CREATIVE PROJECT BY MIRA HO (’25)
Dance of Gawain’s Humanity and Animality
Performing Art (Dance)
An Interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Real and Imagined Animals in Medieval Literature (YHU2330)
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I have chosen to adapt the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight into a dance piece to explore the tension between humanity and animality in the portrayal of Gawain’s character. When the poem commences, Gawain appears as the epitome of chivalry and courtly grace that a perfect knight should embody. However, as his next encounter with the Green Knight nears and Gawain becomes increasingly conscious of his mortality, we see the layers of his humanity unfold, revealing the animality that humans often wish to suppress.
Gawain is initially portrayed as perfect example of a chivalric knight and the Arthurian ideal. When the Green Knight first enters the court and poses a challenge, Gawain is the first one to accept, and does so with extreme politeness and modesty. As he asks for permission to leave the Queen’s side, Gawain’s speech is elaborate and strenuously deferential: “should you call me, courteous lord to rise from my seat and stand at your side, politely take leave of my place at the table and quit without causing offence to my queen, then I would come to your counsel before this great court” (343-7). It is apparent that he takes great pains to respectfully take King Arthur’s place in the challenge and not call attention to himself. This display of courtesy and bravery is heightened by the symbolic significance of the five-pointed star painted on his shield. In the original text, the word “poyntez” is used, a clever play on words, as it can mean both “points” and “virtues.” The five points of the star can represent the five virtues that Gawain upholds, which include generosity, purity and courtesy. The pentangle is painted with a single line, giving the star the appearance of an endless knot. As all points of the star are linked, the knot, or star, fails if any part is missing, implying that perfection is necessary. This is significant as it places Gawain on an impossible pedestal. The painting of Virgin Mary next to the pentangle further highlights the high moral standard Gawain is expected to uphold.
This character analysis was portrayed in my dance piece from 00:00 to 00:48. I chose to choreograph a ballet sequence for this segment to mimic the courtly and flawless portrayal of Gawain. The ballet dance genre originates from court dance and hence physically embodies elements of the stiff posture and grace that is associated with Gawain’s courtly portrayal. The beginning of the dance mirrors the polite introduction Gawain makes as he offers to take Arthur’s place in the challenge. I begin kneeling and rise gracefully with my weight on one foot in a show of respect and poise. The pas de bourrée that follows between 00:11 and 00:13 is a movement that emphasizes openness, and mirrors Gawain’s generous offering. This is followed by an elaborate set of battement tendus between 00:18 and 00:23. Here, my intricate leg movements mirror Gawain’s elaborate speech. It was important that I highlighted this in a significant way throughout the first segment of the dance, as his complex sentence structures and courtly mannerisms are admired by others, and are seen as a manifestation of his chivalry. Most importantly, these behaviors set him apart from the animals that he encounters later in the poem, and clearly highlight his humanity. These dance steps build up to a series of grande battements between 00:24 and 00:32. These high kicks are powerful and high in energy. The movements command attention, just as Gawain seems to draw the eyes of others with his chivalric displays and reputation. My choice to use ballet in this segment is particularly significant because of the precision ballet technique requires. In ballet, all steps are clearly defined, and my precise movements physically symbolize the high moral standard that Gawain is held to.
The scene where Gawain enters the Green Chapel marks a turning point in his character development. For the first time, the tensions between his humanity and animality emerge. The Green Chapel is described as a “wild place; no sign of a settlement anywhere to be seen but heady heights to both halves of the valley” (2164-5). The Green Chapel is not the civilized building Gawain expects but an empty barrow “set with saber-toothed stones” (2166). Gawain interprets the sharp structures and emptiness of the barrow as haunted and cursed, attempting to use human methods to rationalize the animal fear that he is experiencing. Clinging to his Christian, human beliefs instead of succumbing to his natural instincts highlights the breaking down of the barrier between his identity as a human and an animal.
This tension between Gawain’s humanity and animality is highlighted with a change in dance genre from classical ballet to neo-classical ballet. Neo-classical ballet typically aims to challenge traditional ballet technique, for instance, by keeping the feet parallel instead of turned-out. In my dance piece, I begin with the sharp elbow and torso contraction at 00:49. The sharp, repetitive movements that follow mimic Gawain’s jarred reaction to the Green Chapel and its apparent hauntedness. My shaking, outreached hand and cautious steps backwards from 01:11 to 01:19 physically embody the chills Gawain is experiencing. Yet throughout this dance segment, I continuously look around the room, often in the opposite direction from that which my body is traveling. This represents Gawain’s attempt to deny his instinctual fear and instead attempt to rationalize the eerie feeling he is experiencing.
The final meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight reveals Gawain’s corporeality, as in the face of his death he is forced to let go of the strict human virtues he has held himself to throughout the poem. The Green Knight’s auditory introduction mimics the signals a wild animal may notice when a predator is nearby. As Gawain stands alone in the desolate barrow, he hears a “blood-chilling noise” that “cannoned through the cliffs as if they might crack, like the scream of a scythe being ground on a stone” (2200-2). The sibilance and alliteration of the “c” sound in these two lines is unnerving and metallic, suggesting the proximity of a physical threat. This effect creates a prey and predator dynamic, placing Gawain in a position of vulnerability and fear, a stark contrast to his initial introduction as chivalric and brave. As the Green Knight continues to draw out Gawain’s anticipated deathblow, Gawain’s mortality and physical helplessness become increasingly clear. When the Green Knight finally strikes Gawain, the blow is undoubtedly ‘bodily’ (Yamamoto 130). The visual image of Gawain’s blood spurting on to the ground ironically mirrors the hunting scene that occurs outside the castle earlier in the poem. In this moment, Gawain is no different from a hunted deer, an animal body that we humans continuously attempt to distinguish ourselves from, with activities such as hunting. The presence of the otherworldly Green Knight, who has the ability to place his own severed head back on his shoulders, highlights the similarities between Gawain’s mortal body and that of an animal.
Gawain’s realization of his own animality is shown with a transition into a contemporary dance segment. Contemporary dance is often used to showcase raw emotions, as there are no restrictions on movements. The flowy quality of my movements and the inclusion of multiple turns, such as at 02:37 and 02:41, represent Gawain leaning into his instinctual fear. During the final segment of the dance, my movements begin to lower in height, and eventually floorwork is incorporated, such as between 01:51 and 02:30. This acts as a contrast to the upright, standing ballet movement at the beginning of the dance piece, mirroring the contrast between Gawain’s portrayal as a knightly ideal at the beginning of the poem and his succumbing to his animal instincts at this point in the poem. The moment of stillness where I lie flat on my back in a starfish shape at 02:16 is another allusion to this contrast. The starfish shape is reminiscent of the five-point star of virtues that Gawain has been trying to hold himself to throughout the poem, yet this position also suggests complete vulnerability in a fight, where one’s front is entirely undefended and left open for attack. My struggle in rising from this position can be interpreted both as Gawain’s struggle to adhere to the pentangle of virtues, or as the base panic he experiences in his vulnerable position, at the mercy of the Green Knight. These two possible interpretations highlight the constant tension between Gawain’s humanity and animality throughout the poem. The circle formed as I move across the space between 02:37 and 03:14 is an allusion to Gawain’s resemblance to prey being circled and chased by a predator.
The final sequence in this piece between 03:04 and 03:40 is an exploratory improvisation. My movements are not choreographed; instead, they are guided by the spontaneous exploration of my own body. In particular, I am using my hands to manipulate different parts of my body, such as my knees, upper arms, and head. As my movements are not pre-calculated, there is a natural quality to them. Using my own hands to manipulate my body also shows a hyper awareness of my own physical body, reminiscent of Gawain’s growing realization of his own mortality. The fade into a blackout as my exploratory improvisation continues communicates that Gawain’s moral self-discovery has just begun, even as the poem comes to an end.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by Simon Armitage, London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.
Yamamoto, Dorothy. “Bodies in the Hunt”. The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 99–13.