michael j. morris


queer burlesque and the velvet hearts

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to Sofie Clemmensen’s Freshman Seminar in the Department of Dance at OSU. Sofie had invited me to talk about blogging (and now I’m blogging about talking about blogging—so meta) and writing artist’s statements. In addition to these main speaking points, I also talked about web presence more generally, the social constitution of identity (we are all always more than who we are to ourselves; both on the web and off, who we are is an aggregate of content the we have generated and content/parameters generated by others), identifying and articulating one’s contribution to the field, and some of my own work/reasons for being in dance. In the discussion of my own work, I talked a little about the work I’ve been doing this past year performing as a principle dancer in the queer burlesque company Viva Valezz! and the Velvet Hearts. I realized after the talk that I haven’t posted anything about that work here on my blog, and so I wanted to offer a brief account of my time with the company over the last year (plus).

I joined the Velvet Hearts in August 2012. I had never considered being a burlesque performer before then, but when I was invited to audition, it made sense. I had been going to burlesque shows for years, specifically queer burlesque shows, because I was interested in the staging of eroticism, the celebration of bodies, and the reconfiguring of the “traditional” (straight) strip show for queer performers and audiences. I was excited by the empowerment of watching women stripping for women, and how the orientations of these crowds seemed to influence the possibilities for the form that the burlesque took, such as gender ambiguity, androgyny, or genderfuck, overt lesbian content, and the way the audience related to the performers. At Velvet Hearts shows, I was always so moved by the overwhelming gratitude that the audience displayed; rather than demanding or catcalling performers to take things off, these crowds cheered and tipped when clothing was removed. When I joined the Velvet Hearts, it was in part because this was a culture that I wanted to be a part of, a culture that feels sex-positive, feminist, queer, and body-positive, right here in Columbus, Ohio. As so much of my own choreography and research interests engage directly with bodies, sexuality, sex, and porn, I was also interested in how choreographing and performing in this genre would open new avenues of exploration for my work. Going in, I knew that I was approaching burlesque as a choreographer/dancer coming from the contemporary/post-modern dance world. My interests were in the choreographic tropes and principles of burlesque—delay, anticipation, and reveal, the spectators’ gaze—the vocabularies through which “sex” and “sexy” are signified—things like shimmies, bumps, grinds, sustained, lingering touch, etc., as well as normative and non-normative gender codes—and the role of costuming in choreography; in many ways, what you wear determines what you do. The fashion of burlesque—boas and satin gloves and zippers and corsets and bras and pasties, etc.—prescribes certain parameters for movement, not only the gestures that are performed, but the sequencing on those gestures (the order in which articles of clothing are removed). In each of the pieces I have created over the last year, I have been experimenting with these formal properties of burlesque: how long can one sustain anticipation before a reveal? if I am only wearing one article of clothing (a sari, for instance, as in my solo “Like This”), is it possible to take six minutes to remove it, and what choreography does that costuming enable? are there ways to critique the gaze of the spectator—by which I mean, make it visible or appreciable as a certain norm, not critique as in criticize or demean—heightening the spectator’s self-awareness of their own gaze and desires to see, while also reversing the gaze, giving the spectator the sensation of being viewed or seen? what is “minimalism” in burlesque? if I reduce the choreography to only a few actions—a grind, a shimmy—repeated indefinitely, does the significance of those actions change? does their erotic potential/function shift into something else? do they become de-naturalized, and does the de-naturalization of certain erotic tropes open the parameters for what might then be appreciable/recognizable as erotic? in what ways does burlesque participate in what I think of as the larger project of dance, the exploration and presentation of what bodies can do, thus what bodies can be? if burlesque is an exploration/presentation of what [more] bodies can be, is it possible to consider burlesque to be participating in the politics of the life and livability of bodies, as it relates to sexuality, visibility, and recognition? These are some (not all) of the questions that I’ve been exploring in my choreography within the queer burlesque scene. I don’t have video footage of most of my performances, but I have been very grateful for the work of a number of photographers who have captured moments from my performances over the last year (credited below).

I’ll try to be better about posting about upcoming performances and shows, but if you are interested in this work, feel free to follow the Velvet Hearts on Facebook; all of our performances are announced there.

This video was produced as part of a solo I performed in the FIERCE International Queer Burlesque Festival. The piece was performed at Wall Street Night Club on May 4, 2013. This video was projected on screens on all sides of the audience while I performed the same solo on stage, facing away from the audience. This was an experiment in heightening the sensation of voyeurism and surveillance that is implicit within the structure of a burlesque performance. The choreography was derived from a solo originally choreographed by CoCo Loupe, who also shot the footage for the video.

rehearsal stills from "becoming emma, becoming imperceptible"

rehearsal stills from “becoming emma, becoming imperceptible”

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solo from FIERCE International Queer Burlesque Festival, photo by BurlesqueBitch.com

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solo from FIERCE International Queer Burlesque Festival, photo by Provocatique.com

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solo from FIERCE International Queer Burlesque Festival, photo by Provocatique.com

likethis_provocatique2

“Like This,” photo by Provocatique.com

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“Like This,” photo by Robert Walker

likethis_provocatique1

“Like This,” photo by Provocatique.com

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“Like This,” photo by Robert Walker

trauma_provocatique1

Geryon from TRAUMA 2012, photo by Provocatique.com

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Geryon from TRAUMA 2012, photo by Provocatique.com

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and with: my body is possessed by past dances, my dance is possessed by bodies yet-to-be danced

The last two days have been completely saturated with performance. Last night I saw the premiere of FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER: what was once digital is dead & now lives on as a dance at FEVERHEAD, a new work by CoCo Loupe and They Might Be Dancers Too (Zachariah Baird, Counterfeit Madison, and Eve Hermann), with appearances by They Might Be Dancers (Noelle Chun, Nicole Garlando, Lindsay Caddle LaPointe, Noah Demland, Leigh Lotocki, CoCo Loupe) and Karen Mozingo, with original music by Counterfeit Madison and Noah Demland. Following the performance, I made my burlesque debut with the Velvet Hearts in the Red Light Girlie Lounge at Wall Street Night Club. This afternoon I saw Bebe Miller’s new work, A History, at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Each of these experience deserves to be written, to be told through writing, but I am particularly interested in trying to articulate the play between FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER and A History, how the two are operating as a diptych in my experiences of them within the last twenty-four hours, uncovering themes and concepts that are surfacing for me within the reverberation between these dances. In both works, my attention is directed towards the dance/dancing as a form of community, towards the ways in which dances and dancing both cohere and emerge from relationships, towards the choreographic strategies that come to operate as cultural values within the community of these dancing bodies (“these” being in one instance the bodies of They Might Be Dancers Too and They Might Be Dancers, in the other instance, the bodies of the Bebe Miller Company, specifically the dancers Angie Hauser and Darrell Jones), strategies such as mutual seeing and being seen, mimicry, audience interaction, partnering, and so on. In both instances, relationships become a kind of choreographic device, or at the very least, a material within the dance making. The relationships are not (merely) the conditions of the dance; they are formative. The work of making dances come together and comes out of the relationships between people, between bodies. The pieces also do something quite different: in A History, the attention of the choreographer/company is directed towards the archive of their work together, a history of dances and dance making, and the ways in which the memory of that history lives within their bodies. The work is a “remembering remembering,” creating something now from what was then, from how “then” lives within “now.” Dating back to a working/dancing relationship that began with Verge in 2001, through Landing/Place in 2005, and Necessary Beauty in 2008, A History (in 2012) builds itself from the re-membering of the memories of years of developing and rehearsing material, years of practicing and repeating, years of bodies coming into contact with Miller’s choreography, one another’s movement and flesh and personalities, and so on. This dance emerges from their history of dancing. In fact, their bodies themselves materialized through this history, a history with and through and alongside one another. In FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER, Loupe foregrounds the dancing bodies of three individuals—Baird, Hermann, and Madison—who have only just begun their dance training this year. My attention is directed towards a horizon of potential. These three bodies entered FEVERHEAD with a lifetime of experiences, lived embodiment, habits and patterns, preferences and predilections, and through their work with Loupe, those bodies of experience have become dancing, and then they became choreography, and then they became a dance. This dance/dancing is situated alongside seasoned dancers (They Might Be Dancers et al), in a move that creates a flattening/leveling of movement experiences, emphasizing the interest—the importance even—of bodies moving with one another. Foregrounding dancers who came to dance only this year makes the concept of “dancer” not about hierarchy—those with more experience are more important—but rather emphasizes that “dancer” is truly about a willingness/eagerness to dance, to be with one another dancing.

And:
I’m dancing through my own memories.
Modern dance class with CoCo at the Dancers’ Workshop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, circa-the-early-2000s. The class is fast and difficult, and I never feel strong enough, and I am becoming intensely aware of how difficult it will be to be a dancer. We’re listening to the soundtrack from Run Lola Run. We do “G.I. Jane’s,” a series of crunches and pushups that I can never quite finish. We “shnorkle.” We do “illusions” and lots of work upside down with our legs in the air.
I know I want to dance with CoCo, for CoCo. I’ve seen a video of a piece she made with Amiti Perry called Two Arms Full Circle, and it’s the most amazing dancing I’ve every seen. I know I want to be a dancer in part because of CoCo.
Years later, I am in my junior year of college, and I present a solo at ACDF at the Ohio State University. CoCo presents an excerpt from her MFA project, In the Clear, and I fall in love with CoCo’s work all over again.
In 2008, I move to Columbus, Ohio, to start my MFA at OSU, and finally, CoCo and I live in the same city again. In the months preceding my move, I’ve been actively engaged in conversations with CoCo and others on her blog, from one foot to the other. CoCo’s blog is a lifeline to critical dance making during the year after I finished my BFA, and it is emblematic of the kinds of dialogue I desire in grad school.
In grad school (I think in the spring of 2009?), I take modern dance with CoCo again, now at OSU. I am startled by how much is familiar, how much of how CoCo moves lives in my body and my movement, and how pronounced our differences still are. I still get tired. I still don’t feel strong enough. And yet the forcefulness, the relationship of distal actions to the core of my body, the evidence of attention is the body (even when my eyes glaze over) harken back to my first modern dance classes with CoCo in Baton Rouge. I do not dance like her, but she is in the dancing that I do.
In 2009, I dance in a new work by CoCo Loupe entitled click here for slideshow or 6-8 character limit, with Eric Falck and Jeff Fouch. We are goddesses and boys and pop stars, and I am finally dancing for/with CoCo Loupe.
For years, CoCo and I watch and respond to one another’s work. We improvise together. We sometimes perform together. We sometimes take class together.
In 2011, CoCo and They Might Be Dancers start FEVERHEAD, a creative dance/arts space. They have classes and performances and workshops and exhibitions, and FEVERHEAD becomes a home for dance artists in Columbus. FEVERHEAD also becomes a home for people who are not dance artists, but who want to dance.
Last night CoCo premiered FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER, working with people who are new to dancing, building material from ideas taken from her old blog, building a dance from the improvisatory movement of Zachariah Baird, Counterfeit Madison, and Eve Hermann, where their bodies, their histories of movement, interface with these old, digital ideas. Something new happens.
The piece begins with ten performers in a line holding hands, shifting their weight from their left foot to their right foot, back again, over and over. They look at us, the audience, and we look back at them. And I am already overwhelmed by the tenderness of soft and open faces, the interdependence of bodies articulated through interlocking hands, the shifting ankles and metatarsals on the floor as bodies maintain standing (together), from one foot to the other. Zachariah (my boyfriend) is directly in front of me, and I am undone by the vulnerability that is made visible just by standing on one foot, then the other foot, then the other, and then the other. We make eye contact briefly, and he exhales audibly, and I feel myself hope that I somehow remind him to breathe. I catch Eve’s glance, and we both smile broadly. I am warmed by the gentleness and kindness of Nicole’s eyes as she scans the audience, also smiling; she is beautiful and reassuring and exudes an energetic calm. I am drawn into Noah’s stance, noticing how very still he is, how steady he seems, and wondering how that steadiness extends inwards within his inner world and outward to those hands he is holding. I watch Counterfeit, and notice that something about the space between her neck and shoulders and how she holds her chest looks as if she is barely restraining the force of her excitement and anticipation. And so on. I am falling in love with each of them.
The dance that unfolds is complex and layered, a play of attention (lots of watching one another), imitation, repetition, and proximity. I watch them watching one another, watching me.
I can’t watch CoCo without feeling the swell of history, the “us” that is “me,” her dancing body in my dancing body; I never can. I can’t help but think that we are so much softer now than we were then, and how remarkable that is. And here she is surrounded by (other) dancing bodies that she has inspired, and that have inspired her.
This dance does critical work, flattening the plane in which movement is appreciated, playing with the roles of performers and spectators, experimenting with perception through the alignments of bodies, music, lights, and text.
But would it be too sentimental to say that it is more about love? That when I’m watching, all I care about is how much I appreciate each of these performers, the nuances and individualities that only find expression in the context of one another, in the repetition of phrases and the mimicry of movement, and the performances of “solos” alongside one another. That I feel a part of something so simple and profound just in watching someone else watching. That I am honored to see bodies excited to be dancing. That it’s all about relationships and what is produced in-between: how CoCo and I go back so far, how CoCo told Zachariah that he needed to meet me, how Leigh told Counterfeit and Zachariah about FEVERHEAD, how Eve found her way to FEVERHEAD, and how just by their persistence in taking class and their insistence to move—to dance—CoCo was inspired to make a dance, how the room was filled with people who know and love someone(s) in this piece, and how this dance is the site of so many relational articulations…
I apologize.
This dance deserves to be described. How they never stop watching one another, seeing one another, both while they are dancing , and while they are sitting on the sidelines. How I can watch as their attention—so evident in the directness of their foci—sinks into the action, into the others, in ways that are intense and serious, and in ways that sometimes erupt or dissolve into inexplicable laughter or a smile. How when they stand in line, their feet rock minutely, their toes lifting away from the floor, how their toes find the floor again and press into it, just as the performers find one another palm to palm and the tendons of their wrists flex as they press into one another. How the shove of Zachariah’s weight into a lunge tangibly softens into care as he approaches the floor, and how at other times he never quite settles into the ground, quick to push back out of it as soon as his weight shifts into it. How his fingers seem to direct his shoulders, lifting and falling and reaching together. How the precision and clarity of Eve’s lines exude incredible power, and how when she suddenly stops, alone in the middle of the space with her back to me as the others move to the sides, she seems small for the first time all evening. How Counterfeit seems so strong and steady, and how her limbs reach and fling and fly with such freedom, anchored to the strength of her core. How every joint in Leigh’s body seems to rotate around and orbit every other, as if her flesh is wrapped around a constellation that is constantly reconfiguring itself. How Noelle can stand on one leg and shift her weight dramatically in every which way, while still never losing track of where her support presses into the earth (and where it presses back into her). How Karen seems to be crafting, literally sculpting, a different world as she dances, tenderly opening and collapsing space around her, and how I feel as if I could spend the whole duration of the piece just watching her watching.
And see, there I go again, swept down these tangents of what I feel while watching…

At the end of the piece, the giant loading dock door is raised, and the dancers run out into the parking lot. The audience turns in their seats to look through this “reverse proscenium arch” to offer their applause. It is as if in here, inside FEVERHEAD, is the “real world,” and out their, in the streets beneath the stars, out their in the world, is where they/we have been training all this time to finally perform, to finally witness one another. It is significant that this piece features three dancers who are newcomers to dance training, but their dancing does not come only from their training in the last six-to-eight months. Their recent training and the creation of this piece has simply given them skills and opportunities to dance what they had been learning and practicing all along.

We are each and all a history.
When we dance, we dance those histories. When I watch, it is my history watching.
It is a perspective of the past looking out onto a horizon of what is coming into being, where history unfolds into potential. It is a perspective that is not singular; it is defined by those standing behind and standing on either side, hand in hand. And it is not an empty horizon that is faced; it is a horizon populated by the (dancing) bodies of those with whom we are becoming.

Whether it is the dancing of bodies looking back through now to then, or whether it is the dancing of bodies only beginning to form such a history, oriented towards what might be, what could become possible, the potential of bodies dancing, for both A History and FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER, what becomes most prominent is that the dancing is dancing with. The body is always more: it is a history of dancing, it is a horizon of potential, it is the coalescence of relations and attention and awareness and contact and surface and inner worlds and outer worlds and and and and and. And with.

performance photo from FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHERphoto by Michal Mitchenson 

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rehearsal photo from FROM ONE FOOT TO THE OTHER; Zachariah Baird, Leigh Lotocki, Eve Hermann, and Counterfeit Madison
photo by CoCo Loupe

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Bebe Miller, A History; Darrell Jones and Angie Hauser