From Bush to Brontë and Back Again: The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever
On July 16, 2016, Kate Bush fans gathered in James Madison Park to perform the iconic dance from her 1978 “Wuthering Heights” music video. This was the Madison, Wisconsin edition of “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever” event that happened simultaneously all over the world. It started in 2013 when a UK-based performance group called Shambush staged “The Ultimate Kate Bush Experience” at the Brighton Fringe Festival. They choreographed an outdoor performance of 300 people dressed as Kate Bush reenacting her Wuthering Heights dance. Inspired by the Shambush event, Kate Bush fans in Berlin created a day in 2016 called “The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever.” From the central Berlin event, international sister events popped up from Melbourne to Montreal to Tel Aviv. River Encalada Bullock, Melissa Marver, M. Milks, Bonnie Murphy, Victoria Vasys, and I organized the Madison event. On July 15, 2017, Bonnie, Melissa, and I reprised the Madison event to coincide with the second annual global TMWHDE.
We’re wrapped in gauzy, stretchy, billowy red fabric, and we’re dancing in almost-unison at the edge of Lake Mendota. Radio boomboxes tuned in to our own frequency play “Wuthering Heights” on repeat – we’ve hacked the airwaves and the sound is sometimes staticky but we are satisfied with our analogue, DIY approach to broadcasting music in a public park. We’re wearing red dresses, or approximations of red dresses, across a spectrum of red—bright red, dark red, deep red, blood red, heart red, rage red. We’re unapologetically melodramatic—we luxuriate in our affective excess. Many of us wear red lipstick, and red flowers in our hair or around our necks. Some of us wear long brown wigs. One of us wears a jumpsuit. One of us wears a leotard. One of us wears a tube top. One of us wears a cape.
Wutherers love Kate Bush. We’re captivated by her weird, eccentric, genre-bending style and her performance of witchy femme energy. In “Wuthering Heights,” we find the purest expression of her wildly original creativity. So we dance. We dance in public parks and in each other’s backyards and living rooms. We are totally dedicated to the dance without obsessing over getting it perfect. A wise friend of mine says that you don't have to know a dance to do a dance. I really wanted people to feel comfortable moving, and for it to be joyful or rage-ful or cathartic in whatever way they wanted it to be. As a trained dancer I know there are times for getting the steps right, performing in unison...this was not one of those times. It was really important that all the dancers could own their dancing, their experience.1 Finding our own particular embodiments of the choreography, we move from within ourselves and toward each other.
“The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever” (TMWHDE) is an homage to Kate Bush, but it’s also an act of community that materializes a shared fantasy world. Through our practice of lovingly recreating Bush’s music, we also create a tactile, ephemeral, magical, resonant world together.The drama! The laughs! The outfits! The bodies in movement! The wonder and amusement of passerby! The grandiose choreography! The Kate gaze! The wuthering red mass! A curious experiment in public performance that embraces all expressions, momentarily celebrating absurd joy in an increasingly absurd world.2 Our collective performance creates an aesthetic and affective experience through our projected relationships with Kate Bush and with other dancers across the world, and our embodied relationships with each other in our shared kinesthetic landscape, dancing across the moors of James Madison Park and elsewhere.
Many of us are also Emily Brontë fans—after all, Bush's “Wuthering Heights” is inspired by Emily Brontë's brilliant, beautiful novel. Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is known for its powerful emotional landscape—tragic, melancholic, passionate, desperate, desirous, obsessive, hopeless—which Bush channels into her song. Kate sings in the voice of Catherine, addressing Heathcliff directly: “You had a temper like my jealousy / Too hot, too greedy / How could you leave me / When I needed to possess you? / I hated you, I loved you, too.” The music and choreography are exuberant, with sweeping chord progressions, a staggering tonal range, and dramatic dance moves, while the lyrics are inflected with longing and loss. Within the narrative time of Brontë’s novel, Catherine is dead from the outset; she is called to life through past tense narrative. Bush’s Catherine, too, is always already dead, her ghost dancing on the moors: “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy / Come home, I’m so cold / Let me in your window / It gets dark, it gets lonely / On the other side from you.” Meanwhile, Kate twirls ecstatically in a flowing red dress across a lush green landscape—high kicks, arms flung, eyes wide, hair thrown back. Visually and kinaesthetically, she is very much alive.
The excessive feeling, dramatic poses, ornate flourishes, intense facial expressions, saturated color, emotional extremes, and indulgence in high femme style are all hallmarks of camp aesthetics: exaggerating the novel’s Romanticist and Gothic elements, Bush’s remediation of Brontë is melodrama at its most sincere and fabulous. Bush reimagines Brontë’s tragic, hysterical woman archetype, embodying Catherine’s melodramatic emotional distress while also exuding a subversive power. Does Kate’s Catherine repeat her character’s tragic outcome, or take control of the narrative, or both? While the novel encloses Catherine’s voice within an intricate third person narrative structure, Bush changes the point of view to first person, writing Catherine's voice from beyond the grave. The narrative shift empowers Catherine to directly address Heathcliff, and to tell her own story in the present tense.
Of course, behind the elaborate enclosure of narrative voices in the novel is a woman writer, Brontë. To avoid sexist discrimination, she wrote under the pen name Ellis Bell. It’s difficult enough to re-imagine a tale told during a wholly different time, when simply writing a book as a woman was a feminist act—& expressing honest & independent thought was rare & dangerous indeed. But I think the dance is what truly brings Kate’s feminist force to the forefront. It’s an all-out attack on inhibition & fear.3 Under the influence of Brontë, Bush wrote and recorded “Wuthering Heights” at age 18. Bush, who shares a birthday with Brontë (July 30), became the first British woman musician to have a #1 hit song as writer/performer rather than only performer. Brontë, Bell, Bush: a woman as author of her own life.
A 21st century feminist remediation of a 20th century feminist remediation of a 19th century feminist tragedy, TMWHDE is inclusive of all genders, cis and trans, binary and non-binary. Kate’s Cathy is embodied by people identifying as men, women, and across the gender spectrum. Consistent with camp’s tendency to exaggerate and destabilize gender, dancing “Wuthering Heights” is a highly stylized performance: whether or not we identify as women or femme, as Kate’s Cathy we are all in drag, performing the melodramatic feminine archetype. And yet, self-consciously luxuriating in post-postmodernism’s paradoxical attachments to artifice and sincerity, the dance celebrates a deeply felt, unapologetically femme affect and aesthetic.
We say we’re reenacting Bush’s music video, but we’re actually reenacting Shambush’s reenactment of Bush’s music video. And each year we reenact the previous year’s event. We’re building on a chain of repetitions and reenactments and multiplications, with each staging modifying the entirety of the “text.” If it’s storming outside the next time we do the dance, it will be a dreary reinterpretation layered onto all the sunny reinterpretations. Kate Bush’s given name is Catherine; my given name is Kathleen. Katie performing Kate performing Cathy: each iteration is a repetition with a difference. Once the dance is taken up and reinterpreted across multiple bodies, it gains expanded meaning and significance—Catherine becomes everyone who performs as Shambush performing as Kate Bush performing as Cathy. Cathy wears a jumpsuit. Cathy wears a cape. Performing Kate as Cathy required that I be okay with becoming a Cathy among Cathys—a pluralizing that responded to our differences in RED. The anxiety of performing a white femininity toward which I am deeply ambivalent prompted a skepticism of the racism and ableism that might line even our fiercest desires for inclusive utopias. How do we perform (and manifest) the utopias we want in the future while staging new political formations in the present? I can only hope that this RED utopian proliferation bends toward a radical inclusivity.4 Dancers of all genders, sexualities, races, ages, abilities, and body types will, we hope, performatively complicate and transform Bush’s embodied representation of Cathy.
A multiplication is already at work in Bush’s original song: she made two version of the video—the “red dress version” in a field near a forest with natural lighting, and the “white dress version” inside a studio with artificial lighting. The two versions of the video visually evoke the dichotomy between the domestic and outdoor spaces that Catherine inhabits in the novel. In a further multiplication, the studio video doubles Bush’s image, creating a mirror image split screen effect. The billowy white dress also signifies Cathy’s ghostliness, as Professor of English Susan David Bernstein pointed out to me, while the red dress signifies Cathy’s vibrant, living passion—and, as the red word that appears on the screen in the beginning of the video reminds us, “rage.” The red dress version of the video has arguably been more popular, ultimately inspiring the fan reenactment. By choosing the red dress version over the white dress version, TMWHDE fans solidify its unofficial status as the preferred video, effectively choosing wild, passionate Cathy on the open moors over domestic, ghostly Cathy in the enclosed space.
Continuously re-performing Cathy dancing exuberantly on the moors is a ritual that imaginatively resurrects and frees Brontë’s Catherine, giving her another life beyond her enclosure in the novel’s layered narrative voices, tragic plot structure, and suffocating domestic spaces. Mary Trotter, Professor of English and Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies and also a TMWHDE dancer, pointed me to a passage in Wuthering Heights, Chapter 15, where Catherine says, “I’m tired, tired of being enclosed here. I’m wearying to escape into that glorious world, and to be always there; not seeing it dimly through tears, and yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart; but really with it, and in it.” Across time and space, we dance with each other, with Kate, and with the ghosts of Catherine and Brontë.
Our queer femme world-making manifests a utopia of infinite Cathies without a Heathcliff, a self-reproductive process operating outside the tangled patriarchal familial structures that govern the world of Brontë’s novel. In fact, the novel’s two-volume structure already doubles Catherine as mother and daughter, and as Professor of English Susan David Bernstein pointed out to me, the first volume ends by introducing the possibility that “the daughter turned out a second edition of the mother.” This almost clone-like generational duplication via “editions” sets the stage for a queer reproduction of infinite Cathies. Brontë creates and duplicates Catherine; Bush centers Catherine’s voice and relegates Heathcliff’s presence to an absent addressee; TMWHDE dancers multiply Catherine, distributing the first person perspective across an ever-expanding assemblage of different bodies. I loved the rehearsals the most, moving through the sequence piece by piece, learning how to move together, discovering how the moves move differently expressed by/on different bodies, our differences heightened by the near-sameness. In the sprawling net of this conjoined Cathy-ego subjectivity, I moved and was moved.5 As we continue to perform future iterations of the dance, Catherine will keep multiplying, while Heathcliff remains eternally absent. We’ll keep singing to Heathcliff—lip-syncing, actually—but we’ll dance with each other.
This essay was inspired in part by discussing the TMWHDE project with Professor of English Susan David Bernstein in the context of her seminar on the Brontë sisters, in which she also covers pop culture remediations of the Brontës’ work. Speaking with Susan’s students in 2017 about fan culture’s impact on contemporary interpretations of the novel prompted me to further reflect on the Brontë-Bush-TMWHDE lineage. I am grateful to Susan for catalyzing my impulse to do so, and for her insightful perspective on Brontë’s novel and Bush’s visual imagery. Some of this writing is also adapted from a blog post I wrote leading up to the 2016 event. The context of YES FEMMES and this issue’s call for submissions guided my approach in further exploring the femme affects, aesthetics, and orientations of TMWHDE, and I’m grateful to Sam Cohen for her encouragement and insightful editorial suggestions.
My fabulous co-organizers – River Encalada Bullock, Melissa Marver, M. Milks, Bonnie Murphy, and Victoria Vasys – contributed writing to this piece, which is highlighted in red. I love dancing with them, and I am honored to have collectively created Madison’s TMWHDE world with them.
Finally, I dedicate this piece to Madison's beautiful Wutherers – may we always dance our hearts out.
4River Encalada Bullock
Katie Schaag is a poet, playwright, and multimedia artist. Her work has been published by Ugly Ducking Presse, Metatron, Rabbit Catastrophe Press, Vector Press, Requited Journal, Nat. Brut, and Word For/Word, staged at Hemsley Theatre, and exhibited at Woman Made Gallery, Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Little Berlin. In addition to her solo art practice she has a collaborative practice with SALYER + SCHAAG; their four-month participatory project "Performing MMoCA" was part of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's 2016 Wisconsin Triennial. She is a PhD candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in performance studies and visual cultures. Her current research project, "Conceptual Theatre: Race, Gender, and Dematerialization," explores the political potential of thought experiments in African American avant-garde closet drama and feminist performance art. Her website is katieschaag.com.