Month: May 2019

Lavender Country, April 25th Post: Ballet

Writing with Julian Carter

Post: Ballet’s Lavender Country is named after the first gay country band and album of the same title, released in 1973 and re-released in 2014. The ballet premiered in 2017 and returned to San Francisco’s ZSpace in April 2019. It’s 2.1 miles from ZSpace to the dance hall at 550 Barneveldt, where a thriving 20-year-old LGBT country-western dance community meets twice a week. Your $5 entrance fee includes access to lessons in two-step, country waltz, West Coast Swing and line-dancing; there’s a Two Left Feet Club for total beginners, Line Dance Pro for advanced dancers, and hours of open dancing. It’s home to a nationally respected line-dance choreographer and a competitive dance team. Each fall Sundance hosts the four-day Stompede, the largest gay country-western dance event in the world.

If you’re wondering what that has to do with Post:Ballet’s performance, the answer is not nearly enough. The show revolved around Patrick Haggerty, the original lead singer/songwriter on Lavender Country who performed in front of an energetic and skillful band while the Post:Ballet dancers moved in the dance space just below the band stage. Between songs, Haggerty spoke directly to the audience telling stories about coming out, talking with his father, losing friends to AIDS, finding a husband, and more. His performance of live memoir was often compelling—poignant and funny, and occasionally a little embarrassing in its earnest articulation of political visions now decades past their sell-by date. But neither the music nor the historical culture from which it sprang found reflection in the underwhelmingly generic movement.

Lavender Country looked like it was made by someone who lacked connection to the material and had no real interest in the technical challenges of building dance that speaks queer culture, sexuality, and politics—present or past. It showed little awareness of country-western dance and its traditional structures, rhythms, vocabulary or spirit. Haggerty’s music wasn’t originally made for dancing but it’s expressive and emotionally vivid. It’s also fun. Vanessa Thiessen’s choreography was not. Its affective and aesthetic flatness might explain why we found it difficult to stay connected with the dancing.  

We came to Lavender Country interested in how Post:Ballet would embody gay country-western music. We’d been investigating Rodeo (both de Mille and Peck versions) and talking about gender and race fantasies embedded in musical references to the American West. We thought Lavender Country might fuel our larger conversations about heteronormativity and whiteness in dance. That didn’t happen. In fact, we were unable to discern any real conceptual structure for the piece. We were especially puzzled by a cringe-worthy sequence to the song “To a Woman.” Haggerty explained that this love song was written and first performed by a lesbian member of the original band. Then all the musicians and five of the dancers left the stage, the lights went down, and a single dancer rolled and writhed on the floor to a recording from the original album. Even well-danced, it was difficult to imagine how this exaggerated and angst-ridden isolation could possibly express anything but resistance to desire and romance between women. Instead, it seemed to recycle the tired old assumption that lesbians die alone.

When we sat down to write this response we looked for other reviews of the dance from its 2017 premiere and found nothing. This seemed strange to us given the strong culture of queer dance and performance in the Bay Area. It left us wondering why this dance was overlooked by area dance writers. To us, this piece seemed in desperate need of post-performance reflection and thinking.  After the show, we talked with a number of LGBT people who were equally disappointed. A two-step dancer of many years told us that he felt two conflicting urges–one to let his critique rip, one not to badmouth–and reflected that both responses felt like they came from a gay place. A professional modern dancer disliked what he saw as inappropriately heteronormative pairing and asked how this composition could bill itself as radical in any way. And a relationship coach, who doesn’t have much experience with dance, asked in all innocence why nobody had pointed this was a bad idea. It’s a legitimate question, and the answer is larger than this review can hold.

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The After Party:  Lavender Country, ZSpace April 2019. Photo Credit: Michelle LaVigne

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May 10th, Dance Exhibit, Lauren Simpson Dance

Writing with Megan Nicely

We were invited to write a response to Lauren Simpson’s Dance Exhibit, described asa multidimensional arts experience centered around a physical and embodied exploration of the Atrium space and the sculptures contained within.” Each performance had a different post-show speaker. We were curious about how the dance is extended by including the perspective of Sarah Hotchkiss, the guest speaker on May 10th; when does a dance end? We’ve recently been inspired by The Hundreds, a book by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart in which each “essay” is written in one hundred words or multiples of one hundred words long.

Upon reflecting, we decided to try out Berlant and Stewart’s hundreds practice as a way to respond to Simpson’s piece. On one hand, this seems like a suitable framework for blogging – – a shorter writing form. On the other hand, it seems to fit, at least to us, how Dance Exhibit displayed meticulous attention to detail not only with the movement quality but also with its relationship to space and sound. Nothing seemed out of place or unnecessary. We each took a different approach with our hundreds practice, yet feel they capture the varied ways we see and write (this) dance.

Artistic Labor, Megan Nicely

I felt strangely idle. Women in colored jumpsuits moved silently and efficiently at the peripheries of audience clumps, repositioning pieces of industrial material–rebar, fluorescent tubes, coils of extension cords–while we chatted. It had started, the performance I mean. The bodies in colored jumpsuits–orange, blue, black, white, green–were already exhibiting the behind-the-scenes labor of installation crews to us, you know, the ways objects are placed in museums and galleries just so. These bodily gestures, measurements, and precision are what make the art object appear just right, and that is what these bodies–these dancers–were doing, and continued to do throughout the piece.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

At some point we stopped our idle chatter. Maybe it was because the labor force had unified, and displaced us. We watched as the bodies staked their claim on a large wooden staircase, itself part installation, part architecture. Soon we also occupied this space, now a formal seated audience. We observed the art laborers mirror the forms of the art objects down below. I let myself continue the labor installation narrative, seeing the danced actions as a process of gathering information about the objects, so as to know what next to do with them–a way to understand their nature somehow.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

After the performance, the speaker referred to “ooo”–object-oriented ontology, which means everything existing equally, rather than humans at the top. Did the objects communicate their preferences? Was the human precision a way to contain and manage the situation, to avoid mess or spillage? Clean, even, focused–these are not words we often use to describe labor, yet if a body is to repeat activity for a long time, or remain in relationship, a somatic aesthetic is helpful. Approach touching the material with care. You may not know the past lives that have allowed the things to arrive to this moment.

(“Dance Exhibit” with Lauren Simpson Dance, Dana Hemenway, and Sarah Hotchkiss; Alien Phenomenology by Ian Bogost; Awareness Through Movement by Moshe Feldenkrais)

Space Making, Michelle LaVigne

Walking into Minnessota Street Project, I felt curious and slightly impatient. I read that the dance started at 7:45; I didn’t want to miss anything. People were busy talking, walking, and sitting throughout the space. As we mingled, five dancers dressed in different colored coveralls moved around the open space, manipulating different objects – – glowing fluorescent tubes, macraméd extension cords, and twisted rebar. They moved to the stairs and slowly rolled their way down. We were then directed toward the stairs and sat down to watch the dance continue or was it just beginning? A new start or a resetting?

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Michelle LaVigne

 

The dancers then began to interact directly with the objects; they moved them and moved with them. They also moved like them; sculpting their bodies to mirror their shapes and energy. By taking on these shapes, the dancers activated these objects, suggesting they could be otherwise. The materials and space that might ordinarily seem static became mobilized, pliable. The soundscape performed live by Shanna Sordhal added to this tactile-ness. The dancer’s white shoes echoed through the space, also helping to amplify and alter the very white space. The manipulation of bodies, materials, and sound challenged the stability of expected forms.

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely

The end came a bit abruptly; I was surprised to hear clapping from behind; my vision blocked by the I-beams bisecting the space. The shift from dance to words ended the evening with Sarah Hotchkiss, our speaker and then moderator with Simpson and artist  Dana Hemenway. We got glimpses into their creative practices and insights into how things (like Hemenway’s macraméd extension cords) come into being, how they have ontological status. It was an insightful end; their conversation left me wondering about space, things, and the power of bodies to move materials into ideas – – are we that different than things?

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Dance Exhibit, Minnesota Street Project May 2019. Photo Credit: Megan Nicely