I was in Ann Arbor last weekend for the first-ever conference on queer dance, co-organized by Clare Croft (whose dissertation I was pleased to advise at the University of Texas at Austin) and University of Michigan dance professor Peter Sparling.  Two days of panel discussions, workshops, and film screenings were capped each evening by a program of performances that showcased some of the most interesting work in the field, and that read back nicely over the days’ discussions about how we define, study, and create queer dance.

Presented in the Betty Pease Studio Theatre at the University of Michigan (whose Department of Dance and an impressive number of other campus units hosted and sponsored this landmark event), the performances offered a fascinating mélange of bodies in motion, choreographed abstractly or in snippets of narrative scenarios brushed with wit, beauty, and grace.

Diverse across gender, race, ethnicity, and the performatives of sexuality, both performance evenings played with the known tropes of queerness, referencing the familiar without being predictable.  For instance, the drag duet called “TheCherdonna and Lou Show,” performing out out there (A Whole Night Lost), might have reminded spectators of drag queen and drag king performances, since the two performers were costumed and made-up in the over-emphasized gender accoutrements of out-sized masculinity and femininity.

But that both performers were women and that their duet was funny and entirely unexpected, lent the act a freshness and surprise that made it memorable.  “Cherdonna,” the femme (I guess you would call her), towers high above “Lou,” the “butch,” whose slight form is nevertheless appealing, with her drawn-on beard and moustache, her bowler hat, and her plaid suit.  Cherdonna wears a pleated white dress, high heels, and an even higher bouffant hairdo that poufs memorably over her head while she dances.

Both performers’ faces are made-up in the clown-like lipstick, eye-shadow, and colorings reminiscent of the late Ethyl Eichelberger or Taylor Mac, a kind of Godspell-esque presentation of outré gender that’s both funny and queer in this context.  The dance shows the duo as a couple whose affection alternates with rage and who finally pull (obviously fake) knives on one another, stabbing their partner and themselves in rhythm to light-hearted music danced with whimsical steps.  The piece is a hysterical, warm commentary on relationships and Cherdonna and Lou’s bodies and movement styles muddle anything we might presume as binary gender.

In her conference welcome speech, Croft situated the panels and the performances in both a personal and critical lexicon that refracted usefully across the two days.  She shared an anecdote about the first time she was ever called “queer,” which was in a dance class when she was eight years old.  A little friend turned to Clare with haughty antipathy and called her the name.  Croft said she thought for a moment, and then told her friend that if “queer” meant “strange,” she stood guilty as charged, proudly claiming her difference without at that point needing to carry what later became its sexual baggage.

The sweet and funny story linking queerness to a profitable strangeness echoed throughout the conference, in Cherdonna and Lou’s odd couple and in other equally generative performances of unaligned, cock-eyed, off-kilter gender and scenarios of sexual desire which, by accumulation, demonstrated “strange” as a really useful way of thinking about embodied queerness.

In her too-short discussion with the performers after the final evening’s presentations, Croft also noted that what distinguished much of the dance we saw together was that the performers looked back at the audience, an invitation to intersubjectivity that might in itself be particularly queer.

In fact, the conference’s first panel, “Queer Nations/Queer Boundaries,” included papers by Ramón Rivera-Servera (Northwestern) on dance floor gossip in queer Latino/a clubs; by Nic Gareiss (University of Limerick) on being a queer performer in traditional Irish dance; and by Sara Wolf (UCLA) on artist damali ayo’s performance of a public claim for race reparations.  All three papers teased out the specific queerness of public intimacy.

Gareiss described how the popular Irish dance form (marketed especially to tourists) interdicts the exchange of queer gazes by insisting that the male dancers look either at their female partners or out at the audience but never at one another.  Gareiss demonstrated his queer resistance to these constraints, showing a clip of him dancing solo, accompanied by a male Irish fiddler, in which he seemed to be performing the step dance directly for his musical accompanist.  The personal yet public performance exchange rewrote the more frontal and certainly more heterosexual conventions of the dance.

Likewise, Rivera-Servera’s ethnography described what he called queer world-making through gossip on the dance floor.  He suggested that gossip creates a profitable friction around what can be a too homogeneous notion of latinidad.  He quoted informants who watched and critiqued sotto voce one another’s dancing from the sidelines, pointing out the differences in styles across the ethnic diversity inherent in a pan-Latino community.  Gossip about movement, Rivera-Servera proposed, nuances what might look like a shared politic.

This public intimacy and useful parsing of queer differences seemed very much evident in the performances as well as in the papers.  Jennifer Monson and DDDorvillier presented RMW(a) & RMW, a piece they first performed together in 1993, revived in 2004, and have presented once a year or so since.

In the first half of the two-part dance, they wear wigs and make-up reminiscent of Cherdonna and Lou’s, the drag-like/clown-like, exaggerated eye-makeup and inked outlines that signal overt gender performance and that point in a Butlerian sort of way to gender as a surface rather than a depth.

Monson wears a black and white, short print dress and blond wig, while Dorvillier cavorts in an oversized lime green shirt and pink gym shorts, wearing a curly black wig.  The two women dance in parallel, taking turns performing more angular and abstracted movement while the other sets a timer and then watches her partner dance.

As Rivera-Servera pointed out to me later, the scene is vaguely cruise-y, as it seems like they’re purposefully performing for one another.  It’s certainly seductive; one of the performance’s pleasures was how keenly Monson and Dorvillier watched one another.  It occurred to me that we rarely see lesbians looking at one another in representation.  How pleasurable it is for queer spectators to witness that gaze exchanged.

The two switch places by mirroring one another’s last gesture as they then take over the solo.  With their increasingly rigorous movement, their wigs fall off and are kicked aside.  As this first part ends, Monson and Dorvillier lie on the ground with their costumes pulled up toward their chins, their bare torsos and buttocks making funny sucking sounds against the dance floor as the lights fade out.

When the second part begins, the pair appear dressed in matching white t-shirts and rolled-cuffed jeans and jackets that soon come off.  They proceed to dance one of the most erotic, athletic duets I’ve ever seen two women perform.  They rarely (if ever) lose contact during the piece’s second half, climbing over and across and around one another’s bodies in a tangle of limbs and muscles and desire that was thrilling to watch.

In one glorious moment, Dorvillier climbs up Monson’s legs and torso and stands on Monson’s flat back, balancing precariously but somehow surely.  This second half builds to a wonderful deep kiss, and then Monson and Dorvillier literally lock lips, remaining attached at the face in this extended erotic contact as they keep moving their bodies around and about and over and under one another.

Part of what was moving and lovely about this piece, in addition to its frank woman-on-woman sexuality, was that the two dancers are squarely middle-aged.  Breathlessly watching them perform such virtuosic athleticism felt like an affirmation of persistent lesbian desire.

By “persistent,” I mean continuing over time—that is, knowing that Monson and Dorvillier have performed the piece for almost 20 years demonstrated that time can be a medium in which a relationship like this—physical, affective, aesthetic—can grow, change, and continue with a queer sort of commitment.  Such persistence, and such lesbian/queer relationships, are too often disappeared (and I mean that as an active verb) in live performance and representation.

In fact, Hannah Schwadron (UC-Riverside) gave a wonderful paper about the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan earlier that day in which she argued that it refers to lesbian sexuality only to deny it, just as the film also “disappears” Jewishness through the conventions of white-encoded ballet (and the Anglicized names of its stars:  Natalie Portman, née Hershlag; Mila Kunis, born Milena Markovna Kunis; and Barbara Hershey, born Barbara Herzstein).

Given how often especially middle-aged lesbians are forced into invisibility in mainstream and even queer representation, watching Monson and Dorvillier so palpably, frankly, and beautifully create, explore, and perpetuate a queer desire felt exciting, as well as deeply political.

Other performances were equally provocative and generative.  Remnant Hit/fix, by performer/choreographer Amy Chavasse, set more quotidian movements to various texts and songs, as Chavasse addressed the audience with a frank and ingenuous tone.  She seemed to talk personally, but as in many of these pieces, the status of “autobiography” was difficult (and somehow unnecessary, finally) to ascertain.  To finish the piece, Chavasse selected a woman out of the audience to sit on a stool across from her and listen to Chavasse’s final monologue.  Again, the public intimacy was moving and compelling to watch.

Cositas, choreographed by Joel Valentin-Martínez, presented dancer Javier Marchán-Ramos in a tight-fitting red satin ball-gown with a corset-like closure laced up both his chest and his back.  He entered from downstage right, and slowly crossed upstage left, trailing the exceeding long train of his dress behind him.  Part of the simple dance’s allure was the suspense over how long his train would actually be; the end didn’t appear until Marchán-Ramos was practically on the other side of the stage.

In addition, because of the dress, the corset, his carefully coifed dark hair, and his rather coy gaze, Marchán-Ramos’s gender read as ambiguous and mysterious.  He’d glance over his shoulder at spectators as he crossed the stage, but it wasn’t until the piece’s second part, when he gathered the dress in his arms and performed more athletic movements, did a more familiar performance of masculinity emerge.  The performance seemed to glow and practically shimmer with the richness and clarity of its images.

In her solo Walking the Line, excerpted from her longer piece SILO/SOLO, choreographer/videographer/performer Andee Scott accomplished one simple, enormously provocative movement.  Naked from the waist down, Scott slowly moved from center stage to downstage center, walking out of the stage’s darkness into the light of a projector that made her bare torso, chest, and neck into a projection screen.  The moving image reflected in sharp, bright light and vivid color showed Scott wearing a full white dress, dancing alone in a rural landscape between two low hills.

Although the projected image extended only from one side of her body to the other, the vibrant scene seemed full of freedom and light.  Watching Scott’s video play across her chest and collarbones made for a very vulnerable, tender moment of performance.  Rather than narcissism, which could be expected from a dancer projecting herself onto herself, the image conjured the sublime liberty of solitude, of nature, and of self-expression.

Watching Scott use her skin, unfettered by modesty or convention, reminded me of Peggy Shawperforming To My Chagrin, in which she projects a video of her then-small grandson, Ian, playing by himself, across her bare breasts.  As in Shaw’s piece, Scott’s represented not just intimacy butheart, love, and closeness that seemed wonderfully generative and physically and emotionally generous.  That Scott stood quite still and half naked in the moment of performance, and used her body to represent a moment of past or prior movement, also seemed to queer her dance.

Nudity appeared fairly frequently in these performances.  The first evening began with dancer/choreographer Gina Kohler’s dream [factories].  Kohler was pre-set in the Pease Studio, sitting naked on a drop cloth center stage, methodically pouring beet juice meant to represent (I assume) blood over her white body.

As she emptied the deep red liquid from jars over her head and across her limbs, Kohler slid her body across a shiny, slippery piece of Mylar or something that she’d placed in the middle of the cloth.  The red liquid pooled around her as it ran off her skin, leaving rivulets of red across her face, torso, arms, and legs.  As Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” played, Kohler spun around on her back, flipped to her stomach, looked out at the audience, and twirled some more before she finally stood up.

The performance reminded me of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.  Although Kohler didn’t pull a text out of her vagina, as Schneemann did in the ‘70s, the evocation of blood beckoned to the same kind of insistence on the difference of the female body that Schneemann performed in the 70s.  Here, Kohler was joined on stage by another female performer, dressed in briefs and a bra in a bathing suit sort of costume, covered with gold paint and glitter and wearing a unicorn on her forehead that she caressed and pointed with throughout the piece.

Although the second dancer (Sara Procopio) never directly interacted with Kohler, she represented an onstage spectator for Kohler’s bodily acts, directing and refracting our gaze.  A male collaborator (Eric Kohler) trained a video camera on Gina Kohler throughout this first part of the piece, projecting a live feed onto a screen upstage that focused on her face or body parts as she moved.  His filming also seemed to both direct and to interrupt our gaze, yet rather than representing “male” power over Kohler’s female body, his camera seemed to offer just another way for us to look at it.

In the second of the three-part piece, Kohler strapped on a harness and transparent acrylic dildo and danced to Leonard Cohen’s “I am Your Man.”  The movement here was both more every day and more frontal, and necessarily more symbolic and abstract.  Seeing a naked woman dancing with a dildo on, regardless of what it’s supposed to mean, is pretty powerful in performance and forestalled whatever claims of female essentialism might have been evoked by the blood and beet juice scene.

In the third part, Kohler executed jumping jacks non-stop while Cohen’s “The Future” played.  For the length of the song, she faced the audience and scissored her arms and legs together and apart while the unicorn-wearing dancer watched.  The endurance test left her breathless.

Although dream [factories] didn’t necessarily cohere (these three moments were extracted from a longer piece), each individual image was arresting.  Kohler’s matter-of-fact stage persona undercut the sensationalism of her nakedness and of the dildo.  She looked out at the audience throughout, engaging us with a kind of butch dare.

Because she wasn’t wearing clothes, I wondered how she performs her gender off stage, since so many of our cues for reading gender are determined by sartorial choices and the movement styles they dictate.  But throughout the piece, her gaze back at spectators read to me as butch, which worked in a productive tension with her naked female body.

Nakedness and gender and sexuality conjoined in Kohler’s dream [factories], in Monson and Dorvillier’s RMW, and in ThomasDeFrantz’s collaborative performance, Theory-ography 4:  We Queer Here!  Generated with a group of six local Michigan students and DeFrantz’s own students,Theory-ography was the most text-based and post-modern of the performances.

The performers collected index cards from spectators before the piece began, on which they invited the audience to write an instruction or a description that the dancers were later asked to embody. Early in the piece, DeFrantz read out a card that commanded, “Disrobe.”  Most of the performers stripped off a layer.  When DeFrantz again commanded “disrobe,” James Morrow, the one man in the performance, went all the way.  His nakedness was disarming and charming.

The dance here was improvisational and angular, much of it rooted into the floor in emphatic and erratic movements for which the performers hurried across the stage or threw themselves onto the ground.  Watching Morrow’s penis flopping happily against his stomach, and watching him seem to feel liberated rather than embarrassed by his nakedness, was quite lovely.  His naked presence also echoed Kohler dancing while wearing the harness and dildo from the evening before, and commented profitably on the construction of sex.

The woman of color performing in Theory-ography stripped down to her underwear when DeFrantz announced the instruction to disrobe, revealing that her breasts were bound and that she was wearing black “men’s” jockey shorts.

That they did take off their clothes proved these two performers, in particular, generous and acquiescent, but somehow also full of agency.  They inhabited a physical sexual difference with élan, once again unruffled by the audience’s gaze.  These performers gazing back, or inviting what performance theorist Dwight Conquergood called “co-presence” with spectators, felt rather happy and comfortable.

Theory-ography was one of the more cerebral performances at the conference, but these two gender/sexuality representations warmed what might have otherwise been a playful but “cool” piece.  José Muñoz’stext about queer utopia didn’t sound particularly illuminating as the performers took turns reading from his book into a microphone.  But as they called out “Queer me” to signal they were ready to switch narrators, passing the text among the performers made it multivocal in interesting ways, and the fact of reading it, in itself, seemed generative.

Likewise, that one of the performers always trained a video camera with a live feed on the proceedings made the piece a multi-layered experience.  And the text projected over the feed—such as “where is queer,” “queer is here,” and other verbal interrogatories and assertions—offered another level of wondering that made the performance fun and self-reflexive.

Perhaps because the conference attendees were also for the most part participants (since most people presented papers or performed) and perhaps because we saw two nights of performances after two days of panels, workshops, and screenings, the audience for these pieces felt like a community of sorts, however “imagined.”

Watching performers whose nakedness seemed matter-of-fact and comfortable; whose virtuosity, regardless of age or ability, seemed admirable; whose queerness (or not, since finally, who can tell just by looking at someone moving?) seemed multiple and fluid; the richness of these experiences created a temporary public of people buoyed by witnessing, creating, and thinking about queer dance.  I appreciated every moment.

The Feminist Spectator

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One Response to Queer Dance at U of Michigan

  1. FANTASTIC! What a wonderful review. Feminist Spectator, you really captured the magic of the Queer Dance conference and of all the wonderful performances! I have been elated since meeting Cherdonna and Lou and after seeing the wonderful Jennifer Monson and DD Dorvillier. The woman of color dancer in Thomas DeFrantz’s piece was Anna Jonkman. Joel Valentin’s choreography was exquisite, and Javier Marchán-Ramos a gifted dancer. Thanks for allowing us to relive all of these amazing pieces.

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