michael j. morris


TORRENCE 6-36-86
23 June, 2016, 12:14 pm
Filed under: art, Dance | Tags: , , ,

It was the kind of show at which you might end up in bed with someone.

IMG_2336

The Master Bedroom of Torrence 6-36-86, photo by Melissa Vogley Woods

On May 27 and 28, I performed as part of an immersive dance theatre project entitled Torrence 6-36-86, directed by Rashana Perks Smith and presented throughout her house in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. This project was developed over many months, with about 17 different contributing artists generating site-responsive contributions—in the forms of dance, interactive performance art, sculptural installations, and video art—to a 50-minute production. Together we explored the meaning of proximity (to others), accessibility (of material), and domesticity (within the social constructs of a private residence in a suburban midwest neighborhood and through the retrospective eyes of a personified ninety-two year old house). Over the course of two days, nearly 90 audience members were met by an ensemble performance that began in the front yard/driveway, proceeded into the basement garage, up into and throughout the rooms on the main two floors of the house, and finally out into the back yard. Dances took place in almost every room of the house—the kitchen, the guest bedroom, the dining room, a child’s bedroom; 3D video of the house at other times and places was projected onto the walls of the study and offered to viewers through the frame of a small handheld monitor; installations in the forms of light, fabric, origami, and sound created a multi-sensory ameliorations to the space as it is usually inhabited. Each performer embodied a distinct role; some performed very clear “characters,” while others performed actions that were more reminiscent of archetypes. As an ensemble, we offered a plethora of opportunities for the audience to create their own sense of meaning for the piece. Some perceived ambiguous narratives of marriage, infidelity, and aging; others described a sense of mystery, never quite knowing why all of these figures were together in this house, but experiencing a series of moments that came in and out of focus, resonating with their own histories and feelings.

My primary contribution to the production was a series of interaction-driven performances, in which I invited select guests to come with me to the master bedroom. Over the course of four days—including our test audiences for our dress rehearsals—I invited nearly thirty people upstairs to join me in the master bedroom. The bedroom was staged very simply: the bed was the prominent feature, along with bedside tables, the indirect light of two lamps, a small stack of books (each relating directly or indirectly to eroticism, sex, desire, or love), music playing softly (a mix of Etta James and Nina Simone), and a few other pieces of bedroom furniture—two dressers, a chair, and a stool. With each of these guests, I ushered them inside, closed the door all but a sliver, turned to face them and said, “This is the master bedroom. What would you like to do?” The interaction that unfolded with each person remained unpredictable, shaped primarily by their stated desires, their responses, and occasionally by my suggestions when they didn’t know how they wanted to proceed or when they asked what I wanted. The majority of these interactions ended up in bed; many ended up in ways that were beyond anything I had imagined or anticipated. Many of these scenes were observed by other audience members or performers peering voyeuristically through the tiny opening left by the door; on two occasions, other audience members walked right into the room (uninvited but not explicitly discouraged either) to observe the intimate interactions in the bedroom. Each interaction lasted approximately seven minutes, measured out by a fairly complex cueing system between the performers in different rooms. Each interaction ended abruptly, sometimes with someone outside the bedroom pushing against the door, and sometimes with another performer rushing into the room and throwing herself onto the bed. In each case, I alerted my guest that our time was up with an urgent declaration: “We have to go.”

What happened in the bedroom is beyond precise accountability. I could describe specific actions or interactions—one person wanted to jump on the bed, one person wanted to watch me as I held and stroked the pillows like lovers, another suggested that we rub each other’s feet, many ended up in bed lying next to me or spooned against my body, a few shifted nervously and made anxious conversation, for instance—but none of that exactly captures the moment to moment eye contact and shift in posture, the small smiles and laughs and careful balancing of cordiality with nervousness, the subtle actions and reactions, the words they spoke and my sultry, suggestive responses. I could fill volumes with descriptions of how people looked at me and looked away, the counterpoint of glance and counter-glance, the moments when a stranger or friend’s body relaxed in my arms or how cuddling our breathing fell into synch. I could write about the people who remained tense, anxiously looking towards the door either hoping to leave sooner rather than later or worried that someone else might enter. I read to many people from Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos and The Sensuous Woman by “J”—lines about a beautiful, cheating, disappointing husband or transitioning from vibrator masturbation to hand masturbation respectively. But those descriptions of the action would not capture the feeling of being together in a small room with the door nearly closed, the associations of reading to someone in bed or being read to in bed, the banging and thudding of performances in other rooms mixing with the rich tones of Nina Simone and Etta James as we together tried to figure out what we would do together in this situation. I could transcribe conversations about memories and stories of childhood, families, work, sex, and the performing arts, but such transcriptions couldn’t capture the way her hair fell across one eye as she laid next to me speaking through her smile or how he shifted forwards and backwards decisively, as if each movement was being choreographed moment by moment. I don’t know how to transcribe the state of attention that I was maintaining—trying to direct all of my focus on this one individual, crafting opportunities for interaction out of the things they said, while also staying attentive to cues coming from other performers in other rooms. Each interaction in the bedroom was itself an improvised dance of actions and reactions, propositions and responses, anticipation, projection, and uncertainty. With each stranger, we became more familiar, more intimate within a context; with those I knew, friends and loved ones who I brought to the bedroom with me, our familiarity became strange as we navigated a situation we had never been in before. Multiple people who I did not know before the performance afterwards described our time together as charged with potential eroticism, feeling illicit as they became intimate with a stranger in someone else’s bedroom. Several people who I did know described similar but distinct impressions: the fact that they knew me sometimes made the situation even more strange or unfamiliar, as if we had gone “off script” from the familiar relationship we both knew, inventing a new way of being together within the context of this bedroom/performance.

For the rest of the audiences—the majority of those who moved through the performance, who were not invited to the master bedroom—I was a more peripheral figure, someone who slinked around the edges of rooms, posing in a corner or perching on the edge of a desk, someone who invited the person next to them to the master bedroom then brought them back a short while later. One audience member (Angela Dufresne) described me afterwards as “a nymphette in a Balthus painting,” which I felt was an apt characterization of the figure I performed.

Balthus_painting

“Thérèse Dreaming” (1938) Balthus

My interests in this performance project were multiple: first, I wanted to create a structure for scenarios that brought issues of intimacy, privacy, power, and decision-making into and out of view. I wanted to proposition people I knew and did not know, in ways that shifted their own attention to their responses, their desires, and their choices when they found themselves in semi-private one-on-one interactions in an unfamiliar bedroom. The scenarios that played out in the master bedroom—which began from the moment I approached someone and asked, “Would you like to come with me to the master bedroom?”—complicated the audience/performer roles, putting audience/participants on display for themselves. I did not know in advance what would transpire; neither did they. In a sense, the audience/participant performed for me as well, in as much as I performed for them. Although every single person who I asked to come with me did so, they didn’t have to make that decision. And yet they did: they chose to come, not knowing what would happen and also not knowing what else they might miss, perhaps not even realizing that they were choosing to have one unknown experience rather than others. This experience of making choices without all the information, as well as the experience of perhaps realizing that you had made choices without all the information, was also of particular interest for me, if for no other reason than that it utilized this performance situation to frame and accentuate an experience that is certainly germane to life beyond the performance. Most of all, I think I hoped that the audience/participants who joined me in the bedroom would leave with a heightened sense of self-awareness or self-consciousness—observing, reviewing and questioning their own behavior—mingled with what might include excitement, exhilaration, anxiety, pleasure or desire—if not for me or my company, then for the resolution of the scenario that remained interrupted and unfinished. No doubt the structure for the scene—an intimate liaison with someone in a bedroom that belongs to neither of us—creates the conditions for a number of affective responses. It was this affective potential as well as the audience/participants’ actions that followed from their immediate feelings that I wanted to put on display for each of them.

In posing the question, “What would you like to do?” I hoped to give audience/participants an experience of articulating or giving voice to their own desires, however mundane or rarefied those might have been. For those who did not know what they wanted or who asked for suggestions or asked what I wanted, I think I wanted to give them intimate experiences that maybe they had not had before, or maybe they had not had in a semi-public space before: lying in bed or cuddling with someone they did or did not know—a friend or former student, a stranger, someone whose gender presentation is ambiguous—having someone read to them in bed or seated in a chair, slow dancing together to Etta James, watching me dance at the foot of the bed, etc. It is a questions perhaps many of us have not asked before: if someone took us into a bedroom and closed the door, turned to us and asked, “What would you like to do?”—how would we respond? What desires would we be capable of naming? What actions would we give ourselves permission to venture? How far would we let ourselves go into our own fantasies?

I was also interested in the experience of exclusivity, both for those who came to the bedroom with me and for those who watched other people go to the bedroom, without knowing what happened there. Multiple audience members commented afterwards that they were disappointed that they didn’t get to go to the master bedroom; conversely, quite a few people who were with me in the bedroom expressed worry that they were “missing something” elsewhere in the house. Several people asked why I picked them; several people also expressed something like jealousy after having been to the bedroom with me then watching me take someone else after them. All of these reactions interest me, and they are the kinds of affective responses that I hope became palpable elements in the audiences’ experiences.

Each audience member’s experience of Torrence 6-36-86 was different. Of course, this is true of any performance—in that each viewer occupies a position/perspective entirely their own, and brings to the experience their own associations and meaning—but here this difference/uniqueness was heightened, with the audiences separated into different rooms, different positions in different rooms, seeing different parts of the performance in different sequences, sometimes experience a part (like mine) that few others experienced, sometimes missing something that many other people saw. For me it was an experience of following someone else’s desires, sometimes entangling them with my own, and somehow finding our way into one another’s arms and into bed—but only for a short while.

IMG_2337

The Master Bedroom of Torrence 6-36-86, photo by Melissa Vogley Woods



Retrograde (Solo series by Larry Doyle)
6 June, 2016, 12:19 am
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , ,
IMG_5171

Installation view of Retrograde by Larry Doyle on view at Mouton

Retrograde, a new series of works on paper by Larry Doyle on display at Mouton in the Short North, develops an emotive iconography for a culture of feeling that unfolds between cartoonish figures that might very well mirror ourselves. Each piece depicts similar although not identical figures drawn in Doyle’s signature style, little bodies composed of imperfect geometries, hard lines, and sometimes blushing with watercolor blues and pinks and violets. These figures aren’t specifically human; their little alien bodies include only a few shapes, yet there is something recognizable about them. Maybe it’s the subtle ways they seem to hold themselves upright or slouch into themselves, the ways they seem to incline towards or away from each other, or the fragility of what seems to be their spindly legs. Maybe they all seem shy and insecure because of how their tiny eyes are almost always set low and to the side, shifty and uncertain. These figures do not depict us in a literal sense, but perhaps their forms emerge from the details by which we know our feelings—the sensation of “towards” or “away,” “downcast” or “uplifted,” that feeling of “just to the side” or “just out of reach.” On their own, in pairs, and in groups, these little figures begin to compose metaphors—for loneliness, for intimacies, for desire, for displacement, for community—with their stationary choreographies of position and placement in relation to each other and the minimalist contexts in which they are set. Often adrift in white space, or sometimes set in the foreground of a light watercolor wash, these scenes function as illustrations telling familiar stories with bodies not our own in abstract spaces to which we may have never been.

IMG_5183

Cover The Path to the Heart (Dont Let No one In), Watercolor/Ink

Yet despite the minimalist quality of these illustrations, they seem at home in Mouton. Mouton is a small bar that specializes in classic and innovative hand-crafted cocktails. I’ve spent many first dates at Mouton, and returned here again and again with friends and people who I love. It’s an intimate space, a place to drink and talk and flirt, sometimes a place to see and be seen, and occasionally somewhere to maybe meet someone new. In this sense, Mouton is both a place and a kind of a place—the kind of place for dates and dating, for going out with friends, and maybe for cruising. Doyle’s drawings may have an otherworldly quality to them, but they are also very much of this world—a world of sustained or anticipated intimacies, intersecting socialites, and the mixology of hope and disappointment that can accompany the search for love and connection in this modern age.

Doyle’s pieces—all created during the planet Mercury’s recent retrograde, an astrological time at which communication and clear thinking can feel the celestial backwards pull of Mercury’s path—are titled things like “I Will Keep You by a Thread,” “Everyone is Looking but No One Can See,” and “Cover The Path to the Heart (Don’t Let No One In).” Each title offers a comment on some social, personal, or intimate state of affairs which then becomes the basis for that which the piece illustrates. Moving through multiple stages of translation—life and lived experiences to recognizable feelings and affects, then onto short but cutting phrases, then into visual iconography—Doyle uses the retrograde as an opportunity to reflect and process, the artworks emerging from experiences that seem to include retrospection, revelation, and rumination. In each case, Doyle uses the concise images and phrases as strategies for depicting and sometimes critiquing how we act and interact in our search for connection, companionship, friendship, and love. In many cases, the figures Doyle situates within these scenarios find themselves accompanied by specific entrapments—head encaged by wiry lines, perched precariously on a tiny ledge, surrounded by dark inky clouds, wrapped up together in red thread, and so on. These additional elements and objects in the images extend the metaphors, offering perspectives perhaps not only of ourselves but of the situations that we create for ourselves—and for one another. Even when they are shown together, their connections and collectivity seem tenuous at best; together or alone, the loneliness of these little beings remains relentless.

One of the most overt critiques in the show is entitled “Thirty is the new Death” and shows thirty little skeletal figures all laid out in individual coffins alongside each other, tinted in a spectrum of bright and soft pinks. Reflecting on the tendency in the gay community to mark 30 as the end of one’s life—or at least one’s dating life—the pink skeletons in pink coffins on a field of pink seem more like infants than anything else, a morbid nursery of pink-on-pink-on-pink. Death and infancy cross into one another in this flamboyantly rosy field of tiny coffins. If the piece is a metaphor for turning 30, it seems to ask us to consider what might only be beginning at 30? If we figuratively terminate ourselves or others at 30, what might never have the opportunity to grow, mature, and thrive? If 30 is a coffin, it’s a tiny one.

What I find most compelling in these works, however, are not the stories the seem to tell or the familiar scenarios of dating, isolation, and companionship to which they refer; rather, it is the vocabulary and syntax of their visual composition that fills me with feelings. Doyle’s use of line, scale, orientation, and repetition are evocative, in ways that both support and extend the implicit narratives of these pieces. The hard black lines with which these figures are drawn present clearly bounded forms, discrete within their seemingly impenetrable isolation. The images may suggest stories of seeking connection, but in their composition, these figures—alongside each other, overlapping, or even tied together by a thread—will remain outside of one another’s hard lines. My eyes might drift smoothly across these pages, but they register these lines, these borders, these boundaries, perhaps longing to be crossed while nevertheless perhaps also signifying “keep out.” More often than not, these figures reside in a primarily flat two-dimensional plane, a seemingly shared space, but in multiple pieces—particularly those entitled variations of “I’m Not Looking” and “Still Not Looking”—Doyle’s use of scale and orientation suggest that these figures may not be in the same place at all. However flat the space may seem, these figures—upright, sideways, upside down, far, and near—seem to ambiguously occupy different dimensions, with perhaps far more distance between them than first meets the eye. The repetitive use of form—all of these figures are more alike than they are different, nearly but not quite identical—envisions a pervasive sameness, and between what seems to be the same, connections remain elusive. Homogeny is not given as the cause for isolation in this self-same society, but it is evidently its condition. To the extent that Doyle’s works offer mirrors or metaphors for reflecting on our lives, we might ask: in what ways do we repetitively reinscribe our edges as such bold borders? How might we become attentive to the ways in which others who seem to be right next to us are potentially near or far in ways that are less immediately visible, or maybe even standing on an entirely different ground? How does homogeny or the expectation of sameness not only minimize or elide our differences but potentially condition our isolation, our difficulties connecting, and the breakdowns of our communication?

IMG_5181

Still Not Looking, Watercolor/Ink

Doyle writes in his artist statement: “My works are centered around connecting, dating and searching while all these feel retrograde. As my little beings are crowned, boxed and tied I hope you can place yourself within their adventures seeking companionship, friendship and truth. Please include us in your story.” While illustrating the search for love and belonging in this modern age, Doyle invites our projections, simultaneously or alternately asking that we place ourselves within his work as well as include him and his little beings in our own stories. Inasmuch as the exhibit “centers” around connecting, dating and searching, it also seems to reach out from itself, asking for connection and companionship as it depicts ways in which they are thwarted.

Retrograde will be on display until the end of July at Mouton.



partial alignments and degrees of difference

Several different areas or dimensions of life have recently pushed me to articulate what I consider to be one of the most fundamental tenets of my ethics: I want to live in a world of difference. I do not want to live in a world in which everyone is the same as me, in which we all aspire to agree fully, in which we presume that everyone’s needs and values totally align; I want to live in a world of partial alignments, a world full of not only different perspectives but different ways of life and modes of living that create the conditions for different perspectives. I want to live in a world in which we struggle to find commonalities, and in which we strive to coexist when no single commonality can be reached.

12141621_10154810034277195_4333210863594888123_n

This week there were a number of important presidential primaries, including Ohio. In the weeks and months leading up to these primaries, I have found myself in heightened states of disagreement with people in my community, on Facebook, and in conversations which sometimes unexpectedly turn political. I have continued to consider and reconsider my position—which I won’t lay out fully here, but which continues to find the existing political system dysfunctional, a position from which I struggle to trust or believe in any political candidate, from which I have admired the idealism and passion of Bernie Sanders, and from which I have consistently found myself more aligned with the practicality of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This writing is actually not about expounding on or defending that position. Rather, as I continue to navigate this campaign, I find myself faced again and again with extreme, superficial representations of candidates who I do not know personally, but who are undoubtedly much more complex—and in some ways similar—than what is presented to me by the media, friends, and loved ones. bell hooks very usefully reminded us yesterday: “As a firm believer in the importance of free speech, I consider it vital to feminist democratic process that all women be free to choose who they want to support—whether I agree with them or not. As a challenge to dominant thinking and practice, it is crucial to not construct images of individuals that are one dimensional and binary. No one is all good or all bad. Importantly, our focus should be on critical issues, standpoints and political perspective, not on personalities.” hooks addresses several points that I consider to be vital: first, that we simply must be able to affirm one another’s choices and perspectives, even when we do not agree, and that we must not continue to construct one-dimensional and binary depictions of political personalities. Again and again, we are presented with totalizing binaries—Clinton or Sanders, democrat or republican, us or them—binaries that depend on reductive, one-dimensional representations, binaries to which we subscribe and which we then proceed to reproduce and circulate. Not only does such thinking do a disservice to the world in which we live—the complexity of which rarely if ever simply complies fully with such reductive, binary logics—it distracts from the actually more difficult but important work of critical analysis and dialogue between perspectives and positions that are different in many ways, but also in some ways partially and contingently align. As Kate Bornstein taught me in Gender Outlaw: “The choice between two of something is not a choice at all, but rather the opportunity to subscribe to the value system which holds the two presented choices as mutually exclusive alternatives.” And as Brené Brown asks provocatively in Rising Strong: “…when faced with either-or dilemmas, the first question we should ask is, Who benefits by forcing people to choose?” Both Bornstein and Brown remind me that binary thinking is a tactic of power, of regulation, and both suggest that there must be other ways of examining situations that are forced into such binaries.

Form Flow Alignments

Still from annotated video illustrating allignments, the way in which Forsythe designs relationships in space and time Credit: Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company

One approach that has been life-changing for me is to look for partial alignments within degrees of difference. This is an approach that emerged from a choreographic research project called Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced, which investigates systems of organization in choreographer William Forysthe’s dance One Flat Thing, reproduced. [You can read all about the project on the website for Synchronous Objects.] In this project, the research team—directed by William Forsythe, Norah Zuniga Shaw, and Maria Palazzi—studied the ways in which this dance “examines and reconfigures classical choreographic principles of counterpoint,” which they define as “a field of action in which the intermittent and irregular coincidence of attributes between organizational elements produces an ordered interplay” (see the Introduction essay “The Dance” in the SynchObj site). In other words, counterpoint emerges from an ongoing activities across which emerge moments of shared qualities or similarities, moments that appear briefly, intermittently, and irregularly. They describe these moments as alignments: “Alignments are short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes.” These shared attributes might refer to multiple actions executed with the same timing, or multiple dancers doing different things but all moving in the same direction, or different dancers that pass through similar shapes with their bodies, even if they are performing different actions, for example. Alignments often emerge in situations in which the “top structure”—or what we notice most prominently—is difference: dancers doing different actions in different ways coming from and going towards different places, etc. Within these heightened states of difference, at the deeper level of organization, partial and fleeting alignments occur, qualities or attributes are shared, briefly, incompletely, and even circumstantially. This dance and the Synchronous Objects researchers prioritize the importance of these moments, these partial alignments, as developing a mode of organization that relies not on unison or uniformity, but actually depends on difference, on the lack of total unison or uniformity.

This occurs in the dance itself, but Zuniga Shaw suggests that it might offer ways of thinking about other parts of our lives as well: “I think this is significant not only as a concrete phenomenon in dance, but also as a larger metaphor that’s applicable to how we look at and analyze ecosystems, to how we maybe notice the play of light on the water, or the interaction of branches in the canopies of the trees above us, and to how we interact with the complex realities of our daily lives. So what if in those situations when there is conflict in your lives, in those situations where we’re encountering maybe just a lot of difference, in our classrooms, in the downtown streets, in our workplaces: what if we approached those situations contrapuntally? And we didn’t try to squeeze these things into marching bands of unity, but instead we get pretty excited about that disagreement and difference, and heighten our attention to the deep structures, the deep sets of relationships, degrees of alignment, quirky little agreements, that are percolating under the surfaces of our lives all the time.” What if when we encounter difference—different values, different perspectives, different actions and activisms—what if even when we encounter conflict, we allow ourselves to become curious? Rather than first attempting to convince one another of our own perspectives, rather than trying to make you more like me, what if we started to ask questions: can you tell me more about what you think? What are the values and priorities that brought you to this perspective? What is it you desire? What is it you need? What are you afraid of? What might we be able to do together?

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 2.45.17 PM

Another event in my life that has prompted this line of thinking is Caitlyn Jenner’s reality docu-series, I Am Cait, which is now in its second season. I have a lot of opinions about Jenner’s presentation in the media, the way in which our culture has elevated someone of her racial and economic privilege—white, wealthy—to the status of “icon” so rapidly, the significance of her very public transition given her history as an Olympic athlete and hero for American masculinity, and the particular priorities of her show, none of which I’ll go into here. I think I Am Cait has done some things really effectively; I also think it has handled some people and their stories reprehensibly. A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing Angelica Ross—founder of TransTech Social Enterprises and actress on the hit new show Her Storyspeak at Denison University; she discussed the ways in which her appearance in the first season of the show had been cut down considerably, eliminating the successes and activism of her life, and reducing her to a familiar sound-byte regarding the struggles that many trans women face. I am sure that this is not the only instance of the stories of trans women—particularly trans women of color—being edited and simplified to fit the particular agenda of the show and Jenner’s image. That being said, the show is also introducing issues that I find important: one of the big themes that is emerging this season is difference. The premise of the season is a road trip on which Jenner is joined by a group of other trans people—mostly trans women—and several people who are not trans. On the bus and on the road, conflicts have already arisen—no doubt providing the kind of drama that make a reality tv show successful. Arguments have developed around politics—Jenner is an adamant conservative republican, everyone else on the trip seem to be democrats—and around different experiences with language. Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein have already had multiple conversations about the controversial term “tranny,” which Boylan and others find offensive and hurtful, and with which Bornstein identifies, as her “name,” her community, her family. The group has had conversations about what it means to be a woman, in which perspectives differ and in some ways partially align. Throughout the television drama of what is unfolding, what I appreciate is that the show is offering a representation of difference, conflict, and partial alignments. While it continues to show a somewhat narrow and extremely limited segment of trans communities, it is showing that not all trans people are the same, nor should they be. I appreciate that the show is not only giving visibility to [a few] trans people, but that within this community, there are a wide range of identities, perspectives, values, and feelings. We are not all the same, and if we were, that would be cause for concern. As Jenny Boylan tweeted yesterday, “‘Unity’ for the Trans movement, I think, means accepting broad range of identities. Not making us all agree on one.” And why not? As a culture, we have long been comfortable with a range of perspectives, values, positions, identities, and personalities with our cisgender celebrities; besides embracing a range of identities in trans communities, I would hope that we could also accept that kind of range for trans celebrities as well, even when we don’t agree with their perspectives and choices.

10295741_1539167539716427_3170703812608024968_n

Candis Cayne, Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, [I think second from the right is Mimi Marks], and Zackary Drucker

Zackary Drucker, who also appears on the show, wrote earlier this week, “Friends can disagree. And in this historic primary season—fraught with anger, fear, and resentment—friends WILL disagree, LOUDLY … So let’s all take a deep breath. Let’s not feed into the fierce rhetoric that is destructive to the greater cause. Let’s have these conversations with respect. Let’s appreciate what we’ve achieved and retain the righteous willpower to achieve more.” Boylan and Drucker, in their writing and on the show, continue to hold space for conversation, for listening, for finding connections across disagreements. They have openly criticized Jenner for her unwillingness to listen and discuss other perspectives—an unwillingness that seems to be shifting as the season progresses—and they continue to engage one another at the places they align across their pronounced differences. Particularly moving for me was the way that the show handled the conflict between Boylan and Bornstein in the second episode of season two: at a dinner with the whole group, Bornstein describes how she and Boylan share values for the livability of trans people (which she jokingly describes as “trans supremacy”), but that their personal strategies and ideologies conflict. After having a long talk, the two came to the point where they could say: “Some of your stuff is hard to hear, and I know some of what I say is hard to hear, and I’m trying to throttle it back in your presence. But I know you listen to me, and I promise I’ll listen to you.” Boylan describes their friendship as disagreeing on so much but loving each other so much, and in that, I hear counterpoint; I hear partial alignments—here, love—within heightened states of difference, and the presentation of that as a mode of relationship and coexistence is something for which I am very grateful.

[This post has already gotten quite long, but I also want to acknowledge that I see this kind of relationship modeled expertly and beautifully by bell hooks and Laverne Cox in their public dialogue at The New School, which you can view online. On many points, Cox and hooks disagree, and then keep talking. They stay in the conversation. They maintain and investigate the places they align and agree, however small or temporary, within the context of other ways in which they disagree irresolvably.]

I want to be very clear: I am not advocating for difference and an appreciation of partial alignments merely out of some kind of liberal/PC fetishization of “diversity.” I am committed to these perspectives because of the very material reality that none of us live in a world of our own on our own; we live in a world with others, and we are making a world together in which we will all continue to live. That world cannot be formed from a single perspective, from any single set of values that manages to overwhelm, overturn, or eradicate all others. The world that we share must constantly be grown out of not only our differences in perspective, but also our different values, our different priorities, our different needs. It has to emerge not only from the irresolvable differences and partial alignments between people who consider themselves democrats and people who consider themselves republicans, but also between people who have different racial histories, who have different gender identities, who have different modes of ability, who have lived for different periods of time; and also between different species with whom we share this planet, different modes of life at a multitude of scales, living creatures who are so different from me that sometimes it seems the only way that they might survive is if we do not. I believe the question we must ask again and again is: how might we live together without eliminating our differences? Where and how do we align partially while maintaining our vast differences? The alternative is totalitarianism. The alternative is fascism. The alternative is the cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—to borrow a term from bell hooks.

I want to live in a world in which we can hold different—even contradictory—perspectives without abandoning the pursuit of collective world making and coexistence, without resorting to violence. To be clear, I consider an insistence on sameness, an insistence on unity that eliminates difference, to be the ideological starting point for countless forms of violence; any desires for conformity, for sameness, for unity that does not allow for difference should be extremely suspect. As we continue in the year of this presidential election, I hope that we might shift the conversation towards curiosity, towards listening, towards examining partial alignments rather than trying to convince the other to fall in line with one’s own views. To be sure, I have no illusions that the current political system that we practice in the United States is not broken; however, within the broken system, I want to believe that intelligent, critically thinking people can and will come to different conclusions as to what might be the most effective direction for our nation. When the people I love unabashedly support a candidate that is not the person I have chosen to support, I want to believe that we can survive those differences of perspective. I want to believe that we can not only peacefully accept that our loved ones, colleagues, and community can intelligently reach different perspectives/conclusions, but also recognize those differences as opportunities to get really curious about one another, learn about these other people with whom we are sharing and making our world, and hope to understand something about the values, feelings, priorities and thought processes that shape their perspectives and desires. Within trans communities, within larger communities in which trans people live, I want to believe that we can hold space for our differences, and in doing so, also attend to the small, partial, potentially temporary ways in which we align, in which we can experience something shared, with which we can pursue a world that emerges from no single view or ideology, but from the rambling complexities and contradictions between the countless modes of living together on this planet.



NAKED WEEK at Denison University
22 February, 2016, 5:19 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

At 12:30pm, as a small pep band plays “The Final Countdown,” hundreds of people have gathered around the edges of the Academic Quad at Denison University to watch as a small group of student bodies run naked out of the front of the William Howard Doane Library. These naked bodies streak down the steps, tear through a large paper banner that reads “LOVE YOUR BODY,” and sprint across the quad as the crowd cheers and gazes. I didn’t get an exact count, but it seemed like fifteen to twenty-five bare bodies amidst the hundreds wearing clothes; the whole event—the opening ceremonies for Naked Week—were over almost as quickly as they began.

My introduction to Naked Week has thus far been mostly in the form of rumors and myths: a long-standing tradition of students appearing en masse, in public, and naked all week long. This is only my second semester teaching at Denison, and my first experience witnessing this spectacle. Beforehand, I heard several different accounts of the significance of this event. For some, it is a festival of body-positivity, breaking with social conventions in order to affirm the inherent worth and beauty of bodies. For others, it’s been described as another excuse to party or to get attention. I heard one person say that it inspires them that people are so brave; another said that it just makes them uncomfortable. To be sure, the motivations and intentions of Naked Week and today’s opening ceremonies are plural, shifting, at times communal, at times individual, and likely sometimes contradictory. But as an artist and a scholar of performing arts, a reality with which I am intimately aware is that the effects of any performance, any actions, will always exceed any motivations and intentions. The potential effects of any performance will remain in part unpredictable, and will vary more than anyone can control. Rather than speculate about the intentions or motivations of those who ran naked in front of their university community today, I want to take a moment to consider some of the possible effects of that action.

There was such a specific temporality to the event: first, there was waiting. Having been told that the event would start at 12:30pm, a crowd had already started to gather at noon. Having worked for years as a queer burlesque performer, I’ve learned that there is a particular energy to waiting for nudity: anticipation, an edge of urgency that seems to intensify as it decelerates, moving slower and slower. Then when the band began to play, there was the announcement that something is starting, a prelude, a preparation for the act that would follow. Finally, the first naked body emerged, at first seeming to be a little lost, then as others joined, turning and moving swiftly down the stairs. Within moments, they had all appeared through the doorway of the library, and all that remained was a trail of naked body running across the grass. It was over and the crowd quickly broke away, drifting back towards their Monday schedule. It was an interruption in the regular timing of a Monday—an interruption for which many of us gathered, bringing our bodies together in order to interrupt—and it was an interruption paced out in specific timing. If we take the event as a kind of performance, and if we can understand performances as an experiment or proposition in how an action or bodies might occur, one effect of today’s opening ceremonies is a kind of temporal conditioning, in which naked bodies are anticipated, in which we wait and wait and wait to see naked bodies, and then as quickly as they appear, they are gone. They don’t stand still; they do no wait. They rush past, they do not linger, they are gone, and the interruption is over—even if the memory of the event continues to interrupt us throughout the day.

My initial reaction to the group of bodies was how young they all were. As a student action on a university campus, it isn’t surprising that they were all young, but youth became part of what we were invited to celebrate and gaze upon. With a turn towards how this event might present a meaningful presentation of bodies, we might say: we wait and wait for young bodies, and then they are gone, rushing past, barely here before they are gone. I found myself wondering if we would gather for a crowd of older naked bodies moving more slowly across the quad. There’s a relationship between the timing of the event, the age and ability of the bodies, and the ways in which both condition how we might view the nudity that we saw.

There were similarities and differences between these naked student bodies. Many were white or pale, a few had darker complexions. They varied in height and width. They curved in different places, had longer and shorter hair in different places, were small in some places and larger in others. This range of differences, even within its limitations, provided an opportunity to see and recognize how different bodies can be from one another, something we perhaps forget or ignore within a culture that constantly provides us with images of bodies that look similar or the same. We as viewers could then appreciate the differences as so many unique—and beautiful—variations of physical form. We might also judge, compare, measure, preference, and value some of the bodies that we saw more than others. The event allows for all of these effects and possible outcomes, celebration or judgment, an appreciation of variation or another scene in which to reiterate personal and cultural hierarchies of value, in which some bodies are viewed as better than others. In a sense, I hope, the event provided a context in which to critically observe and reflect on how we reacted to these bodies.

Nudity also introduces a particular challenge; it presents an organ-ization of signifiers that often passes as an object that is fully known or recognizable: gender/sex. It might be said that there were different genders on display, and that might be so, but I would rather say that each body presented a unique configuration of unique parts, and even in their nudity, the genders of these students remained opaque to me. However, when gazing upon chests and breasts and hips and hairy legs and vulvas and penises and wide shoulders and narrow hips and small hands and long hair, in arrangements that seem familiar, we tend to immediately read such bodies as female or male. We overlook or forget—or perhaps we’ve never considered—that in doing so, we are performing a culturally mandated act of interpretation, aggregating a set of fleshy signifiers to conform within one of two binary possibilities for bodies. This interpretation happens so swiftly, so automatically, that we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. This is one of the ways in which the performative force of gender gets applied to and circulated on the surfaces of bodies: how we see and make sense of bodies is often already overwritten with gendered assumptions. [And, drawing on the work of queer theory, transgender studies, and various strands of activism around gender, I would argue: attributing a “biological sex” to a body based on physical cues is also already a gendered assumption, an organization of bodies into a binary that supports a binary system of gender that facilitates a culture of presumptive, compulsory heterosexuality.]

In this sense, the opening ceremonies of Naked Week today gave the viewers multiple opportunities: on the one hand, we were given the opportunity to see the extraordinary variation and differences between bodies, differences that only fit neatly within two genders/sexes when we ignore all of the various ways in which they are different; on the other hand, we were given the opportunity to either unconsciously attribute sexes/genders to bodies based on the various attributes and physical features within view, or to suspend those assumptions, to look again—however briefly—at all that makes those bodies different, and to appreciate the failure of a binary systemic organization of bodies.

The spectacle was of course also an erotic opportunity. The basic structure of the event staged a kind of desire—masses of people gathering because of what we wanted to see, to witness—to gaze upon the flesh of other bodies. It didn’t have to be erotic; there are certainly ways of normalizing nudity, of integrating naked bodies into daily life in ways that do not solicit desire—even if the various parts and bare flesh of bodies themselves are already predisposed to desire and eroticism within our culture. I think prolonged exposure would be one way of normalizing nudity; seeing a naked body go about its daily life could be erotic, but I think the more we see of it over time, from this angle and that, how it supports itself, how it leans, how it sags, how it swings or pulls tight or interacts with mundane tasks, the more familiar and less taboo it might become. But as a burlesque performer and as a choreographer, I know that there are structural mechanisms through which we can and do generate desire. Anticipation, as I mentioned above, stirs longing. Waiting is a kind of distance, and across that distance of waiting, we reach for that which we came to see. Disappearance is another kind of distance, bodies receding across the lawn, barely here before they are already gone again, out of reach. Choreographically, this anticipation and vanishing solicits longing, and with those formal structures in place, bare flesh, the revelation of parts that usually remain hidden, are set up within an erotic frame.

So what then can it mean that the Academic Quad became a stage for longing, for desire, for viewing and being viewed, en masse? What is the significance of student bodies on display for other students, for staff, for faculty, for the outdoors, all organized within a desiring arrangement? Perhaps it transforms the space, makes it another kind of space than how it functions day to day. Or perhaps it intensified and made visible dimensions of the space as it always functions: a place where bodies gather and meet one another, setting the stage for all kinds of encounters; where bodies pass each other, glancing towards each other, perhaps longing after one another; where bodies desire to see and be seen, a longing that saturates so much of collegiate life.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that this event took place within a culture that remains largely misogynistic, a rape culture, a culture of violence against women and people who are assigned and attributed “female” based on their physical features. In an event like this, naked bodies are made visible within a culture that already gazes differently at the bodies of women, in which the bodies of women are often at more risk than other bodies, in which the inherent vulnerability and precarity of being a body is disproportionately exploited for women. And while there were many different bodies on display today, it is worth recognizing that those who were viewed and apprehended to be female or women performed an action than was different from those with whom they ran, different because the dominant culture already interprets the significance of actions performed by people who are viewed as women differently. As I said at the start: the effects of any action remain unpredictable and will always exceed their intentions and motivations. Perhaps presenting naked bodies that are viewed as women can function as an assertive feminist act, a reclaiming of public space with bodies that are in many ways often kept in private. Perhaps this presentation provided the viewers the opportunity to view these bodies with respect and reverence, in spite of the tendencies of our culture. And perhaps the event simultaneously recreated a familiar scene, in which crowds of people wearing clothes—many of them not women, many of them identified as men—gather to view other people—some of them women—who are naked and on display. The subversive or political potential of this act is haunted by the specter of a culture that puts women’s bodies on display for consumption—usually by men—a culture that objectifies and devalues those bodies on display, a culture that comes to equate “femininity” and “women” with less value, with objectification, with display and consumption.

The effects will remain multiple and unpredictable. Nothing I’ve written here should be considered a final word or an exhaustive analysis of potential interpretations. We might also think about the fact that these bodies ran, contextualize this action within the frame of sporting events and athletic heroism. We could consider the arrangement of the crowd gathered all around the edges of the quad, viewing and being viewed by one another far longer than any of us viewed the naked running bodies. We could think about how an event that is structured around a taboo—being naked in public—becomes a tradition, and the complexity that is generated by the concept of a taboo that is traditionally broken. The possibilities are countless. But I hope that my viewing and response can offer a critical perspective—a perspective that I hope will be joined by other such perspectives—as we consider the campus and culture that we are living and making and performing with and for one another. There is apparently a whole week of Naked Week activities ahead of us. For those of you at Denison, I hope with each event, you use it as an opportunity to not only celebrate the beauty of bodies, but also to critically reflect on what such events might mean, what they might reveal (other than flesh), and what they might show us about ourselves—those parts most hidden, those parts most bare.

DSC_8516

This image is not from this afternoon’s event. It is borrowed from Carrie Burkett’s article describing a previous year’s event, “Hundreds streak for body image,” The Denisonian, February 25, 2014.

 

*There is also a helpful, funny list of “Dos and Don’ts of Naked Week” in today’s The Bull Sheet:
Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 4.25.14 PM



remarks on grief, rage, and remembering
20 November, 2015, 10:47 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

Tonight I was humbled to speak at the vigil for the Trans Day of Remembrance in Columbus, Ohio. The Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is held in November each year to memorialize those who were killed due to violence based on bias or prejudice against transgender people. The Transgender Day of Remembrance is intended to raise public awareness of hate crimes against transgender people, and to publicly mourn and honor the lives of transgender people who might otherwise be forgotten. Through the vigil, we express love and respect in the face of national indifference and hatred.

The text that I wrote and shared is below. These words do not feel adequate. Perhaps no words feel adequate when faced with extreme violence and loss, and yet in the face of such violence, silence is death, and so we must speak the words that we have, however inadequate:

Tonight I want to speak briefly about rage and grief. But before I do, I need to acknowledge the privilege from which I speak: I am white, and that affords me mobility and security that are actively denied to others. While I identify and present as non-binary, I grew up assigned male, which gave me basic social advantages that are regularly foreclosed for people who are not men. I am able-bodied in that the world regularly meets the needs of my body in ways that it does not meet the needs of others. I have been privileged with extensive education, which now gives me the opportunity—and the responsibility—to educate others, while there are many, many others who have not been given such education from whom we have much to learn. Speaking here is a privilege, especially when we are doing so precisely because there are others who can no longer speak. I do not—we must not—take this opportunity lightly; so thank you for allowing me this space.

When I am faced week after week with another headline reporting the murder of another trans person—very often another trans woman of color—I am swept up in grief and rage. Although I did not know the people whose names I now read, something of my world, of our world, the world that we share, is now broken because the world that we share has broken them.

These acts of extreme violence and loss are unbearable first because of the unjust deaths of individuals—individuals who we must grieve, who we will name, who we must not forget—and unbearable perhaps also because these extreme violations make our shared vulnerabilities evident, make palpable the countless ways that we are all exposed to others in ways we cannot control. We cannot control how we are seen or perceived by others, how we are named or called or addressed by those we do and do not know, the places in language and the law where there is or is not space for us, or the ways in which we take on available roles in order to survive. When we encounter another, our bodies are exposed and vulnerable to them, and we cannot control how they might approach us. Violence reminds us that life is fragile and precarious, in need of protection and support; violence against trans people reminds us that such support and protection are often withheld from trans people, especially those who are pushed to the margins or off the page by the existing structures of power. Violence against trans people reminds us that we still live in a world in which narrow definitions of gender constrain how we might live and also determine who might die. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such violence, because we are harshly reminded that there are limits to self-determination: we each determine who we are and who we will become in the ways that we can, but we do so in a society of others that determine the limits and consequences for our self-determination. In the face of such reminders, first I must grieve for those who have been killed, and then I must rage because we are all embedded within systems of gender that continue to act on and through us in ways we do not choose. Even at our most self-actualized, we must navigate our own becomings within systems of restrictions on how we can appear, where we can go, what words we can use, and what support we can receive, as well as the risk and danger of defying such systems. I grieve and I rage. And then, in the midst of grief and rage, I must also celebrate those I know and those I do not know who are actualizing their genders in ways that do not conform to the genders they were assigned, those who are living at the limits of these systems, and through whom more ways of living are becoming possible. I celebrate each and every one of you, and my celebration does not negate my rage and it does not negate my grief. And from grief and rage and celebration, I must also remember that I am part of this world in which we are all vulnerable and exposed. Just as I am exposed and vulnerable to others, I in turn shape how others might live in ways both big and small. If violence reminds us that life is fragile and precarious, in need of protection and support, it also compels me to extend that support and protection whenever and however I can, to actively create space for difference and for others who are different from me, and to imagine livability for those lives we may not yet recognize, those perhaps I cannot even imagine.

So, as we remember together tonight, as we honor those who have been killed, I ask that we hold together our grief, our rage, our celebration, and our commitment to imagining a world made livable for more and more lives.

[Thank you to TransOhio, Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) and King Avenue United Methodist Church for hosting this event.]



MANCHA PRAVESH: Imani Asha Gaston and Odissi

Image by Clarence Alexander

When I enter the MLK Auditorium in Hale Hall on The Ohio State University campus, several instruments surrounded by microphones are already set out on brightly colored fabric on stage right. Just off the front of the stage, a small pedestal is draped with pink, gold, and orange fabric. On top sits a small statue with fresh flowers at its feet. I look around at the audience gathering for this Mancha Pravesh, the debut solo Odissi dance recital performed by Imani Asha Gaston: it is a much more diverse audience than I usually see at arts events in Columbus, Ohio. There are children and college students, parents and elders; the audience is a mix of African-American, Indian, and white people. This is not merely incidental. It is evidence of some of this event’s importance. As the lights dim, the musicians enter and take their places at their instruments and microphones. The MC introduces the first dance, “Vakratunda,” an invocation that pays homage to the Hindu god Ganesha. The music begins, the droning of the veena—a stringed instrument like a very large guitar that lies across the musician’s lap—punctuated by the rapid percussion of the mardala—a small drum. Imani Asha Gaston comes onto the stage, dressed in folds of red and beige silk, shining silver jewelry, and jangling ankle bells that ring in time with the music.

I have reservations writing about an Odissi performance: Odissi, a form of classical Indian dance that dates back to the second century B.C., is not a style of dance that I have studied or practiced. I already know that anything I write about it will be as an outsider to the form. The same would be just as true for a hip-hop or tap dance performance, or a performance in the style of countless other dance traditions that have not been included in my own dance training, which has focused primarily on ballet, American and European modern and postmodern dance, Japanese Butoh, and an array of improvisational techniques. Very nearly all that I know about Odissi, I learned this afternoon at the Mancha Pravesh, from the detailed program and the introductions given by the MC. Beyond that information, when watching this performance of five dances, I could not tell you which of the gestures or steps are codified within the Odissi tradition and which are inventions or innovations particular to this solo choreography. I could not tell you these ways Odissi differs from the other seven forms of classical Indian dance. I could not identify which movements carry broader cultural significance, in the way that fluttering, undulating arms have become metonymic to Swan Lake and The Dying Swan, perhaps even to ballet and its feminine ideal. I could not tell you how long histories of social structures, gender and racial politics, philosophical and religious perspectives, and globalization have potentially impacted the traditions that shape the performer’s dancing body. In short, to write about this work feels, at least in part, like exposing a particular breadth of what I do not know.

As I consider this, I realize that this situation is probably not so dissimilar from the majority of audience members at any dance performance. While a vast number of people—particularly those socialized as girls when they were children—have grown up taking dance classes, most people in the United States do not have any education or much experience in watching dance and thinking critically about it. Most have not studied the dance forms that they view, let alone the historical, cultural, and political conditions from which those dance forms emerged. In many ways, the extent to which I am not familiar with Odissi resembles the extent to which most American audiences are not familiar with many forms of dance. As a result, for me to write about this performance takes me—an “insider” to much of the concert dance that I encounter, as a dancer, a choreographer, and a scholar—outside of my expertise, pushing me to rely almost entirely on what I perceive about the performance that unfolds in front of me. In this sense, the performance itself will have to be my education in the form. Perhaps this itself can be instructional.
[I do realize that even how I write about what unfolds in front of me with disclose elements of my biases, my dance training, and my education. This will no doubt be simultaneously productive and potentially problematic in ways I do not yet understand.]

As Gaston enters, her hands are pressed together as if in prayer. Her steps are steady then quick, shifting her weight rapidly and often leaving her balanced on one foot. Her feet strike the ground forcefully with her heels or the balls of her feet in the rhythm of the music. Atop these strong, direct steps grounding her movements from their base, her torso is poised vertically—held but not rigid. Although the placement of her body demonstrates constant control, she remains mobile; throughout the dances, her head and shoulders incline and twist, her ribs and her hips circle and roll. Around the careful placement of her torso, Gaston’s arms trace intricate patterns in the air, swinging and gliding and circling gestures that orbit her center like spinning constellations. These gestures fly across a dynamic range of speeds, but even at their fastest, they are not flung out of control. They remain precise, somewhere between shooting stars and needlepoint, always arriving emphatically in clear, distinct postures. There are no details that are not choreographed: Gaston’s eyes cut from side to side, up and down and straight ahead in complex patterns, and even her fingertips dance as her hands shift from mudra to mudra in rapid succession. Intricacy and complexity compound as the dancer’s feet and legs and hips and shoulders and arms and fingers and head and eyes all accentuate the rhythm of the music, sometimes articulating multiple distinct cadences that move across and support each other, and sometimes settling—softly or swiftly—into a single posture, pose, or pulse, bringing disparate parts together into a common unity.

Alongside and yet part of the dancer’s movement, the music crests and falls, accelerating with the beat of the drum, the bright clang of hand cymbals, and text that is spoken in rapid syllables, then dissolving again into ringing drone of the veena and the longer tones of the singing vocalist. None of the text that is spoken or sung is in English, which holds some part of what is happening in mystery, reminding me that my access to what I am experiencing is always partially limited by my own history and situatedness.

There are five dances performed in this program, all choreographed by Guru Ratikant Mohapatra and Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. Each one differs in intent, as described by the program: following the invocation to Ganesha, the second piece unfolds through a series of sculptural poses strung together with steps in varying rhythms in honor of Shiva, the cosmic Lord of Dance. The third piece evolves through accelerating tempos of gestures, postures, steps, and movements of the eyes, demonstrating the dancer’s skill. The fourth piece is part of a narrative, in which the dancer embodies multiple characters in the story of Radha and Krishna. The final piece, entitled “Moksha” which means “spiritual liberation,” represents “a spiritual culmination for the dancer who soars into the realm of pure aesthetic delight.”* Each piece shares a different facet of Odissi as well as the dancer, which is appropriate for the event. This Mancha Pravesh is a debut dance recital, a transformative moment in the life of the dancer as she becomes a professional solo Odissi performer. In a sense, this recital is a ritual, not only marking but also enacting the transition of the dancer from one phase as a student to another phase, as a professional performer. Moving from the opening invocation, through various demonstrations of skill, and culminating in a dance of liberation, each piece embodies a step in the dancer’s journey.

While each piece is clearly within the same style of movement—focusing on idiomatic uses of the eyes, the hands, the subtle control in the torso, the forcefulness of the steps, all closely following the music—each also has subtle characteristic elements that make it unique. The first piece feels very much like an address, performed mostly facing the audience, the palms of Gaston’s hands opening and closing in gestures that feel both sacred and welcoming. There is more turning in the second piece, more acceleration in the third, more looking side to side in the fourth, and a spaciousness and stillness in the final piece that is unlike all of the others. I think the final piece is my favorite. While still threading between intense phrases of rapid, driving steps and gestures, the dancer also moves through passages of pause and sustainment. Her body gradually rises and sinks, and the slower transformations between gestures and mudras almost drift around the soft and steady current of her weight. In the final moments of the piece, Gaston balances in what I would call in my yoga classes Virabhadrasana III—Warrior Pose III—balanced on one leg with her other leg and torso parallel to the floor, first facing stage right, then left, then the audience. She lifts up into what I would call Tadasana—Mountain Pose—her feet flat on the floor and her arms lifted above her head. Slowly, her hands drift downward, shifting through different mudras, and carrying her into a low squatting position. This is where the performance ends.

But this is not the end of my thinking. Between the third and fourth pieces, several people spoke, offering a few words about the performance, including Kaustavi Sarkar—Gaston’s Odissi teacher who is a doctoral student in the Department of Dance at OSU and an accomplished Odissi dancer, choreographer, and educator—and Gaston’s mother, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, the Vice President for Student Life at OSU. Both speakers were moving, but Dr. J—as Adams-Gaston is affectionately known on campus—spoke to something I was feeling since I first arrived. In addition to honoring her daughter’s accomplishments and Sarkar’s important work with Odissi at OSU, she offered that this performance also told the story of the university, what it allows students to do, and what she described as “what we mean by higher education”: bringing out the best in each student by allowing them to see themselves as bigger than their backgrounds or the perceptions and perspectives with which they arrived. She said that the university can be a place where we become global citizens, citizens of the world, and that the dancing we saw today embodies that potential.

I appreciated Dr. J’s discussion of what the university can provide. As an educator working in one university who is starting a new job at a different university in August, at a time when higher education is becoming increasingly privatized as a business of buying and selling and debt, I feel a lot of gratitude for Dr. J giving voice to what higher education can provide not only to its students but to the world in which they live, the world that they are making. I don’t want to diminish the specificity of what happened today, Imani Gaston and Kaustavi Sarkar’s labor and exceptional work. Rather, beyond my descriptions of the dancing and the music, I want to acknowledge that part of what made this work remarkable was seeing an African-American woman becoming an expert in an Indian dance tradition, working with an Indian woman who herself is studying, practicing, and teaching within an American university. One important aspect of this joint project relates to how we share culture: at a time in which I see the words “cultural appropriation” again and again across Facebook, twitter, and blogs that I read, I would like to point to Gaston’s work with Sarkar as one model for responsibly participating in a different culture. Months and months of hard work, hours and hours of dancing, the careful, strenuous training through which a dance tradition from India comes to live within the flesh and fibers of an African-American woman’s body, all participate in a form of rigorously responsible cultural exchange, becoming so embedded in a practice that the practice then becomes undeniably embedded in you. Our world could benefit from more of this kind of exchange.

Finally and also remarkably, in response to the inter-cultural situation of Sarkar and Gaston dancing, teaching, and learning together, an audience of friends, family, community, and academics, a multi-generational audience who was Indian—and potentially Indian-American—African-American, and white, showed up, shared space, and shared an experience of witnessing something that ranged from a deeply treasured cultural tradition for some to an art event in an unfamiliar medium for others. I can’t help but think that in the specific cultural moment in which we find ourselves, in which race and class continue to stratify our society in ways that continue to result in unacceptable violence, today I saw something—was a small part of something—that performed a different socio-cultural paradigm. Many of us had different reasons for attending Gaston’s Mancha Pravesh today, but perhaps—like the different parts of the dancer’s body moving in different rhythms yet somehow finding harmonic resolution as one—by finding focal points that we can share from different perspectives and organizing ourselves around them, something personal can becomes communal and in turn becomes something global. I would like to think that in as much as this performance enacted a transition in Gaston’s career as a dancer, it also marked a potential for transformation at other, larger scales, not only in concept, but in practice: a way we might move towards a more just world in which we want to live.

*Quoted from the program notes.

Additional Program Information:

Musicians:
Vocal: Niranjani Deshpande
Veena: Sumamala Devalpally
Mardala: Vendata Chawla
Manjira: Sukanya Chand
Ukuta / Bol: Kaustavi Sarkar



20 Rue Jacob and Performing Gender

On May 22-23, I was part of an event called 20 Rue Jacob which was conceived, choreographed, and directed by Courtney Harris and Charlie Brissey. It was a multi-media event that was simultaneously a live performance, an art exhibit, a dance party, and a contemporary salon, featuring dance, video, installation sculpture, text, and burlesque. You can read more about the event here; in this post, I want to reflect a bit on my own choreography and performance, and share the text that I wrote for the solo that I performed.

Photo from 20 Rue Jacob. This moment came later in the show, after the solo I write about below, but captures something of the context.

Photo from 20 Rue Jacob. This moment came later in the show, after the solo I write about below, but captures something of the context.

Inspired by the work of painter Romaine Brooks and the famous salons hosted by Brooks’ lover, writer Natalie Barney, on the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s, 20 Rue Jacob was intended as a contemporary reimagining of a queer past, the communities and spaces in which gender and sexuality, their fluidity and performance, have been explored. Since Courtney and Charli first invited me to be a part of this project, I knew that I wanted to create a piece that referenced the culture of an intellectual salon while also drawing on my own work as both a scholar and a performer. The piece also emerged from a kind of characterization, if not a character: last year I performed in a short film entitled Left of Canvas, also directed by Brissey and Harris and also inspired by the life and work of Romaine Brooks. In that film, my role is intentionally ambiguous. I am an unnamed figure at a kind of historical queer dance party, a femme-androgynous person who moves promiscuously through those in attendance, exuding sensuality and eroticism through glances, touches, brief dances, lingering embraces, roaming hands and tender kisses. In the film, I am all desire and desiring, drawing close and closer, drifting away, and coming back again. For 20 Rue Jacob, I wanted my characterization to retain both the ambiguity and effluence of eroticism that I perform in Left of Canvas—which was projected in a series of video installations throughout the Hoffheimer Building where 20 Rue Jacob was staged—while also embodying the hybrid figure of a genderqueer scholar and burlesque dancer. The foundation for the piece is a spoken text, something between a manifesto and a lecture, the kind of text one might hear from a philosopher at a salon sharing provocative or innovative ideas about society and culture. The text was also an exercise in articulating the fairly complex critical theory of gender and sexuality that I study in a relatively succinct and accessible format. In doing so, I wrote a series of statements, my own words, without quotations or direct citations—while also carrying the undeniable influence of scholars and writers such as Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, and Sandy Stone.

Still from Left of Canvas, the film that was shot a year earlier and was projected throughout the building during 20 Rue Jacob. I am dancing with John Dombroski.

Still from Left of Canvas, the film that was shot a year earlier and was projected throughout the building during 20 Rue Jacob. I am dancing with John Dombroski.

During my delivery of this text, I moved around a central space surround by elegant antique seating within a huge ballroom on the second floor of the Hoffheimer Building. Dressed in a floor length satin gown, black satin evening gloves, black heels, a brocade shawl and strands and strands of pearls, I walked around the space, making eye contact with the audience. My movements accompanying the text were choreographed, simple, demonstratively gendered gestures abstracted from the self-touching and teasing of a burlesque dancer or strip tease. I say “abstracted” because I think, at the beginning, it was potentially not quite clear that this was a strip tease, that I was or would be a burlesque dancer; in a sense, this revelation itself was part of a “reveal.” As the text developed, I began to remove layers of clothing, first the shawl, then a glove, then the other glove, unzipping my dress, slipping the straps off of my shoulders, then eventually letting the dress fall to the ground. The strip tease was intended to supplement the text and also provide it with dimension: these spoken words are not merely “theory.” I am talking about real lives, real bodies, the living flesh of my own body. My presentation of my genderqueer body was there alongside and beneath my words; receiving the gaze of the audience as I undressed, it could also be overwritten, re-dressed by the text that I spoke.

There were also moments of interaction in the piece. During one line, I approached another performer, came up close, pressed my body against his as he wrapped his arms around my waist. During another line, I approached another performer who—at very specific moments—slapped me in the face to punctuate the reality that dissenting from the gender binary risks punishment, even violence. At the end of the piece, the performer who slapped me—John Domborski—retrieved my dress crumpled on the floor, brought it to me, then helped me as I got dressed there in front of the audience as the next performance began, with a text written by Gertrude Stein. These fleeting interactions introduced to the piece that the ideas delivered through the text are not only theoretical and not only liver by real bodies; they are also social, relational, entangled with intimacy and conflict, desire and disdain.

I hope to provide photo and video documentation of the piece at some point, but for now, here is the text that I wrote/spoke, annotated with descriptions of the choreography:

[Entering the space, I pause and pose at the center of the ballroom: elbows back, shoulders down and very slightly twisted to narrow my silhouette, leaning into one hip, my hands lying lightly on my chest. Posture is integral to gender presentation: how I stand, how I move, how I hold my arms and shoulders and hips are all mechanisms that participate in what will or will not be perceived as feminine. When I begin to speak, I move through a series of gestures, stroking the satin and skin of one arm with my fingertip, my arms swiping seductively across my body.]

“Gender is an activity, something we are given to perform and that we continue to perform repeatedly over time.

[I repeat this series of gestures in three directions as I speak, moving with the text and also moving through silence. Each gesture takes all of the time it takes, luxuriating in the air and lingering across my body. The sustained pacing invites anticipation. With each gesture, I allow my shoulders and hips to push and pull in counterpoint to each other, a continuous tilting and twisting to produce postures that seem to sink into repose.]

By performing it constantly, gender appears to be static, stable, or fixed. It is not.

[I face the fourth direction and slide my hands lightly, sensuously down my bosom, my waist, my hips, my groin.]

No one was born a woman or born a man. These are roles we are assigned.

[I spread my arms wide, opening my shawl, letting it drape across my back, and then fall to the floor. I walk towards the audience, each step careful and measured, crossing one foot in front of the other, and my eyes lock with a man I do not know in the crowd.]

Any person who is called a man performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has already failed.

[Peeling off my left glove as I speak, sliding my hand across my chest, I hold his gaze with mine, knowing that while my gesture is potentially seductive, my words are an indictment. As I speak the word “failed,” the glove snaps softly off of the tips of my fingers.]

Any person who is called a woman performs an approximation of an idea, an approximation of an ideal, an approximation that has also already failed.

[Moving around the edge of the audience, my eyes meet those of a manly woman. I peel the glove off of my right hand as I speak and hand the gloves to the woman.]

Gender categories are aggregates of characteristics—behavioral, physical, chemical, sartorial, choreographic.

[I move back towards the center of the space and pose with each word: miming putting on makeup; stroking my hands down the front of my body until I am bent over, fingers at my ankles; sliding my fingertips back up my body; pressing my hands into my hips, my elbows forward, my belly concave, a model in the pages of Vogue; leaning forward slightly, my left hip jutting back, draping my right arm overhead like Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose.]

The more characteristics correspond with a given gender, the more successful the approximation of the category. The more the code does not add up, the more the approximation fails.

[I turn and face another direction, repeating the series of poses.]

These gender codes do not stop at the skin. Biological sex is the attribution of a set of meanings to a body. When we say, “It’s a boy!” or, “It’s a girl!” we are saying: we have already decided what your body means, and that set of meanings will constrain and enable what you can do, how you can live, how you can desire, how you can love. Or be loved.

[Here my voice gets louder as I walk in long strides perched precariously atop six-inch heels around the edge of the audience encircling me. On this line, my voice and presence feel rallying, more like a suffragette than a lecturer.]

Yes, gender is also a matter of desire: Who or what would you be if you found yourself desiring someone whose gender is ambiguous or shifting?

[I approach one of the other performers, Nikolai McKenzie. I look into his eyes, our faces almost touching, then turn, press my back against his front as he wraps his arms around my waist. As I say the word “shifting,” I take a few steps forward, and his arms drift open, trailing behind me as I move on. I turn and walk towards another performer, John Dombroski.]

You can fuck with the codes, but do so at your own risk. Those who dissent from the gender binary are usually punished. [When I say the word punished, he hits me, open palm, across my cheek. I stumble under the force for a moment, recover, then stand back up and look him in the eye.] Repeatedly. [He hits me again, this time with even more force, and I have to pause to recover myself. When I speak again, it is now with a near manic brightness, the voice of a person trying desperately to behave as if everything is completely as it should be.]

What if the codes were to break down? What if bodies refused the codes? In a society built on a gender binary, in which bodies are made to live within one of two mutually exclusive categories, all for the benefit and privilege of—let’s not forget—one sex, what would happen if gender and sex were made matters of not one or two but many?

[As I speak, I waltz back into the center of the room, stepping beneath myself, turning, waltzing around myself, to come to face a stranger. I slowly unzip the back of my dress, revealing the flesh beneath and the hint of a black g-string.]

As a body comes into view, remember that what you see is already overwritten with what you have been told it means, how that body, its gestures, its pieces and parts are allowed to signify.

[Slipping my arms out of the straps of my gown, I hold the top of the bodice with my finger tips, leaning forward and shimmying my shoulders as I speak. Finally, I lowering the dress, sliding the satin down my body, and letting it fall in a soft heap on the floor. Standing, wearing only black pasties, a black g-string, strands of pearls and black heels, I lift one fist high into the air, a rallying gesture, as I lean into one hip, cross one knee slightly in front of the other: a feminine posture.]

What if when assigned one of two genders, our collective response was: My Body Does Not Mean What You Say It Means.

[During one performance, a woman in the audience stood up and lifted her fist into the air in solidarity. I felt like we were sharing something, a gathering force,  the seeds of a revolution stirring in this sophisticated salon, amidst the twinkling lights and sparkling wine.
After a moment of stillness and silence, I cross to the edge of the circle. John brings me my dress and I step into it; he zips it up. This is for me the most intimate moment in the piece: stripping is a performance, a show, a spectacle. Redressing is always in the aftermath, after the clothes have come off, after whatever stage show or tryst, perhaps the same night, perhaps the next morning. There’s a kind of exposure in dressing oneself in front of others, and it felt necessary to share that tender moment with the audience as a counterpoint to the density of the text, the confidence of the strip tease.]

[text by Michael J. Morris]