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 Haggerty’s music wasn’t originally made for dancing but it’s expressive and emotionally vivid.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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