Dance

Reviews: Gender under the microscope in ‘Queent’ and ‘Boys in Trouble’

Fauxnique and VivvyAnne ForeverMore in 'Queent.' Photo by Robbie Sweeney

DANCE What happens when drag gestures are codified as dance? What happens if drag struggles are brought to the dance arena? And how can drag be used to probe both dance and gender? Fauxnique (aka Monique Jenkinson) and VivvyAnne Forevermore (Mica Sigourney) are two of our most insightful artists who have been asking these questions for several years in their performances together. (Separately, Jenkinson tackles feminist issues and Sigourney geopolitical ones, both wonderfully).

Their latest, Queent—which opened the 2019 CounterPulse Festival, themed “To Be Free,” on March 15— was abstract and mesmerizing: Sigourney, especially, has a way of making drag seem challenging again, by amputating its familiar punchlines, playing it straight-faced, as it were, and warping it into something weird. Jenkinson compounds this with serious acting chops and a sparkling stage presence. You aren’t getting any easy laughs or clever “reveals” here—this drag is eery and open-ended.

“There’s a common drag queen rule—don’t tell anyone what song you’re going to perform,” the artists note in the program, as a way of deflecting questions about their intentions. Meaning seemed subsidiary to short-circuited glamour as, in the opening, both queens walked like very slow Egyptians through the crowd to an endlessly looping “Love Boat”-like theme.

Later, Fauxnique managed to imbue an onstage electric fan—necessary equipment for any drag show—with a quality of random, existential struggle. (I thought of Beckett as confetti flew aimlessly). And both donned hip-thickening body suits for a mirror/runway exercise that brought up their differences, and similarities, in gender, and heightened the cartoonish aspect of femininity that drag plays with. (The title “Queent” is a naughty portmanteau in this regard.)

Photo by Robbie Sweeney

Jenkinson the professional dancer/choreographer and Sigourney the career drag queen provided a fascinating hour of movement some might recognize, but couldn’t quite be nailed down with a “Yasss, Queen!” (A very short bit of lackadaisical lip-syncing to over-played pop songs is all you’re going to get from traditional drag.) At the end, a hypnotic stretch where the two tumble into each other in slow-motion, grappling their way to the floor and out of their clothes, provided a poetic outro. Both performers are so good at this by now that you wonder where they’ll take it next.

Ideas carried forward in Sean Dorsey Dance’s “Boys in Trouble,” a returning work that served as Dorsey’s 15th home season, March 14-16 at Z Space. The work evolved from a series of community meetings and workshops Dorsey held throughout the country, dealing with the topic of masculinity, mostly in its toxic form. Dorsey, famous as SF’s first transgender choreographer, and his first-rate company turned this subject and its consequences into an exhilarating night of dance, dialogue, puffing of chests, and limping of wrists. There was so much rich material that the energy never flagged.

The focus of “Boys in Trouble” is Dorsey’s own autobiography, which complicates any easy notion of the gender binary, especially when it comes to expectations of how trans people should act and present themselves. “Gender is over!” is one of Dorsey’s exhortations, and it was liberating to hear him speak about loving Barbies and pink leotards when he was young (as opposed to more familiar trans histories) and not wanting to fit into any masculine mould later in life as a trans man. A breathtaking moment during a monologue where he simply confirms the fact that we can do whatever we want with our bodies seemed revolutionary, mostly by dint of Dorsey’s expert timing and stagecraft.

Throughout the evening, dances were accented by recorded voices and pretty music (much of it by Anomie Bell and Alex Kelly) and punctuated with comic bits and broadly played pantomime. These interludes managed to bring freshness to perhaps overly familiar material—white fragility, the patriarchal clubhouse, how men act around each other—by deploying up-to-the-minute takes and terminology on the subjects. (Has Dorsey been reading my Twitter feed?) But it was the dances that really opened the material up: Dorsey’s choreography is clean and undulating, so easy to watch and full of momentum that I always want more of it.

A lovely opening that likened the distressing emotional tenor of the times for queer people to flocking birds did, yes, bring us bird-like formations, but the real story underlying the piece was breath: How are we holding our breath in these dark moments? The dancers breathed conspicuously and, sometimes, in concert. It was a blessing and release. Later, a dance about a queer-bashing included a pointed section where the attacked caresses their attackers—forgiveness? attraction? a form of letting go?—and the costumes blended into one another. (Tiffany Amundson designed the costumes; Clyde Sheets did the lights, including some clever periods of darkness.)

Other standouts were a pas de deux by Arvéjon Jones and Will Woodward that turned on the deep complexity and beauty of the love Black men can have for each other, an elegant solo in toe shoes by Nol Simonse, and the wonderful stage presence of Brian Fisher, whose little wave atop a pyramid of dancers at the very end made my heart leap. Why? It all comes down to Dorsey’s choreography, which can whip a perfectly whimsical gesture from the churn of contemporary concerns. “Go on with yourself.”

Sean Dorsey Dance continues to shatter boundaries, 15 years on

Sean Dorsey Dance in 'Boys in Trouble.' Photo by Kegan Marling

DANCE “I’m still pinching myself at this 15th anniversary milestone!” says Sean Dorsey, whose groundbreaking dance company celebrates a decade and a half this week, launching its 15th anniversary season with “Boys in Trouble” (March 14-16 at Z Space).

Dorsey and company have been performing and developing “Boys in Trouble,” which tackles the effects of toxic masculinity, for some time—hosting community forums, teaching free movement workshops for and recording interviews with transgender, gender-non-conforming, cisgender, gay, bi, and queer people on the masculine spectrum. It’s all of a piece with Dorsey’s method, which combines community outreach, personal dialogue, and visceral choreography to form a deep bond with audiences.

Dorsey himself is a pioneer of dance, bringing transgender issues and bodies alongside others to the stage in humane, poignant, visually stunning, and often funny ways. His company’s a local gem that spends a lot of time touring and researching (sometimes to unusual and heartening places, where I imagine his dances inspire younger generations hungry for this type of art), but bases itself in a changing San Francisco.

I spoke with Dorsey over email about his company’s breakthroughs, the SF arts scene, and exciting things in store for the future.

48 HILLS First off, congratulations on your 15th season—that’s so huge! What are a couple highlights from the past 15 years that spring to your mind? 

 SEAN DORSEY A few highlights that really stand out for me are:

— The life-changing experience of traveling the US between 2013 and 2015 to record 75 hours of oral history interviews with trans and LGBTQ longtime survivors of the early AIDS epidemic, to create my show “THE MISSING GENERATION.” 

— I very fondly remember my first Home Season at ODC Theater in 2005 (“The Outsider Chronicles”). It was a breakthrough for a lot of reasons: I was the first-ever transgender dance artist to present a season at ODC Theater, and it was my first full evening of work. At the time, no one was really presenting trans performance, so it felt scary and important. Even today, you hardly see trans artists presented there; I am very proud of what I have accomplished, despite enormous obstacles.

— My first tour! Right before our first SF Home Season, Sean Dorsey Dance was presented in Salt Lake City(!) and the local LGBTQ community there was incredibly loving and welcoming to us. Since then, I’ve toured my work to 30 cities across the US and abroad (most recently Stockholm Sweden).

— One of the most powerful things I experience again and again are the transgender and gender-nonconforming (gnc) people who come up to me after a performance, and who lovingly spill tears as they share their experience of seeing themselves finally reflected onstage. After a lifetime of never seeing MYSELF anywhere in modern dance, this one always gets me and affirms what I’m doing, despite the challenges I face every day.

Sean Dorsey. Photo by Lydia Daniller

48H So much has changed in terms of trans and queer visibility and rights in the past 15 years. When you started the company, sodomy was just being outlawed in the US. And there have been some terrible steps backward as well. What are your thoughts on how valuable the arts, and specifically your contribution, are in the struggle for equality?  

SEAN DORSEY I am proud of the barriers I have helped shatter—and the new space and support I have created for transgender artists and communities. I know how life-saving the arts are: We ALL have a deep need to see ourselves and our stories reflected in the culture around us.

I am proud that I’ve been fighting for trans equity and justice in the performing arts for all these years—and that I’ve commissioned/presented/paid/supported more than 500 trans/gnc/queer artists through my arts nonprofit Fresh Meat Productions.

I am also proud that Sean Dorsey Dance has left a swath of all-gender restrooms in theaters we’ve toured to across the US. Cisgender people often don’t realize that gendered restrooms keep us gender-nonconforming people out of public spaces and theaters.

So it’s a game-changer for my community to have all-gender restrooms, which Sean Dorsey Dance has inspired now in cities large and small—from New York’s Joyce Theater to Whitewater Wisconsin’s Young Auditorium Theater to Pittsburgh’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

48 You tour the world, but your home is still in SF. What is your view of the arts scene here now compared to when you started?  

When I started presenting my work here 15 years ago, almost no one would present, fund, or support transgender and gnc performing artists. My own experience of this inspired me to choreograph work that lifted up trans/gnc/queer bodies and stories; it also inspired me to found Fresh Meat Productions in order to build community, funding and support for trans/gnc arts.

Sean Dorsey Dance and Fresh Meat Productions have been an important part of transforming the Bay Area cultural landscape. Today, there are so many brilliant, innovative, and active trans and gnc artists across the Bay Area—who have in turn founded dynamic new projects and organizations.

Sean Dorsey Dance in ‘Boys in Trouble.’ Photo by Lydia Daniller

48H What would you love to accomplish in the next 15 years? 

In the next 15 years, I want to continue creating dances that all kinds of audiences resonate with and find beautiful, powerful and transformative. I want to continue teaching in communities across the US, and to keep touring my work widely.

My next project is called “The Lost Art of Dreaming” and will explore expansive futures for trans/gnc/queer people. At a time in America when our communities are under attack, I want to give my communities love and space to dream and imagine.

For the next couple of years, throughout the Bay Area and across the US, I’ll host DREAM LABS—creative spaces where we’ll support trans/gnc/queer people to dance, move, write, sing, craft, and/or creatively express what it is they most want and dream of. We’ll premiere a sneak peek of the new work in April 2020 at Z Space.

I hope that in the next 15 years I will look across the arts landscape and see many, many more transgender and gnc people—especially people of color and/including disabled folks—in cultural leadership, supported in their artistry, and in decision-making positions. These are the trailblazers and visionaries who will light our continued path toward justice.

SEAN DORSEY DANCE 15TH ANNIVERSARY SEASON: ‘BOYS IN TROUBLE’
Thu/14-Sat/16
ZSPACE, SF.
More info here

Cross-bay institution Black Choreographers Festival celebrates its first 15 years

Cherie Hill in "Detente", to be presented February 23-24 at the Black Choreographers Festival. Photo by Jason Hairston.

“A courageous/ambitious idea,” is how co-founder Laura Ellis characterizes the birth of her and fellow choreographer Kendra Barnes’ enduring yearly event, the Black Choreographers Festival. The 15th anniversary of the festival starts on Thu/14 and will take place over four consecutive weekends at three venues on both sides of the bay, inviting audiences to take in a vast breadth dance talent on both San Francisco and Oakland stages.

Twenty-one choreographers will present their works at BCF this year. In some instances, artists will show work in venues that have partnered with BCF’s mentorship program to provide free rehearsal space and other resources. A presentation at SF’s SAFEhouse Arts on March 2-3 will feature two mentorship program participants; Frankie Lee Peterson III, an Oakland resident since 2014 who was commemorated by KQED’s “If This City Could Dance” series, and Natalya Shoaf, who recently choreographed local funk band Con Brio’s “Body Language” music video.

Barnes is working double duty this year, serving as festival organizer in all the capacities that requires and also choreographing a piece herself. It is a three-woman performance entitled “ReD zONE”, to be presented at Laney College’s March 9-10 BCF showing, and will explore issues of sexual violence — but not as an event in itself. Rather, its movement explores “the reside and residual effects of assault and how one creates a ritual towards healing,” explains Barnes to 48 Hills. Audiences will traverse the path between common reactions like (in Barnes’ words) “This is not OK! I did not ask for this!” to finding one’s voice after trauma, aided by a score by Oakland singer-songwriter Jennifer Johns.

Choreography by Māhealani Uchiyama, whose work will be presented March 9-10 at the Black Choreographers Festival’s Laney College showcase. Photo by Danny Tan.

Their bold notion struck BCF’s founder duo in 2002, when Barnes’ K*STAR*PRODUCTIONS held a symposium that focused on the resources and challenges faced by Black choreographers. She and Ellis connected over first-hand experience with dance festivals with a dearth of opportunities for Black programming, and began to brainstorm a strategy to boost choreographers like themselves and their peers.

Barnes and Ellis were inspired by those who had taken on the issue of Black representation in the arts — not just performance opportunities, but quality funding. It was Ellis who first invoked the memory of Black Choreographers Moving Towards the 21st Century, a Bay Area group founded by Dr. Halifu Osumare that had presented dance productions in the late ‘80s to mid ‘90s.

Previous success of such ideas empowered the two women, who thought they could provide a central point, a high profile showing of talent that would involve a focus on longevity and monetary resources. They started BCF with that sense of historical continuity — coupled with the key blessing and continuing support of Dr. Osumare.

They were not wrong that BCF was an opportunity to which the community would be willing to contribute to make happen. A decade and a half into its trajectory, the festival runs on grants and generous resources from a community that believes in the lasting impact of the program. “When we call upon artists, they don’t hesitate to respond,” says Barnes, who also salutes the volunteers who put their time into making the showcases run smoothly.

Frankie Lee Peterson III, a participant in BCF’s artist mentorship program, makes his 2019 appearance on March 2-3 at SAFEhouse Arts. Photo by Devi Pride.

That willingness to contribute may stem from a sense that the support goes both ways. BCF’s artist mentorship program links emerging to mid-career choreographers with resources from established artist support, performance sponsorships, and free rehearsal space. This year two institutions are partnering with BCF on the incubator — in addition to SAFEhouse, Shawl-Anderson Dance Center is working with multiple year BCF artists Shawn Hawkins and Josslyn Mathis-Reed.

It seems clear that BCF founders’ have felt lifted by their event’s road to its 15th anniversary. “It is amazing to witness the growth of choreographers — creating their own companies, artists going from mentee to mentor, as well as traveling and truly making a ‘name’ for themselves and creating solid careers in dance,” says Barnes.

BLACK CHOREOGRAPHERS FESTIVAL: HERE AND NOW
Opening weekend: Thu/16-Fri/17, 7:30pm, $15-25
Dance Mission Theater, SF
More info here.

SF Ballet’s ‘Don Quixote’ provides a home away from home for Sardinian star

Mathilde Froustey and Angelo Greco in Tomasson/Possokhov's 'Don Quixote'. Photo by Erik Thomasson.

The ballet of Don Quixote, the San Francisco Ballet season opener, doesn’t tell the whole tale of the man who read too many novels, decided he was a knight, and went off to chivalrously tilt at windmills, his faithful Sancho Panza by his side. That would be an awfully long evening.  

Instead, the ballet composed by Ludwig Minkus, with Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov updating Marius Petipa’s choreography, focuses on one story. It is that of Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter and her love, the barber Basilio. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza play supporting roles, and it becomes a sort of romantic comedy, ending with a wedding. 

Angelo Greco, who plays the role of Basilio, loves classical ballets. This is one of his favorites, for the story and the physicality. 

“It has really beautiful music, kind of sparkling, and a lot of technique,” he said. “It’s a pretty fun story. I’m dancing with Mathilde Froustey, and we’re starting to have more feeling and being like two bodies in one. You can understand each other just by looking at each other.”

Angelo Greco in Tomasson/Possokhov’s ‘Don Quixote’. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Greco, who was named one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch last year, appreciates the joyful, energetic nature of Don Quixote. 

“I see myself a lot in the first act — I want to have fun, I want to enjoy my life. I have that kind of energy, and I need to do something all the time,” he said. “I really find myself in this ballet technically. I’m the kind of dancer who likes to do jumps.”

Don Quixote is known for its physicality and jumps — the most famous being the “Kitri jump,” where the dancer jumps into the air, and her back leg comes up, almost hitting her head. 

“In the third act, there’s a wedding and a big party,” Greco said. “You need to really work hard and breathe and concentrate and get everything at once. That’s why I love this ballet.”

Greco loves the rigor of ballet and training every day 

“You cannot be rigid. You need to know how to use your body, and how to breathe,” he said. “It helps me to discover myself. You need to concentrate, and you cannot be in another part of the world — you have to be there.”

Greco, 23, is from Sardinia. He started dancing at 13, which is considered late in ballet. He worked with a teacher he loved and who he felt understood him and his dancing, so he said no to many scholarships he was offered. When his teacher told him he needed to move on  he went to La Scala Ballet Academy in Milan. There, he had class in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon. In 2016, he came to dance with the San Francisco Ballet. He wasn’t so sure about it at first. 

“I was scared, and I couldn’t speak English,” he said. “The second month I decided I have to go [home]. I had a conversation with my family, and they said you made a choice, you have to keep going, step by step,” Greco said. “I started to enjoy it more after that conversation. It’s a beautiful city and a beautiful company with a lot of talent.”

DON QUIXOTE
Fri/23-Feb 3
San Francisco Ballet 
More info here.

Post-human radical inclusivity, center-stage in ‘Beyond Gravity’

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto performs in 'alif is for a(n)nals,' part of 'Beyond Gravity.' Photo by KaliMa Amilak

DANCE Choreographer Jess Curtis grew up in Chico and studied dance and English at Cal State there. Then he came to San Francisco, which changed his perspective.  

“I grew up a nice middle-class white kid,” he said, “I thought, ‘Oh, wait, there are so many things in my life that have been excluding so many people in different ways.'”

Curtis, now the artistic director of Jess Curtis/Gravity, wanted the company he founded in 2000 to be inclusive as well as innovative. In the show Beyond Gravity at CounterPulse this week, there will be sign language interpretation, touch tours of the space so visually impaired patrons can feel what is there, and audio description, where someone explains via a headset what is happening on the stage. (An example: “She is stepping forward with one hand on her hip and the other holding a coffee cup.”)

Curtis is inclusive of styles as well. In the ’80s, he was in iconic companies, such as the group Contraband and the radical performance collective CORE with Keith Hennessy, a dancer and choreographer known as a pioneer in queer and AIDS- themed performance. He and Hennessy didn’t want to be limited to dance, Curtis says. 

“We thought, ‘We can talk onstage even if we’re dancers,'” he said. “We can play music and sing and dance and do whatever we want…

“Then at 37, I ran away to join the circus.”

The circus he joined was the experimental Compagnie Cahin-Caha, in France. While in Europe, Curtis got asked to do aerial training for people with disabilities, and he enjoyed working with physically diverse casts. Curtis says he saw how disability arts were much more common and better funded in Europe, and he hopes to bring that sensibility here. 

Jess Curtis. Photo by Sven Hagolani

Curtis, splits his time between San Francisco and Berlin, and both his company and his choreography have won numerous awards, including six Isadora Duncan Dance Awards and a ‘Fringe First’ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Curtis works with partners, such as the Lighthouse for the Blind. Asked about visually impaired people’s response to the audio description, Curtis pauses for a minute. 

“There’s a range of reactions because it’s some people’s first experience of contemporary dance, and some people are like, ‘Whoa, that was weird,” he said. “Then one woman, Tiffany Taylor, loved it and came to my next workshop, and she’s been working and consulting with us.”

Sometimes Curtis says he gets the impression that while people appreciate the audio, they don’t know what to make of the performances. 

“We joke that blind people and people with visual impairments have the right to experience theater they don’t like, like anyone else,” he said. 

Beyond Gravity—whose tagline is, “Witness legends from a future queer revolution and experience new ways of being with each other at a family reunion for a post-human universe”—features three world premieres: aleph is for annals, with live performers and a projected one about a queer militant uprising;  From the room beside me, about intimacy, visibility, and closeness; and Lindenau (rifle club) party for the other siblings, about a party for the forgotten in an empty dance hall. 

All the artists involved are part of the company’s Artist Services program, which assists mid-career artists, giving them a platform and some fiscal support. Curtis says the company also supports artists to get their work to Europe and to bring international artists here. 

“We’re trying to help them utilize our administrative and production resources,” he said about the choreographers and performers. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey world, we can do a little bit better at trying to communicate with each other.'”

BEYOND GRAVITY
October 25-27
CounterPulse, San Franscisco  
Tickets and more info here

Pride gets Xtra with vogue legend grand marshalls Luis and Jose Xtravaganza

Jose and Luis Xtravaganza

PRIDE “One of the reasons vogue is coming into vogue again,” legendary practitioner of the venerated black, queer dance form Luis Extravaganza tells me over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “is that it’s such a powerful form of self-expression. You have classic dances like the Twist or the Mashed Potato, but vogue is different because there’s such an essential improvisational element. It opens up and allows people the freedom to express themselves. And it keeps morphing into new ideas, it’s changed, but at the core it’s still vogue.” 

Luis should know. Along with his fellow House of Xtravaganza brother Jose (currently starring in vogue-based sensation “Pose” on FX), he helped bring vogueing to out of its subcultural recesses of rented hotel ballrooms and underground clubs and into national consciousness. Yes, they introduced Madonna to the dance style, and then rocketed to fame a she rose to number 1 on the pop charts with her eponymous ode to the dance. (Not everyone was happy about a straight white lady hopping aboard the “giving face” train, but it’s undeniable that her MTV performance of the song, with the brothers Xtravaganza at center stage, is one the great queer media moments of the twentieth century.)

The duo even produced their own vogue dance floor classic, “The Queen’s English.” (Jose told me, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “DJs still play that sometimes when they see me in the club if they want to have a little kiki.”)

Madonna’s ‘Vogue” and, even better Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning were the touchstones of vogue’s ascent in the early ’90s—and the dance has remained a vital, evolving underground staple since. Now there’s a resurgence of pop culture interest in the dance with “Pose,” and practically everybody under DJ, musician, and dancer the sun seeming to cite vogueing and the music that accompanies it as a major influence.  (Jose and Luis even starred in a recent documentary about being Madonna’s backup dancers, called Strike a Pose.)   

The artform’s impact is being officially recognized at our very own SF Pride parade, Sun/24: Jose and Luis have been named Celebrity Grand Marshals—so expect a lot of arms, shoulders, and face, face, face as their car rolls down the parade route. 

I asked Jose, who was just coming off the set at a “Pose” location shoot in NYC, what it’s like to be a big part of the vogue revival. “It’s full circle, I’m reliving my own history in a way, re-experiencing something that’s so symbolic in my life,” he said. “It was a little world created by the gays, mostly here in New York City, so now be able to bring it to a major platform for everyone to see what it is, to see where it comes from and the history, the struggle back then, the lives of the people on the scene. It’s like art imitating life.

“It was a fantasy world that we created, and that those before me created. I am very passionate about it because it was our own,” Jose said. “Now, with social media, it’s blown up to a whole other level. I teach it in Japan, Russia, all around the world. Some people see a video and think they can just do it. But it’s  like ‘Oh no, honey, it’s deeper than that. It’s not just the movements, you need to feel it. You need to know the story. You need to do the research.'”  

Luis, who teaches a hip-hop-jazz-vogue fusion class in LA (“we get our hearts pumping and we act a little fierce”) also sees vogue as a political outlet. “It’s a show of strength and artistry that also presents freedom and identity.

“Things are so strange right now, because it feels like we’re going back to the ’50s, everything is going backwards,” Luis said. “It feel like we have to stand up and say, ‘we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,’ all over again. Really? I mean, it’s just a goddamn wedding cake. I can’t believe we have to go through this all over again.”

What is Jose and Luis’ message for Pride? “We’ve always had to fight for our rights to love each other, to fight to not be discriminated against,” Jose said. “I want to tell this new generation that now that we have all these privileges and honors and we can get married and you can see us on television…. I want us to not forget that people fought for these rights, people died for these rights. And as we go through more of these these dark times, I want young people to know that the torch is being passed down to them for a reason. And they must continue.”

Luis added, “As Jose always says, just be yourself. Just be.” 

SF PRIDE PARADE AND CELEBRATION
Sunday, June 24
CiVic Center (Parade starts at the Embarcadero at 10:30am)
More info here.  
See our full rundown of Pride events here.

Keith Hennessy’s fiercely political, achingly intimate ‘Crotch’ and ‘Sink’

Keith Hennessy in 'Crotch.' Photo by Yi Chun Wu.

DANCE/PERFORMANCE A pagan drag queen Green Man, sporting a maypole-ribbon corset and tiny Speedo, hopping about madly on stilts? A ferocious clown satire of the refugee crisis, with lifejackets from Lesbos as props? A prison-hooded stuffed bear being whipped onstage? An audience enthusiastically chanting, “Everything is fucked!”?

Renowned SF choreographer and performance artist Keith Hennessy keeps pushing buttons and expanding the borders of art, queering everything in sight while applying the twin traditions of art happenings and surrealist provocation to comment, up to the minute, on politics and identity.

The next two weekends bring a fantastic chance to see how much Hennessy’s art—or really, the context around it, since he’s always held a singular, pluralist vision—has changed in the 10 years since he’s gone from enfant terrible to éminence grise of queer dance performance. A new work that aims to engulf the viewer/participant in a cascade of hot-topic political and personal concerns, “Sink,” plays at the Joe Goode Annex Fri/1 and Sat/2. The next weekend, Thu/7-Sat/9, Hennessy performs his decade-old, now canonical “Crotch” at The Lab.

Both pieces are typical Hennessian wild rides, bursting with vibrant ideas, crazy costumes, emotionally intimate statements, history lessons, audience participation, profound movements, and radical inclusivity, as refracted through Hennessy’s highly personal concerns. But they also reflect how much art, and society, has changed since being an openly queer man disgorging colorful themes and radical acts on stage was a big, new deal. I spoke with Hennessy about the shows, and how the conversation around his work has shifted. 

48 HILLS You’ve been performing “Crotch” pretty regularly for 10 years now, with its central theme of a kind of “activation” of the work of German polymath artist Joseph Beuys, accompanied by intimate queer spectacle. How has the piece evolved over that time?  

KEITH HENNESSY The biggest thing is the change in how the work is received, and also what it means to me emotionally. When I made “Crotch,” I never imagined that the piece would get a lot of attention. But somehow this quiet little piece turned into the most traveled, most celebrated work in my entire career. In 2009, the piece won a New York Bessie, and my friend turned to me and said, “Girl, you’re going to be performing this piece for the rest of your life now.” I’m not against that but it’s not like a play, it’s a performance piece. Performance art doesn’t “live” in that sense. It generally comes out of a moment, it doesn’t usually endure. But somehow “Crotch” has become my “Fire and Rain.” James Taylor had this heartbreak moment, and he had to sing that song for his entire life. Luckily, it’s actually a beautiful song, and so it keeps on working. (Laughs) 

So one of the things that happened to “Crotch”—I wouldn’t say that I’m cold about it now, but it used to make me cry. it’s still makes audiences cry, and I would cry performing it. That doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t approach it now quite like I’m an actor, but I do have to consciously put my self back in the contexts in which it was created. I’m having to live it emotionally the way I used to. 

One of the things that happens in “Crotch” is that I give a giant lecture. And the lecture purports to give the political and  philosophical historical context for the work of the influential German artist Joseph Beuys. Ten years ago, Beuys was of course known, had books published about him, etc. But he wasn’t nearly as well known as he is now. The entire genre now of what’s called social practice, and dfferent versions of the way that people are thinking through relational aesthetics and public art, all have roots in Joseph Beuys and his notion of sicla sculpture. So the reception of a work on Beuys has really changed. He’s been totally absorbed into the art school machine, everybody talks about him.

Another big thing: What we take for granted in San Francisco, like certain types of race and gender critiques, are now mainstreamed. So for me to do a work that on the surface level looks like an homage to a straight, white, iconic figure in art history is way more problematic than 10 years ago when I started it. To deliver this lecture, I try to have not just the history of Beuys but the history of white male art naratives colllapse into itself in the piece. One of the ways I resolve it is to let my own story emerge in its place. But I’m just another well-known white male artist now. 

I’m a lot older, I’m in my late 50s now, and there’s ways that I show up so differently in the piece now—I went to grad school and got my Ph.D., I won a Guggenheim grant. If what you’re doing is try to detabilize the role of the white male figure, but at the same time you’re somewhat playing that role … well, so much has shifted in the past decade, and can be read and received so differently. It shifts the conversations that can come out of the piece. 

For example, 10 years ago, gay marriage was an active struggle. And I made “Crotch” as a gay divorce piece. Now gay marriage has been so normalized, that when I say in the piece “My husband left me,” people are all, like, “awww.” Whereas before, it felt like a critical dig, you either laughed at how ridiculous the whole concept was, or you were like, “Ouch!” The piece was in fact written as a grief piece about a longterm relationship ending, and the risk that entailed for a gay man, but that doesn’t have the same punch now. Gay relationships are so normative now. 

“Queer” has shifted so much, too. I’ve recently been invited to queer dance events and queer safe spaces, presumably as an elder, and nobody really expects a white cis-gender gay man to walk in! I’m actually representing what these places have been constructed to protect themselves from. It feels like, “I really don’t have a place here.” The shift is about identity, and it doesn’t matter that I hosted pansexual sex parties for years at my art space, or used to terrorize the boring Castro on my skateboard, or any of that. “Crotch” is called a landmark of queer performance art, but because it has no centralized racial discourse, young people today would barely recognize it as “queer” at all! 

Keith Hennessy in ‘Sink.’ Photo by Robbie Sweeney

48H Knowing your work, all of those observations seem like great material to generate something new. Tell me about the new work, “Sink.” 

KH Sink is brand new: It was only finished in December. I’m very racially obsessed in my work. My Ph.D. involved critical whiteness studies, and in 2015 and 2016 I was producing works for all black and queer artists. I’ve been thinking through anti-racist politics and how white people can participate in anything on that level. “Sink” comes out of all of those considerations.

At the same time, what’s similar to “Crotch” is that I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to do it. I didn’t foreground the funding of it, where as a project you have explain yourself to people for money. It was very loosely composed, and somehow I got away with being able to produce it. There was no establishment presence.  

“Sink” is a very personal work and it walks directly into the question, “What are the politics that are possible during Trump regime?” Some of it literally—there’s a part where I directly address this—and some of it more expansively and deeply personally.

There is a ritualistic section at one point where I have all these different references to a pre-Christian European spirituality, but the ritual keeps collapsing into itself partly because I’m alone. I got the remnant maypole-woven ribbons from a big witches’s May Day dance. I had someone take the ribbons and make a corset for me, a corset made from 100 people’s energy dancing around the maypole, so it has this aura of the ritual in it. And I wear these giant jumping stilts, curved to bounce and made of metal, that give me a kind of stag leg. If you need a dance history reference it’s more of Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun”—it’s the man-beast, it’s the stag human. And then my head is encased in vegetation.

 In one way I see it as a drag reference: I’ve replaced the high heels with stlts, the body is a corset with a little Speedo, and then instead of a wig, the wig hads taken over my entire face, so it’s mask and wig in one. You can totally see Euro-pagan trip going on, you can see the Green Man, the maypole, but they somehow don’t full meet each other and arrive. And that dance is done to music by electronic artist Marc Kate. Years ago I gave him Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and I had him remix it from the point of view of someone who’s having a bad drug experience. So this song, which is hugely celebratory, starts to spin out in this hallucinogenic experience, and then starts to sink underwater and just drown and falls apart. Do you read it as a pagan dance? Do you read it as a tale of gay culture fallen into itself through excess?  

There are other concerns in “Sink.” It’s really trying to connect to the exact politics of this moment. It begins with an acknowledgement of native protocol, and talking about the original people and the land, and what role non-native people might play in that. It’s almost a miniature interactive workshop. And the whole opening is a poem about the Trump era. One of the most emotional sections of the work is a 10-minute song that includes a list of places that have had mass shootings and/or other terrorist attacks, and it addresses the normalization process of mass murder.

I have to say in tribute to young people, after the murders in Orlando, you could feel an actual public grieving in the year following, in a lot of different spaces—even moreso than Vegas, even though 50 people were also killed there. I recently went to see Youthspeaks, the spoken-word poetry event involving many young people of color, and almost all the performers foregrounded their fear, anxiety, and anger about guns in schools and in America generally. It was inspiring, and made me think about how much we’re supposed to repress those raw feelings in most art and performances, not to mention in society. I wanted to get back in touch with that expressiveness. 

Also in “Sink” there’s a clown section satire on the refugee crisis. The props during that section are life jackets collected by first responders on the beaches of Lesbos, discarded as the boats arrive in Greece. I take these objects that embody so much grief and fear and I treat them completely irreverently. It’s a dark drag satire, with me in a bathing suit and heels, trying to dance among them. There’s audience participation, there a whole lie about a big opera I’ve been commissioned to make with Ai Weiwei… There’s a lot addressed in the piece!

SINK
Fri/1 and Sat/2
Joe Goode Annex, SF.
Tickets and more info here

CROTCH
Thu/7-Sat/9
The Lab, SF.
Tickets and more info here

Sean Dorsey Dance’s ‘Boys in Trouble’ unpacks toxic masculinity

Sean Dorsey Dance's "Boys in Trouble." Photo by Lydia Daniller.

DANCE  Alt-right, #metoo, the Trump administration: Toxic masculinity and its effects are all the rage. We live in a culture that only allows (and rewards) men to feel anger, aggressiveness, competitiveness, and other narrowly defined traits. And we’re just waking up to the harm that this has caused. Even the trans and queer communities are affected from within by society’s corrosive standards of what it means to be “a real man.”

Essential local dance company Sean Dorsey Dance continues to address hot button topics from a place of diversity and passion, queering our view of binary constructs while presenting forceful and moving works. Its latest, Boys in Trouble (Thu/19-Sat/21 at Z Space), takes on toxic masculinity in all its insidious forms. 

The piece was developed after Dorsey traveled the country for two years, hosting community forums, teaching free movement workshops for and recording interviews with transgender, gender-non-conforming, cisgender, gay, bi, and queer people on the masculine spectrum. But it’s hardly a grim essay on the state of gender in the US. Instead, it plays against such expectations to make a statement about vulnerability and celebrate resilience, with humor and healing.

“The show is a fusion of full-throttle dancing (and I do mean full-throttle: We soak through 12 costume changes!), bold theater, intimate storytelling, and gorgeous partnering,” Dorsey told me over email. “How often do we get to see masculine bodies touching each other with tenderness and care? The dancing is pretty spectacular—we’re proud of the work. The storytelling comes from the performers, as well as from the communities we worked with. And I guarantee audiences will both laugh out loud (a lot) and will definitely tear up.”

I conversed with Dorsey over email about masculinity, vulnerability, and the expansive possibilities of being “proud, sassy, loud, and fierce.” 

48 HILLS The process for creating Boys in Trouble was incredibly involved—and involving. You traveled around the country for two years hosting forums on masculinity and teaching movement classes to queer and trans people all along the masculinity spectrum. What was the genesis of that, and can you share a couple of anecdotes from the road? 

SEAN DORSEY As a choreographer, I’m passionate about creating dances that are deeply human, widely accessible, moving and super relatable for my audiences. Modern dance has a reputation for being cryptic, inaccessible and irrelevant. That’s not what I do. I choose themes that will speak to people on a deep level, and I also choose make my work in community: I talk with people, listen to people, host workshops that give people creative skills and a voice.

So to create Boys in Trouble, I had the amazing opportunity to work with people in several cities across the US (from Maui to San Francisco to small-town Maine). Two things really stood out to me from that process: the first, that people living within the constraints of masculinity—whether in small towns or big cities—are profoundly harmed by the structures, demands, expectations and violence of toxic masculinity. The second thing was how extraordinarily resilient, smart, loving, warm, strong, brave, and creative queer and trans communities are. I was so inspired again and again!

I’m really excited that Boys in Trouble will be touring to 20 cities across the US after our San Francisco premiere; and in each city, we hold a week-long residency with free community forums, trans-supportive dance workshops, and more.

48H What perspective did you gain in your travels on these phenomena, and what of that coming through in the dances you’ve created? I’m especially fascinated by how you’re seeing this through a trans and queer lens. 

SD Our culture constantly tells trans people that we are “less than,” incomplete, and flawed. Boys in Trouble asserts that in fact, trans people are whole, deeply conscious, insightful, strong people who have a TON of insight to offer to the broader culture around gender, well-being and healing. Trans people have to work so fucking hard to stay alive and thrive in a world that hates us and harms our bodies; we’ve navigated multiple genders and gender expression… so we have a lot to teach, share and provide leadership and insight around. 

In this work, we explore white fragility, masculine rage and fragility and violence, expectations of trans masculinity. But we also explore the glorious, creative, brilliant, expansive possibilities of queer and trans gender-fluid and masculine gender expression. We’re proud, sassy, loud, and fierce… and then we also get super vulnerable, allow our own masks to come off to reveal our own sources of shame and trauma.

Sean Dorsey Dance in “Boys in Trouble.” Photo by Lydia Daniller

48H You mention vulnerability. What was your experience of that in the communities you visited, and how does that come through in the dances? 

SD Here’s the thing: the gender binary is (literally) man-made, and it’s harmful to everyone: cisgender, trans, hetero, queer, nonbinary… We inflict violence on ourselves and each other as we constantly scramble to “measure up.” That applies to masculinity, femininity … and it also applies to the pressure of being “queer” enough, or being “trans” enough or the “acceptable/passable” kind of transgender. We have one super sassy section that asks, Is THIS butch enough for you?

What’s underneath all of this—for everyone—is shame. We learn shame as we learn how to “do” our gender correctly. And shame lives in the body, so unpacking that shame through dance is visceral, powerful and healing.

48H The diversity of your company always awes me, can you tell me a little about collaborating and working with the dancers for this project? 

SD I love my company, we’re truly like family. There are five of us, and we are trans (me) and cisgender; white and Black; queer, gay, and bi; and our ages span three generations. Boys in Trouble is performed by myself, Brian Fisher, ArVejon Jones, Nol Simonse and Will Woodward.

I’m not interested in dance companies that feature under-fed binary-gendered all-cisgender dancers who are directed to put on blank stares, perform only-hetero partnering and narratives, and emotionally remove themselves from the work. I’m interested in real human experience; I’m interested in deeply, deeply moving my audiences and transforming them; I’m passionate about cracking open our wounded hearts to heal; I’m passionate about connecting queer and trans audiences to joy and beauty, and lifting up ourselves as strong and beautiful.

BOYS IN TROUBLE
Thu/19-Sat/21
Z Space, SF.
Tickets and more info here. 

Renowned dance company taps street musicians for ‘Bootstrap Tales’

From Robert Moses' Kin Bootstrap Tales. Photo by Steve Disenhof

DANCE Dancer and choreographer Robert Moses says he’s inherently optimistic and likes a challenge. So he decided his renowned company, Robert Moses’ Kin, would reach out to foster kids and help them find a career in the arts—and the Bootstrap Program was born. 

“It’s different than a mentorship program,” Moses said. “It’s like dropping a flame and providing more information. There are so many things you could do—you could be behind a camera or do marketing or be a stage manager. The idea is to encourage them and give them insight.”

For the program, Moses is working with the City and County of San Francisco Family and Children’s Services Division, the San Francisco Court Appointed Social Advocate Program, First Place For Youth, and California Youth Connection, and it’s still in its nascent stages. But thinking about it helped to inspire the company’s next work, Bootstrap Tales, coming to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts the weekend of February 23—February 25.

The name of the new work—presented in the company’s 23rd season—has an obvious origin, but Moses gives it an empathetic twist.

“People have said to them, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,'” Moses said. “So many of these folks trying to move themselves forward don’t necessarily have a safety net. Where we are today it seems we have less and less compassion for folks who have to do that kind of thing. We’re trying to tell them, ‘You don’t have to wait for approval, you can go ahead.'”

For some of the dances in Bootstrap Tales, Moses approached street musicians and made arrangements to use their music.

“Every day they are in front of us, and we don’t really see them,” Moses said. “They are people who are not giving up and doing what they can to move themselves forward.”

Moses said he met all different sorts of people playing on the street. Some disappeared after he had talked to them. One of them had a GoFundMe campaign for his sick mother. One surprised him by declaring himself not interested when Moses didn’t get back to him quickly enough.

“I’d seen him a few times, and I got his number and said I’d text him later that afternoon you later. I was tired or busy and thought I’d get back to him the next morning. Then I got a text from him, ‘Since you did not keep your word with me, I’m out.’ I was like, ‘Damn, man, what’s it been, like four hours?’ He moved on. I was not up to his standard of behavior.”

Norma Fong in ‘Bootstrap Tales.’ Photo by Steven Disenhof.

He canvassed the city for inspirational musicians, recording device in hand. He would drop some cash into their hat or bucket, record them, and talk with them and ask if he could use their work for an agreed upon amount of money. He’s also planning to put together a website with the people he’s worked with to raise awareness about them and their work.

Moses, who danced with Twyla Tharp and ODC before founding Robert Moses’ Kin in 1995, says he is always trying to do something new and different when he puts together a dance. With Bootstrap Tales, he’s been thinking a lot about space because of working with these musicians.

“How they define their space determines how they make their money,” he said. “Maybe they’re in corner and there’s not enough traffic. Maybe they want to be in a spot where a few people can watch them. Maybe where they are and what they do will determine if they get five bucks rather than 50 cents. So I was thinking about ‘How do I show the use of space?'”

Moses had a lot of time to think about these musicians playing on the street. It’s an extraordinary thing to do, he said—standing in front of strangers who are looking at you. Maybe those strangers just give you their gaze, maybe some cash. He’s done everything he can to make Bootstrap Tales speak to the audience, he says.

“Hopefully when you leave, you won’t just go get a salad somewhere and not think about it,” he said. “Would you grab a milk crate and a plastic bucket and do this? That’s another question.”

BOOTSTRAP TALES
February 23- February 25
$19-$55 
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF
Tickets and more info here.