Ballroom Etiquette

Ballroom Etiquette
Maria Brito and Bruno Neiva
Designed with Lisa Lorenz
Team Trident Press
2020

4 × 5 in. closed
48 pages
Saddle-stitched pamphlet
Risograph inside with thermography-finished cover
Edition of 150

Front cover of "Ballroom Etiquette," softcover pamphlet on red paper. The images is an indeterminate, grainy close-up, printed in raised thermographic ink.

A collaboration between Maria Brito and Bruno Neiva, Ballroom Etiquette is a slim, pocket-sized pamphlet, but it distills two books — True Politeness: A Hand-book of Etiquette for Ladies (1867) and Kill or Get Killed (1976), published by the US Marine Corps. The text comes from the Victorian etiquette guide, while the images come from the hand-to-hand combat manual. Brito and Neiva use the book’s structure to heighten the humor of these juxtapositions, with images, printed black, on every verso and text, printed red, on every recto. Ballroom Etiquette exemplifies the one-and-a-half-liner (which I mean as a compliment) — what could be merely ironic pairs of text and illustration rise to the level of trenchant commentary on gender and violence in contemporary society.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, two men grapple in a grainy black-and-white image. On the recto, red text says: "When a gentleman who has been properly introduced requests the honour of dancing with you, you will not refuse unless you have a previous engagement."

A successful one-and-a-half-liner must exceed the reader’s initial expectations, and Ballroom Etiquette does this with its modest production. At forty-eight pages, there is more content than a mere one-liner would require, yet the book can still be enjoyed in one sitting. The book’s Risography and thermography conjure a subversive origin in a copy shop somewhere, belying its thoughtful design and materials. The inside paper is a smooth cream stock, and the red cover paper matches the text. The text, in turn, is carefully set to balance with the image across each gutter, each of which retain the grainy appearance of their source material. Brito and Neiva perfectly calibrate the book’s materials, production, and design with the scope and tone of its ideas.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, two men grapple, one lifting the other, in a grainy black-and-white image. On the recto, red text says: "Do not mistake affection for refinement: it would be no less an error than confounding vice with virtue."

Ballroom Etiquette also succeeds as a one-and-a-half-liner because the comical distance between its two elements — etiquette and combat — is only apparent. The juxtaposition reveals that the two are, in fact, related. The humor works on both levels, absurd contrast and poignant commentary. The wildly different stakes between the two accounts for a third aspect of the book’s humor, as in the warning, “If possible, do not enter a room alone.” The imperative mood makes no distinction between the risk of impropriety for a Victorian lady and the risk of bodily harm for a Marine. This strategy is especially fruitful because of the colorful language in the original etiquette guide. Metaphors like “wounding another’s heart” take on new meaning when paired with an image of a man taking a baton to the neck.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, grainy black-and-white image shows one man hitting another in the neck with a baton. On the recto, red text says: "Do not make a public room the arena for torturing any simple swain who perchance may admire you a little more than you deserve. Recollect that while you are wounding another's heart you may be trifling with your own peace."

Such wordplay also demonstrates how commonly figurative language uses space and movement. Even familiar phrases like “the circles in which you move” are made strange when the reader must sort through the literal meaning as it might pertain to dancing or fighting versus the intended reference to social circles. Brito and Neiva are equally clever in their visual jokes. For example, a line about wearing gloves is paired with a close-up of a hand delivering a knifehand strike to a throat. These careful pairings punctuate a slew of vaguer images in which two men grapple, their struggle eroticized by the corresponding text on courtship or dancing.  

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, a black-and-white image shows an arm demonstrating a knifehand strike into a man's throat. On the recto, red text says: "Draw on your gloves in the dressing room, and do not take them off during the evening, except at supper-time, when it should be invariably done."

Brito and Neiva queer the hypermasculinity of the combat manual and the rigid heterosexual roles of the etiquette guide. The book reveals two realities: gender is fluid, but patriarchy is stubborn. Men may no longer sport snowy, perfumed handkerchiefs, but women are still told not to refuse a man who asks nicely. In addition to gender, Ballroom Etiquette examines how little attitudes about class have changed since the Victorian era. Propriety and private property are inextricably linked, and women are cautioned against public balls. Brito and Neiva use the term détournement for their strategy of turning proscriptive texts into a critique of the systems those texts once upheld. The book is also a détournement in a more general, but equally important, sense — what was once information is now art. The artists’ specific critique of patriarchal violence shows the potential of appropriation and juxtaposition for almost any issue.

The book’s strength as a model for future works may be its greatest contribution, but its strategies are not without risks. The fact that Ballroom Etiquette is genuinely funny is critical to its success. Brito and Neiva show keen comic instincts at every step of the project, from choosing source material to design and production. The artists also demonstrate a deep understanding of the book form.Even with the rigid separation of text and image and the repeated format of each spread, Ballroom Etiquette relies on the book form. The détournement of two other books is integral to the project, but perhaps more importantly, Brito and Neiva orchestrate their comic timing through the book’s structure and the amount of content they include. Ballroom Etiquette doesn’t ask too much of its reader or overstay its welcome — but it’s no one-liner.

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