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Io's Dance: A Queer Move in Prometheus Bound

Sarah Olsen

Williams College

For Sara Ahmed, “queer is […] a spatial term, which then gets translated into a sexual term, a term for a twisted sexuality that that does not follow a ‘straight line,’ a sexuality that is bent and crooked” (2006: 67). Dance scholar Ann Cooper Albright takes up Ahmed’s understanding of “orientation” as sexual and spatial phenomenon in order to articulate the value of movement practices that create moments of disorientation and creative opening (2013: 13-14). In a similar vein, choreographer Grant Jacoby explains that his piece, “Wyoming,” draws inspiration from Ahmed as it explores a distinctly queer relationship between “comfort, home, and displacement” (2017). In these contexts, “queer dance” becomes not only dance engaged with non-normative forms of desire, but also dance that disorients and transforms our expectations about the value, meaning, and aims of movement itself. In my paper, I will argue that this understanding of queer dancing illuminates the performance of the maiden Io in [Aeschylus’] Prometheus Bound.

Io, the only mortal character in Prometheus Bound (τῇδε … θνητῇ, 737), enters about halfway through the play, speaks with Prometheus, then departs abruptly. In the cosmic struggle between Zeus and Prometheus, she has often been read as a foil or a pawn: impotent, pathetic, insane (Taplin 1977: 267, Griffith 1983: 190 and 194, Montiglio 2005: 121-3). But I will propose an alternative reading of Io, one that originates in the urgency and immediacy of her dance. I will demonstrate that Io, through her queer movement, disrupts and refigures the expectations of the audience, and generates a powerful moment of creative opening right at the heart of the play.

My reading is grounded in the observation that Io’s performance in Prometheus Bound explicitly perverts the trope of the alluring maiden choral leader. Across Greek literature, young women are depicting dancing and playing with their companions in liminal, outdoor spaces, just before they depart the chorus for marriage – or get kidnapped by lustful gods (Calame 2001: 238-44, Rosenmeyer 2004: 171-6). Io, however, refuses to enter the “deep meadow of Lerna” (652) and satisfy Zeus’ desire “to join with [her] in love” (650-1). Her appearance in the play is part of an erratic and complicated journey across the earth, as she is pursued and tormented by a gadfly.

Io’s movement – above all, her signature “kicking” (laktizō, 651, 881) – represents her resistance and her pain, rather than the typical beauty of the maiden dancer. She remains emphatically isolated, failing to connect even with the play’s chorus of maidenly Oceanids. Io’s dancing thus transforms the normative tropes surrounding female performance into something strange, idiosyncratic, queer. Her own spatial disorientation and sexual rebellion generate, for the audience, a powerful reorientation of the expectations governing the appearance of the singular maiden in Greek tragedy. Prometheus Bound has long been understood as a rather static play, centered on the bound and immobile body of Prometheus. This paper demonstrates that Io’s queer and mortal mobility offers a startling and potentially transformative contrast.

Session/Panel Title

Turning Queer: Queerness and the Trope

Session/Paper Number

64.3

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