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.
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.'”
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.”
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 HILLSYou’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 andphilosophical 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!
48HKnowing 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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”