Mandala and the Men’s Movement(s)

by Clyde Smith (1999)

For Graduate Students’ Conference at The Ohio State University
Based on Masters Thesis (Smith, 1995)

In this paper, which is based on a larger study, I discuss an interdisciplinary dance/performance work called “Mandala” in order to forefront it as an example of what R.W. Connell (1995) terms the “enormous possibilities of re-embodiment for men” (152). Created and performed in various incarnations from 1988 to 1992 by the male members of Contraband, a San Francisco based dance/performance company, “Mandala” illuminated themes often associated with the mythopoetic men’s movement. However, “Mandala” was influenced by multiple men’s movements largely unfamiliar to the general public, by feminist and queer forces and by the openly experimental nature of gender exploration in San Francisco. These multiple influences not only make it difficult to compartmentalize this work, but also bring into question reductionist critiques of the mythopoetic men’s movement that fail to consider its reception at a grassroots level, what Michael Schwalbe (1996) terms the “mythopoetic rank and file” (12). In the title, I refer to men’s movement(s) in the plural to indicate that, like the women’s movement, the organized activities of men directed towards personal and social change are multifaceted and sometimes conflicting.

“Mandala” was an evening length men’s performance piece created and performed by Keith Hennessy, Jess Curtis and Jules Beckman who were then core participants in the dance/performance company Contraband under the direction of Sara Shelton Mann. “Mandala” began as a short piece called “For Your Own Good” in the spring of 1988 and was developed through an ongoing process resulting in a reasonably final version which I saw in December of 1990 at Theater Artaud in San Francisco. This paper is a partial overview of a larger study which draws from my memory of the event, a videotape of the December performance, interviews with Keith, Jess and Jules, relevant literature, including writings by the performers, and my own lived experiences of the issues raised in “Mandala.” In this writing all unattributed quotes are from interviews I conducted with Keith, Jess and Jules in March of 1995.

I originally encountered “Mandala” during the time I lived in San Francisco from 1989 to 1992. Upon my arrival in the Bay Area, I realized that I had landed in a sort of “life laboratory” in which identities based on gender and sexuality were in an exploratory state of flux. Humans who could not readily be assigned traditional gender roles or who crossed those boundaries were in evident abundance. San Francisco was a sexually open and ambiguously gendered milieu where life, art and politics fluidly intermingled rather than remaining separate. This setting formed the context for my initial reception of “Mandala” and for its creation. In the course of this study, I came to understand that “Mandala” can be viewed, in Renato Rosaldo’s (1993, orig. 1989) words, as a “busy intersection where a number of distinct social processes intersect” (17). San Francisco, its cultural context, is not “a self-contained whole made up of coherent patterns” but more a “porous array of intersections where [such] distinct processes crisscross from within and beyond its borders” (20).

“Mandala” utilized dance, performance art, music, props, text and lighting to create a powerful theatrical event. The artists describe their work in the booking information as,

a full evening performance tracking the ecstatic journey of three young Euro-American men, seeking an initiation into the world of their fathers at the same time that they must reject the world that their fathers have created. They search their bodies for a truth that is not apparent in the image of the American male. They create a ritual of sweat, breath and blood. The movement of sport and battle release age old knowledge of themselves and their ability to love life, the world and each other.

The event began in the street in front of Theater Artaud and then proceeded inside. Keith Hennessy, in a note accompanying the videotape, described the opening scene as,

a “pre-show” of uninitiated male chaos. Doing contact with a moving car & no driver. Colliding with an abandoned car. Drinking beer, smashing the bottles & . . . pissing off the car. A mock/dance/fight in which Jess dies. Jules & I set fire to the abandoned car & drive away.

The performance continues inside in three sections with a brief coda. The first section uses song, dance and performance art to introduce various themes. If the opening spoke of who the performers were at an earlier time, this section speaks of who they were when they began work on this project. It includes references to sport, to revolution, to abandonment, to loneliness. The second section is a series of monologues by each man about his relationship to his father. In many ways, this section is the core event of the evening. Each monologue reveals personal information via performance art techniques and each is sad and powerful in its own way. All three share a theme of abandonment. The third section focuses on who the men have become through “confronting” their fathers and working as a group. This section builds to a ritual event involving nudity, purification, knives, dancing and drumming. As an encore they sing “Nine Hundred Miles,” a folk song cut from the show that each of their fathers had sung to them when they were young.

During the course of the evening, we saw men in process from wild, “uninitiated” males to men confronting their fathers to men drawing together in ritual mode to realize their own maturation. The themes of men being with men, men and their fathers and male initiation into adulthood were central to this project. We witnessed men playing, working and moving together, revealing personal material, touching and supporting each other and making a lot of music. Most of the songs considered men’s experiences of various kinds. Percussion also played a large part in this performance and the men’s drumming turned the cavernous space of Theater Artaud into an aural environment.

The underlying structure as well as the creation of “Mandala” drew on an approach to ritual inspired, in part, by the mythopoetic men’s movement. Keith Hennessy was deeply involved in the mythopoetic men’s movement and Jess Curtis and Jules Beckman were also influenced by such activities. All three wrestled with issues addressed in this movement, including a concern with men creating space to do healing work with other men as well as a focus on fathers, ritual and drumming.

The mythopoetic men’s movement emerged in the early 1980s identified, in large part, with the publication of Keith Thompson’s (1991, xviii) interview with Robert Bly in New Age magazine in May of 1982. This movement focused on gatherings of men doing rituals grounded in mythological work, particularly Archetypal Psychology, which is both a branch of and a name for Jungian psychology developed by James Hillman. Hillman and Michael Meade were key figures in these gatherings as were many other men. Keith points to Bly, Hillman and Meade as particularly influential on his thinking at the time. As these activities grew in popularity, the mass media both publicized and parodied them. In the process, Robert Bly became synonymous in the public eye with the mythopoetic men’s movement and his writing and commentary began to stand in for a diverse grouping of people.

Feminists and other social critics who critiqued the mythopoetic men’s movement often did so by focusing on Bly and Iron John (1990), once it was published. These critiques rightly called Bly and, occasionally, other figures on their misogynist tendencies. Susan Faludi (1991), in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, portrays Bly in an extremely unfavorable light. She characterizes the “true subject of Bly’s weekends” as “power–how to wrest it from women and how to
mobilize it for men” (310). In fact, the very notion of men only meetings upset many critics. Jill Johnston (1994) states that “these meetings smack of the paranoid and racist overreactions of the David Dukes of the world, who feel that white (male) societies are threatened by black advances, however miniscule these advances actually are” (29-30).

These and other criticisms are well worth considering and if reports by figures like Faludi and Johnston are correct, then Robert Bly is not the benevolent creature one might imagine. But Bly is not the mythopoetic men’s movement and this movement is not the only manifestation of men organizing to change themselves. In fact, the Contraband men received and participated in the mythopoetic men’s movement in the context of multiple men’s movements with an acknowledged articulation of feminism’s impact on their lives.

Keith Hennessy (1992), in a pamphlet addressed to the “media-identified men’s movement,” says that he “intends this essay to be a bridge between three overlapping ‘men’s movements’–mythopoetic, socio-political, and gay spiritual” (3). He identifies the mythopoetic movement, grouped around such figures as Bly, Meade, and Hillman, as primarily heterosexual. The socio-political men’s movement is composed of groups addressing “issues of racism, classism, rape/abuse/violence, homophobia, sexism, poverty, censorship.” He identifies these men as “a lively mix of gay, het and bisexual men.”

Keith describes the “gay spirit community” as a “loose web which includes, among others, Radical Faeries, the work of Joseph Kramer, Harry Hay, and Andrew Ramer, the spirit-based SM communities, and ‘alternative’ AIDS healing circles and services.” These men he identifies as “primarily gay and bisexual” and he asserts that all these movements are composed of men who are “primarily european-descendent, american-born and middle class.” Keith, who leads a variety of men’s workshops, writes,

I offer these images to the men who claim Robert Bly, Michael Meade, James Hillman, and Robert Moore as teachers because it is in their presence that I was inspired to first speak these words. I offer my queer anarchist pagan artist voice in the spirit of solidarity with all the voices–of women, of indigenous peoples, of african and asian- americans, of latino/[s and latin]as, of the institutionalized, and more–who speak to liberation and revolution and peace and respect for the earth. (10)

Keith, Jess and Jules all share this larger perspective of what men’s movement is and can be. They also recognize that much of what they do is inspired by women’s work. Jess Curtis points out that,

the feminist movement has . . . an awesome impact on a lot that we do ranging from the art world and Judy Chicago and Linda Montano, the impact that feminist women have, like Karen Finley. That work’s all really important. And then the work of Reclaiming and Starhawk’s writing . . . I remember Keith turning me on to reading Mary Daly and, wow, that’s a really incredible perspective that she presents in a critique of the systemic misogyny of our culture . . . She was a real inspiration around seeing the roots of and how pervasive the conceptualization of misogyny is.

This learning from women includes bringing these lessons into working with men. Jules states,

I definitely know that growing up I felt a sense of envy about the way that women seemed to naturally touch each other and acknowledge each other and compliment each other and support each other. . . . I had an envy of that. And I saw this quality of sisterhood that I knew that I wanted in my life with my brothers . . . And I mean brothers in the larger sense. And for me, figuring out what the obstacles to having that . . . was a lot about learning what it was to be male.

Part of what was learned from women was not only that the “personal is political,” which informed feminist performance art and the making of “Mandala,” but also the necessity for gender specific space. During the women’s movement, women created women’s only space to do the work that they found necessary and that they could only do with other women. While men’s groups also emerged in the 1970s, some of which were men only support groups, the widespread creation of spaces to facilitate men changing did not emerge. In certain respects, the mythopoetic movement appeared because of that void. So, in recognizing the limits of that particular movement, we also have to recognize the needs that are expressed by some men’s positive reception of the mythopoetic men’s movement.

An important feminist figure, bell hooks (1994), thinks that,

men have not fully named and grappled with the sorrows of boyhood in the way feminism gave us as women ways to name some of the tragedies of our “growhood” in sexist society. I think males are just beginning to develop a language to name some of the tragedies for them–to express what was denied them. (212-13)

While hooks acknowledges the value of men gathering with men she also points out that “men’s groups, like women’s support groups, run the risk of overemphasizing personal change at the expense of political analysis and struggle” (1984, 72). The issue of an “overemphasis” on personal change is often included in critiques of the mythopoetic men’s movement.

Keith believes that stopping the abuse of women by men can be an important aspect of men gathering. However Keith also points to “issues of emotional safety and protection,” and what he terms “archetypal or spiritual reasons that . . . men need to have spaces where men gather.” Keith states,

I know the history of men gathering . . . especially white men bonding with their own secret languages is not generally a good story for women or people of color. And at the same time I want to say, it still needs to happen . . . [some] white men . . . still need to gather in their own support groups and process stuff that they can’t elsewhere or have experiences they can’t elsewhere.

My own reading of such issues is greatly influenced by my experiences in San Francisco. In particular, my understanding of what men’s space can be occurred while dancing with a men’s dance company, The High Risk Group. This was my first truly positive experience of working in a group of men. Earlier experiences of male violence and competitiveness caused me to feel unsafe with other men. During this time with The High Risk Group, I experienced a profound sense of the possibilities for men coming together for self healing and cultural action.

Studying “Mandala” also lead me to a fuller understanding of the unfulfilled potential represented by the multiple men’s movements. In the late 1960’s, the United States saw the emergence of a women’s movement that has since affected every sector of our society. Even where positive changes have not resulted, people remain conscious of gender issues. As the women’s movement emerged, a small number of men began to support feminist activity and to find ways to facilitate men changing themselves. These attempts included men’s support groups as well as male critiques of such separatist activity.

One powerful document of this interaction of men with the women’s movement is The Women Say, The Men Say (Shapiro & Shapiro, 1979). This document reveals that the women’s movement had male allies from the beginning, yet this support has gone largely unrecognized. bell hooks (1984) notes that,

men who have dared to be honest about sexism and sexist oppression, who have chosen to assume responsibility for opposing and resisting it, often find themselves isolated. Their politics are disdained by anti-feminist men and women, and are often ignored by women active in feminist movement. (79)

R. W. Connell (1995), a sociologist of “masculinities,” also points out that,

men who try to develop a politics in support of feminism are not in for an easy ride. They are likely to be m
et with derision from many other men and from some women . . . they will not necessarily get warm support from feminist women. (150)

This lack of support from women and the inability to enlist men who choose to benefit from the “patriarchal dividend” (150) does make it difficult for men to find new ways of being that can change gender relations. “Mandala” represents one way of proceeding, in its syncretic mix of men’s movement, feminist and queer influences as well as its example of what Connell terms the “enormous possibilities of re-embodiment for men” which demonstrate that “there are different ways of using, feeling, and showing male bodies” (152). Jess Curtis, Jules Beckman and Keith Hennessy produced a work at the intersection of many social processes. It is at such sites where those who desire the free play of gender possibilities in a just society must stand, embodying and prefiguring the world we wish to inhabit.


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