I'm obsessed with Canadian reality tv show Battle of the Blades
, in which (ex-)professional hockey players are taught how to figure skate with top-calibre female ice dancers or pairs skaters. How could I not be? I mean, look at it:
First: I defy you not to weep as you remember the tragic beauty of Gordeeva and the late lamented Grinkov. But look how happy she is now. Secondly: Katia and her hockey player Val went to the same Russian athletic academy as children. It is clearly icy fate that has brought them together. Thirdly, bear in mind that Val has only been figure skating for a month when he performs this. A month in which all his years of accumulated confidence on the ice were abruptly crushed and then rebuilt.
I may even have used it as a way to explain defamiliarization to the students of my theatre class during our discussion of Brecht the other day. The same class featured a preliminary analysis of this week's episode of Glee
as theatricalist television (I swear to you, one of my students said, "What's Glee
?". Three of her classmates immediately responded, simultaneously and before a single beat had elapsed, "The best show EVER." Really: they all used exactly the same phrase. It was eerie.), an account of my brief appearance as an extra on the now-defunct Joan of Arcadia
to demonstrate the anxiety that results from reversing the spectatorial gaze, and a moment in which I held up a long strip of sour fruit ribbon candy and compared it to Brecht's concept of "culinary theatre," or theatre that sells you an ephemeral experience
of emotion without arousing critical distance, intellectual engagement, or the desire to change the world. I could just hear their internal monologues: "She brought us candy, which is awesome, but then she turned it into a metaphor for Brecht, which is not. How could she do this to us?".
Anyway, our minds soon turned to the question of Verfremdungseffekt
(imprecisely translated into English as alienation or estrangement, words which have an unwarranted tinge of hostility to them, since Brecht is actually advocating for Verfremdung
as a goal of socially conscious art).
"You may have heard about this in your other literature classes under the name 'defamiliarization,' which is what the Russian Formalists called it," I said to my students, all the while chewing, cow-like, on my strip of culinary theatre, "Defamiliarization is an experience of reversal and realization: when something you thought you knew (and had stopped examining closely) is made unfamiliar, and you look at it with new eyes. The idea being that what art does is defamiliarize the world, forcing us to slow down and reconsider our assumptions and take pleasure in the overlooked."
(My colleague would later remind me of the lovely quotation from Viktor Shklovsky's 1917 essay "Art as Technique": "Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war... And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony
. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar'... to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.")
"Or from Brecht's perspective, the Verfremdungseffekt
forces us to recognize the ideologies that govern aspects of society that we think of as 'natural' and unchangeable. You might think," I went on, feeling from the stoniness of their stares that perhaps I was succeeding in increasing the difficulty and length of my students' perception of Brecht, "of Battle of the Blades.
Incredulous titters. I power through.
"Defamiliarization is a hockey player who, after decades of confidence on the ice, puts on a pair of figure skates and suddenly not only realizes the difficulty of simple skating techniques (he hasn't been this clumsy since he was four years old, and what the hell
is this toepick?), but also begins to question the nature of his self-confidence, the way he has grounded his whole personality on his skating abilities, and the ideologies that undergird his celebrity, his disdain for other ice sports, his sense of masculinity, his devotion to technique and hard work and training, or the way he relates to his own body."
Oh, Georges Laraque, how I adore thee. Be sure to watch to the part of the video in which they detail how he was injured in practice doing the most demanding trick of the routine and immediately came back to perform it again. Also note the peculiar character of the judging is a Verfremdungseffekt
: there is always at least one judge who is a former hockey player on hand to comment disbelievingly that someone who once regularly bludgeoned the #^%$ out of him is now so graceful on the ice.
The player who was eliminated after this night's show asked the host if he could say something, after it became clear he was going home. Here's what it was, in all its defamiliarized glory:
"In Canada, we prejudge and stereotype figure-skating a lot. And what we've learned in the last little while, or I have, is, uh, all the hard work and dedication that these people have, but it's going on in every rink across Canada. So from all the hockey guys, we tip our hats to every kid taking this - it's an amazing sport, and we've learned a lot."