michael j. morris


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]



Purple Wedding/Re-Membering the Mountains/S(he) Sylph

What a week of work. I hardly have time to be writing this (I am certain it is tedious how frequently I start blog posts by saying that I don’t have time to be blogging), but I don’t know how to go on to other projects without giving (at least some) attention to these.

Yesterday was the Love Art Laboratory’s Purple Wedding to the Mountains. I participated in various capacities: I performed a new solo entitled “Re-Membering the Mountains Ritual” (see previous post and below), I was a member of Beth Stephens’ bridal party, and I carried an Ecosexual Pride Flag in the procession. I had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people (artists, academics, activists, people who make their home in the Appalachians, eco-chaplains, sex workers, curators, videographers, photographers, etc. etc. etc.). The wedding was a beautiful event held in the Galbreath Chapel on the Ohio University campus. It is my hope that the web will soon begin to flourish with documentation traces from the work; there were always so much cameras (video and photo) running.

Beth Stephens, Joseph Kramer, and Annie Sprinkle; photo by Sarah Stolar (who also made the costumes for Beth and Annie)

Having written about Love Art Lab, Annie and Beth, Sexecology/Ecosexuality so much for so long, it was a profound shift for me to be inside of the work. Several brief thoughts spring to mind:
-the absolutely collaborative nature of the wedding(s). Beth and Annie have spoken about this so much, and although it is evident in the wedding documentation/ephemera, it was a arching theme in my experience this weekend. The event really lives from/between the contributions of many many individuals.
-the unique diversity of the community constructed surrounding the event. I was struck by the range of backgrounds/experiences represented in the wedding, both as performers and as witnesses, and the reality that many of those individuals would have no reason or opportunity to function as a community otherwise. It felt like an ideal demonstration of coalitional politics and communities of affinity: there was no shared essence or pervasive common denominator in those present. There were simply common concerns (primarily for the Appalachians and environmental politics) that established this [fluid] community.
-the generative creative chaos leading up to the event. There were amazing facilitators and organizers involved, but with something of this scale, we were soon behind schedule and I wasn’t sure how the wedding would happen/start on time. And then it did. And it suggested a different way of approaching work/art, a more spontaneous method for creative convergence.

My solo (discussed more extensively in my previous post) was very well received.  There was a lot of documentation happening, so hopefully there will be a video/more photos soon.
I made a few new discoveries as I was dancing. The score expanded. It was certainly an incorporation of environmental melancholy, and a practice of experiencing grief for the destruction of the mountains (and the lives that depend on the mountains), but in a very queer ecofeminist way, it became an incorporation of a deep sorrow for other apparatuses of oppression: the abjection of queer lives as unlivable, the exploitation of women, the earth, and all those who suffer as “others.” I experienced a deep grief that I did not foresee, and my melancholia was for so many things that go ungrieved in our culture. I was brought again to Catriona Sandilands words: “how does one mourn in the midst of a culture that finds it almost impossible to recognize the value of what has been lost?”  In a culture that does not recognize the loss of livability, whether that be for queer people or the inhabitants of the Appalachian mountains, how can we grieve? [this was made even more palpable having read Foucault on biopolitics and Agamben on bare life last week] Unlike what I had prepared, I do not think I reached a state of mourning–if mourning is distinguished from melancholia, the latter being an inability to let go of that which is lost, the former being an act of moving through/letting go. Against so much of my yogic/Tantric philosophy, I did not let go. I incorporated the violence/terrorism of these un-grieved (the mountains, etc.) to carry them with/in/as me. I “re-membered” the mountain, I ended drawing myself up into Tadasana, but it was not an uncompromised form: the mountains cannot ever be what they were before the onslaught of human violence, and we now live in a world of wounds [“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” –Aldo Leopold]. We live in/from/as wounded mountains, and oppressed peoples, despite whatever liberties they attain, carry the history of oppression, of abjection. For me, in the wedding yesterday, there was no “letting go.” There was in incorporation of “the other,” a recognition that it (the mountains, the other, etc.) is NEVER NOT myself. In the ecological/Tantric sense, if all things are One, then that violence, that terrorism, that world is the world in which I live, which is (phenomenologically) the world of my body.

Photo by Elizabeth Linares

Lastly, I feel the need to write something about Courtney Harris’ new work that premiered this week, S(he) Sylph. To be transparent, I am close to this work. I designed and constructed the costumes, I have seen it grow and evolve throughout the rehearsal process, and I live with Courtney. But I saw this work as a great (even radical) work on so many levels, and before another week begins, it was important for me to articulate why.

To begin with, S(he) Sylph was “a contemporary re-imagination of the 1832 ballet, La Sylphide.” The press release goes on to describe it as an investigation of “the complexities of narrative and character development through modern movement vocabularies grounded in a classical idiom. Joined by members of the Royal Renegades, Central Ohio’s premiere drag king troupe, Harris and cast reinvigorate this Romantic-era production to explore gender transgression, queer identity, and feminist perspectives.” Although I feel that the piece stands bolding and beautifully on its own, this context adds something to what I consider to be its radicalness. Contemporary creative reconstructions are a growing interest in the field of dance. I view them as a practice concerned with “doing history,” potentially revisionist, reflexive of the field/form, and depending on the relationship of the choreographer enacting the reconstruction to the “original,” a practice of recuperative autoethongraphy. In Harris’ case, this is a familiar historical ballet. She has danced the “original,” and it lives as an artifact of a particular epoch within her particular [dancing life] history. To revisit, reprocess, revise, and recreate this work functions as more than just an exercise in reconstruction or historicity; it is–in my estimation–a radical act of exploring/generating divergent (deviant?) perspectives and conclusions to one’s own history, as well as the history of the particular ballet. This is part of the context in which I have viewed the work.

In this feminist/queer re-engagement with the Sylph, issues that had to be confronted were primarily in the narrative and character definition, although movement vocabulary, setting/situation, and music were reconsidered as well. The figures of S(he) Sylph are more abstracted than those of La Sylphide. The narrative as I experience it is the presentation of “James” within the context of hyper-masculine men in which he does not quite fit [this hyper-masculinity itself becomes subverted/displaced as the piece progresses, and this gang of guys are revealed as drag kings. I saw this an amazing demonstration of gender as performed, and even the most masculine of men, the standard in this context, become revealed as not essentially that which they perform. This functions for me more as a symbolic plot supporting the more foregrounded narrative of the “James” character] [As the costumer, I want to to comment on how “James” is presented alongside the kings: they are in suits with shoes. He is in a black military jacket trimmed in gold (suggestive of the gold throne around which the kings congregate–for me a symbol of a masculine grounding, and the field of hanging gold frame–for me a symbol of that which must be crossed over/transgressed; it hopefully alludes to a military history of domination, Orientialism, Western superiority, patriarchal occupation, and “othering”) and a kilt, suggestive of the Scottish “James” of La Sylphide, but also functioning to distinguish his performance of masculinity within the context of the men he is alongside. We see hints of dark purple chiffon at the cuffs, collar, and tail of the jacket, suggestive of some additional content]. With the departure of the group of guys, “James” trailing behind them, a mysterious woman (“Madge”)–who has been standing in observation for the opening of the piece–enters the space. Her vocabulary echoes aspects of the first movement with the drag kings and foreshadows the vocabulary of the “Sylph.” She is serpentine and sinuous, and I feel her strength into the floor and through the air like the coil of a boa constrictor. She is regal in her carriage, but her regality is not the flawless linearity of the court ballet. [Again, as the costumer, I want to comment on the presentation of “Madge”: for me, she is the cyborg/composite/queer figure; she wears a black military jacket, reminiscent of the jacket worn by “James” with similar trimmings attaching her to the gold elements of the set and the implications of its military elements, but her jacket is trimmed in ruffles, subverting the design and function of a military jacket (a possible allusion to the feminization of the military persona, the threat implied by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” etc.); she wears men’s Calvin Klein briefs, an inhabitation of an intimately male attire/position, and possibly engaging with a discourse of having/being the “phallus;” beneath her jacket is a hint of black lace; and her jacket is bustled with various colors of chiffon, tassels, lace, and chains, a foreshadowing of a relationship with the materials of the “Sylph;” She is never only one thing; she is internally inconsistent, contradictory in her demeanor and design] Perhaps most importantly to me, she is a figure of mystery: we know that this figure watches/observes much of the action on stage, and there are moments in which she participates in the action between “James” and the “Sylph,” but her role is never perfectly clear, and this ambiguity is another facet of how I read her character as potentially queer. The “Sylph” enters, and we see her move in synch with “Madge;” we are shown/given the opportunity to read a correlation in these figures/characters. Some scholars have suggested various configurations of relationship between “Madge” and the “Sylph” in La Sylphide, and I feel as if this suggestion of relationship continues in this speculation. There are obvious similarities and disparities between these two [again, as costumer: with the “Sylph,” we are confronted with what might superficially be identified as simultaneously the archetypal feminine and the exoticised “other” (calling up suggestions of Latin or show hall dancers). She is a veritable cloud of purple chiffon ruffles, bouncing, drifting, and rippling through the air. Yet my own feminism is at play in the design: her figure is partially obscured. The dress design is taken from a 1930s frock, more of a sheath with a flounce, not accentuating her curves or immediately revealing her body, but provoking the viewer to go looking for her form amidst the ruffles (amidst the expectations of her form?), and perhaps in doing do reveal to the viewer his own attention to and participation in the economy of desire surrounding the female form]. Her movement is easily the most balletic, making reference to yet another history of feminine ideals. In a duet between “James” and the “Sylph,” he chases behind her, looking after her but never directly laying eyes on her, moving through suggestions of her movement as if tracing her traces in the air. The relationship between “James” and the “Sylph” is perhaps the most radical departure from La Sylphide. In Sylphide, James’ desire for the Sylph drew him outside of his engagement to be married, outside of his community (it functioned in some ways as a morality tale, warning against the wiles of the exotic); yet in S(he) Sylph we are shown not specifically a trajectory of desire, but something more like identification or inhabitation. “James” traces the “Sylph” in the air not in an effort to acquire or attain her as an object of desire, but to suggest her form as himself.

In the middle section of the piece, the trio of “Madge,” “James,” and the “Sylph” dance together, “Madge” seeming to mediate the nature of contact between the other two, moving them through space and inhabiting the space between them (again, this “between-ness” can function as a significant factor in considering the figure/character of “Madge”). The “Sylph” exits once more (beyond the frames: the frames function as some kind of divide, accentuated further in the following section. Madge and the Sylph initially emerge from beyond the frame, from an “other” place, and this is to me significant), and now the piece becomes even more interesting.

Erik Abbott-Main as "James," Jessica Zeller as "Sylph" and Veronica Dittman Stanich as "Madge," set pieces by Nicole Bauguss, costumes by Michael J. Morris

Behind the frames enter the drag kings, now in various states of undress, situated liminally between the recognizably female and the recognizably male (I might suggest here Butler’s account of the subversive potential of drag in the destabilization of sedimented gender roles; I might also suggest the spatial/symbolic consistency of the undressed drag kings being situated beyond the frames). “Madge” removed “James'” kilt, and the kings, reaching through the frame, assist in removing his belted jacket. A new version of “James” is revealed: flowing purple chiffon blouse (yes, the same chiffon from the Sylph’s dress and Madge’s bustle) and black men’s Calvin Klein briefs (yes, the same cut as those worn by “Madge;” it is my hope that the correlation not only draws a connection between “James” and the bricolaged condition of “Madge,” but might also raise question of how he inhabits this intimate ‘masculine’ space, one which has been demonstratively inhabited already by “Madge;” what does it do for him to now also inhabit that space?). The “Sylph” reenters and he dances alongside her, now finding a consistency with her movement that he did not find alongside the kings in the opening scene. He dances alongside her, and even when they partner (briefly) it is not is the idiom of the pas de deux; it is along trajectories of sameness and shared vocabularies. “James” is now performed/demonstrated in the terms of the “Sylph,” becoming (rather than desiring/acquiring) those tropes of “otherness” established in the figure of the “Sylph.” His kilt and jacket disguarded (now hanging from the gold throne), he passes through the frames, following in the traces of the “Sylph” as the light come go down. Our last image is “Madge” atop the throne, what I choose to read as an enthronement of ambiguous, liminal, even queer [gender] identity atop/above/against the masculinist paradigm.

So much of this explication has to do with what/how the piece means for me, which says very little of the strength of the dancers (Erik Abbott-Main as “James,” Veronica Dittman Stanich as “Madge,” and Jessica Zeller as the “Sylph”), nor the exceptional craftsmanship of the choreography. Nor the excellent performances/participations of the Royal Renegades as the drag kings in the piece. But as this piece has marked a significant investment of my time, energy, and attention over the last few months, I wanted to contribute my own reading of the work to whatever other dialogues emerge around/about it. I don’t take my reading as authoritative in any way, nor does it necessarily represent Courtney’s reading of her work. It is simply how and what the piece means to me as a designer and spectator.