Ballet Boyz, Deluxe: White Men Dancing in the Midst of Racism
It occurred to me that even when dance is streamed live online you usually can’t use a pause function. But when watching a pre-recorded dance or a dance film from home, it’s easy to pause at any time for any reason. Given that my life is mostly lived in fragments right now it seemed fitting that my response to watching Ballet Boyz, Deluxe – a dance film that includes Bradley 4:18 by Maxine Doyle and Ripple by Xie Xin – follows as fragments. The film is streaming as part of the San Francisco Dance Film Fesitveal Digital Season. Julian Carter, a frequent collaborator of mine on and off SFDance Matters, suggested we watch and write a response to this film. So here we go.
On May 30th I watched the first 13 minutes, which seemed a decent chunk. A Confession: I read Mauyra Kerr’s response to the film before watching. My present context: I am heavily burdened, saddened and outraged by the lack of humanity that continues to spread in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by the knee of white police officer on May 25th. Even though this film was made in March 2020 before the wave of COVID-19 shuttered theaters in the U.K., I can’t help but watch this dance within the current context of racism and racial violence in the U.S.
From the beginning of Bradley 4:18, I really felt the music. It embodied the movement rather than the movement embodying the music. I hope the film includes more information about the music. I’m not sure yet what this means for how I respond to the movement; maybe the movement doesn’t matter. A few ideas/concepts stood out to me in the first (?) interview/documentary section:
- How can this piece be about humanity when the cast is mostly white men?
- The piece is based on a single character, Bradley in a poem, Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest.
- The choreographer of Bradley 4:18 (the first of two), Maxine Doyle, is a white woman.
I seem to be at a loss for how to proceed or even if I want to proceed. Do I owe it to Doyle watch the rest of Bradley 4:18? Why?
I decided to follow Michelle’s lead and pause at the 13-minute mark. A confession: it was challenging to make myself watch that long. My first response was confused dismay. Why had I suggested we write about this? Remembering that it was because I heard that Christy Funsch was going to review it–I’m strongly interested in what Christy has to say, and wanted to see what she’d thought was worth commenting on. Even 2 minutes in I was wondering if I’d imagined that, or gotten it confused with another dance film.
That first segment reminded me of a million things I’ve seen before: men dancing fast ensemble abstractions in clothes that conceal the lines of their bodies. I don’t like unmotivated frenetic movement–a restless inability to focus or locate oneself in space or relationship; and it’s such a standard strategy for containing the fear that men dancing together might engage tenderly or with curiosity rather than with athleticism or aggression. My whole nervous system cringed every time another young white man came up to the camera to show us his more or less expressionless face and then turned or faded back into the group. Each time I was braced for the moment when the lone black man’s presence was going to be centralized so that he could be victimized for our entertainment.
THEN: We talked it over (in a series of text messages) and agreed that we don’t want to prioritize watching this video. We are tired of the dance world’s insularity and squeamishness about the larger sociopolitical context in which we move right now. From those first 13 minutes, we know it rests on the completely untenable claim that white men represent the Universal Human Subject, and it mobilizes hyperactivity to hold more complex forms of engagement at bay. We just don’t seem to care about watching this film anymore.
Or rather: we care very much about directing our attention to the choreographies of repression and resistance going on all around us. We hold that the simple fact of men sharing a stage isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a good enough reason to pay attention to a dance. Certainly, it isn’t important enough to offset its ongoing reflection of & participation in narratives and performances of white dominance.
So what next? What do we know, as dancers and dance-watchers, about how to respond to one another’s bodies in this moment when every gesture of proximity or distance carries the significance of survival for someone? How do we move past the fantasy that politics ends at the studio door or in the theater?