartment” (310). It is worth observing that Blade Runner similarly involves a prostitute of sorts (Zhora), an acrobatic doll (Pris), and a damsel in distress (Rachel). Yet, whereas Jack the Ripper’s victims were perceived as having suffered the ultimate price for selling their bodies for sex, Kress’s killer punishes his victims for buying their bodies through biotechnology, rather than preserving them for art. Only vaguely sexually charged, these murders take on new meaning when the transgression shifts from sex to science. The constant for these women is condemnation for choosing what to do with their bodies.
“Dancing on Air” modifies the radically popular Ripper narrative in other significant ways. Kress quickly diverges from the erotic possibilities of the fallen woman story to the vicious exigencies of a marketplace in which artistic directors “often fired dancers because they were remaking a company into a different ‘look’” (327). In a story about women—exploited girls, mothers and daughters, old and young—Kress refashions a misogynistic myth into a web of action and perspective that makes its women human. By tale’s end, this is not a story about the sexy shock of beautiful young dolls at risk of bodily mutilation, but of people and animals who suffer fatal manipulation at the hands of a more dangerous intercourse: that between genetic engineering and unfettered capitalism. Its final twist renders Susan powerless not because she is a woman, but because the structural forces against which she and the rest of this fictional world are fighting emerge too strong for one parent to battle alone.
Finally, as someone with intimate experience in the world of dance, I must share my reaction—something of a foil—to the premise of Kress’s story. For the most part, her portrait of this world is spot-on: I vividly recall the “life and death” feeling she describes, the desperate desire to be asked to dance in The Nutcracker, the various pains and permanent injuries that came from trying to “break” my body so it would better fit the ideal, the horror of being sent back to the bar when I repeatedly failed to perform a move correctly, and so on. Kress, however, misdiagnoses the stakes of the game. She cites “musicality, rhythm, and drive” in the individual dancer, but she leaves out a host of other essentials: choreography, costumes, set design, music, lighting, personality, performance. For Kress, “bioenhancement” can lessen a dancer’s injury rate while increasing her muscle strength, bone density, leg extension, turn out, and metabolic efficiency. But, these are not the reasons why audiences attend the ballet. Those few who go, go not to gain a glimpse into the esoteric rules of technical superiority, which differ from the French to the Russian schools, but rather, to watch emotional display, art in action, uncanny combinations of movement, bright lights and flashy costumes. Unlike most professional sports, whose entertainment value depends on the scores and statistics that yield winners, dance does not require impossibly high jumps or lifts to impress its viewers. I would argue that it already has these things. How much more can a split be a split without slipping into the territory of circus?