Simon Mayer's Sons of Sissy slaps new life into old Austrian folk dance

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      As a child growing up on an organic farm in the idyllic Upper Austrian countryside, Simon Mayer was surrounded by folk music, yodelling, and the traditional schuhplattler dance—the one in which leather-shorted performers stomp, clap, and slap their feet, thighs, and knees.

      Later on, when he went off to study and perform at the prestigious Vienna State Opera Ballet, he left the quaint Alpine forms behind.

      “I would hide that I was a farmer,” the young contemporary dance star confesses to the Straight, speaking over the phone from Brussels. “When you weren’t dancing very well, they’d say, ‘You’re dancing like a farmer!’ ”

      But as Mayer moved away from ballet and into contemporary dance, transferring to Belgium to work at the cutting-edge Performing Arts and Research Studios (P.A.R.T.S.), he started to gain a new appreciation for the schuhplattler. Around him, he saw other contemporary dancers reimagining the folk styles of their own cultures—from the Argentine tango to India’s bharata natyam. So he started to delve deeper into the symbolic, social, and gender connotations of the fun, slap-happy form he had grown up with.

      The result is Sons of Sissy, in which the choreographer, dancer, and musician not only daringly upends and deconstructs tradition, but quite literally strips it to its essence. Yes, over the course of the show, the four male performers go beyond playing folk instruments and dancing the schuhplattler. They eventually get naked.

      “I found myself in studio in my underwear doing the schuhplattler, and then I thought, ‘Maybe this is not enough,’ and tried it naked,” explains the artist, who nabbed the 2017 outstanding-artist award from the Austrian Chancellery, among other accolades. “Leather pants would normally protect you from the slapping. But naked, it would get red and painful. Anytime I would perform this dance in the countryside, I remember guys would yell, ‘Hit harder!’ That meant it would be more percussive, but also it meant a lot more pain. So it became this whole story of ‘I want to show off masculinity, but also, not having leather pants, the self-torturing for the sake of masculinity.’ ”

      Sons of Sissy by choreographer Simon Mayer.
      Rania Moslam

      The themes go much more than skin-deep, however. Mayer went back to the centuries-old birthplace of the schuhplattler, where it rose as a kind of mating ritual at farmers’ weddings. A guy “either out of being totally drunk or just self-empowerment”, Mayer says, would basically act like a chicken to ask a woman to dance with him. That slapping dance would become more of an acrobatic game of one-upmanship over ensuing generations.

      Mayer became fascinated by the humour woven into the dance throughout history. He notes that in the 20th century, after the Nazis celebrated such traditional folk dances, the only way to rekindle them was with laughs. “On TV, folk dances had to be funny, so humour had to be used to take it away from National Socialism,” he explains. “So you would always see it in these contexts.”

      As Mayer explored the form more, he became fascinated by how the schuhplattler would reflect the roles of the male and female. “Why would it still not be possible for a guy to dance with a guy in this? Women danced with women a lot,” he comments. “That’s what brought me to men. In the region where I grew up, intimacy between men is a very taboo topic.”

      Mayer found additional inspiration in the stories of one of his dancer-musicians, who had experienced homophobia growing up in rural Austria.

      So Sons of Sissy plies complex territory—while never forgetting the laughter that drives the art form. The result is a weird, liberating, and often hilarious folk-music-fed dance—with nudity. If that makes it seem hard to describe, Mayer offers insight.

      “The fact that we are naked means that we play with vulnerability," Mayer concludes. "So it’s really this combination of, on one hand, playing with the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, but also showing this vulnerability.”

      Sons of Sissy is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Thursday to Saturday (April 4 to 6).