Dance

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.