Dancing will save you

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday November 17, 2009
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The Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena was completely packed last weekend for To Be Straight with You, performed by the eight dancers of London's dv8 Physical Theater, and presented by San Francisco Performances. The show had received great advance press, the whole run was sold out, and it was perhaps the most serious piece of dance-thought I've seen all year.

This is important since the piece is being reviewed mostly as a play (with incidental dancing) about the religious right and gay-bashing. The discourse seems to be sticking to the "issues," as if this were An Inconvenient Truth, which it resembles, since it's an infotainment in form. "Half the world has laws that say stone homosexuals, or burn them." So it's really necessary to say that the dance functions as a counterweight to the words, and pulls in the opposite direction from the verbal argument. In this piece, the words plague us; the dancing, ultimately, delivers us.

To Be Straight with You is a hybrid of docudrama, infotainment, and dance that's based on hundreds of interviews with victims of gay-bashing in London, men and women attacked by members of their own ethnic communities. As with dv8's Enter Achilles (seen here a dozen years ago), this show goes into gay themes from the most disturbing angles – the violence of repression, the lure of queer bait, the cross-currents and rip-tides of male bonding – and the dancing shows it louder than words.

Dv8 uses ethnic dance styles like a boomerang, as a weapon to recoil on the parochialism of the group. A sexy Jamaican thug, making sexy Jamaican moves, brags about putting a tire around a queer and burning him up. (There's a whole genre of murder rap, played on the radio and in the clubs, about killing queers for God. We heard some.) There follows a parade of sexy predatory men who declare, in the colorful accents of Pakistan, Nigeria, Ireland, or the working-class British north, how their religion calls for abstinence from, or death to queers. (These accents were sometimes hard for American ears to make out.)

A lecturer put things in perspective, working a brilliant display of computer graphics projected on a scrim, rotating a huge globe and showing that most countries outside Europe condemn homosexuality. London has major enclaves of all those peoples, who do not feel bound by British laws.

Then the monologues resume, but we have to notice that the performers aren't playing themselves. Ankur Bahl, the star of the show, is a Marshall Scholar, born in Chicago, the USA Champion Rope Jumper, skilled in the classic dance of India. He's playing a role based on a young man whose father stabbed him in an alley and left him for dead in Pakistan. But here's where the dance makes the difference. He tells how he escaped while skipping rope, hopping from foot to foot in lacy patterns, and his virtuosity put me in mind of the little swans in Swan Lake. He speaks a second monologue about how music saved him, while tossing off huge Bharanatyam leaps and making the big arm gestures of that style.

The guy who's trying to abstain from sex begins a chair-dance of crossing his legs, as if to hold his junk in control, that catches on – first one hunky guy, then a couple more, grab chairs behind him and fall into step. It's hilarious, and you feel delivered from all your cares until the music swells up and you realize it's a catchy hymn they're all dancing to.

Our boys are angelic – we love them, anyone who wasn't in the grip of harsh ideas would love them, the audience loved them and gave them huge rounds of applause, then went home to sort out what had just hit them.