Dance rebounds

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 5, 2011
Share this Post:

The no-man's land between the gay-friendly and the queer remains treacherous, despite the enormous gains we've seen since this paper was founded, 40 years ago this week. Twice in the last fortnight of dance-viewing I've seen someone "stung," in a moment of considerable vulnerability, by an incensed "friend" across that great divide. Once it was onstage in a brilliant group-improv piece, and once it was in the audience. In the latter case, it happened to me.

The issue that stands out for me, when I try to think about these pieces, is Fear of Rejection (and in extremis of Being Disowned). Still, whether it was in big-hit shows by world-famous dance companies (Paul Taylor's and Alvin Ailey's, at Yerba Buena Theater and UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, respectively), or by out-there, avant-garde shows that played to the same 150 people (Meg Stuart's Auf den Tisch at Yerba Buena's Forum, and the Kegan Marling/Dandelion double-bill at the hole-in-the-wall space Counterpulse), the artist's deepest concern seemed to be, "What do I have to do to belong?" (Full disclosure: But this is the big issue in my life, so it's the filter I see things through.)

In the case of Alvin Ailey, in Revelations he made his mother proud by depicting his mother's world, everything she cared about, the down-home, African-American church he remembered from his childhood, where the spirit is shouting through the singing, dancing body. This justly famous ballet set to "Negro spirituals" has been seen all over the world; in the 70s, it was being sent abroad by the State Department as a universally intelligible statement of American values. Revelations has become the bread-and-butter of the Ailey company, who for years have performed it on every tour, almost every show. Ailey was still closeted when he died. The company does not lie about his homosexuality (as the Joffrey Ballet did after Joffrey died, saying he died of asthma when in fact it was AIDS). And the joy of Revelations rises to a peak tantamount to ecstasy; the audience is out of their chairs, dancing in the aisles, and up on the stage dancing with the performers.

Queers need to keep an ear out for the bad things coming, and the bisexual Paul Taylor is uncanny in his insight into what's going on. Black Tuesday, which formed the centerpiece of the company's opening night, spooked everybody when it debuted 10 years ago, right on the heels of 9/11 – and it was just as upsetting to see the great Michael Trusnovec dance Brother, can you spare a dime? last Wednesday and realize that in 2001, nobody was worried about foreclosures and losing their jobs and falling out of the social network, but now – it's not just a metaphor.

The artists who decide to go for the big audience have to simplify their visions, put strong outlines around their imagery, train their dancers to a highly specific big technique, and punch it out huge to reach the very back of the house. Those who refuse to pander to the big audience often decide to play for their fellow artists, whom they can expect to understand them without the extra emphasis it takes to subdue the big house.

Meg Stuart is a performance artist who works mostly in Berlin and is highly admired around here; everyone from Anna Halprin (the 90-year-old Mother of Modern Dance here) on down was there for the opening of Auf den Tisch last Friday. It turned out to be a happening, purporting to be a "conference" on sustainability. Twenty-odd brilliant performers improvised around and on a table the size of my entire apartment. The premise was not to be taken too seriously, though some tried; Stuart herself appeared in a colossal wig like a Bacchante drunk on some preposterous idea, and her hilarity infected everybody as she staggered onto the table, fell and spilled several quarts of M&Ms all over the table. There were many zany moments, but most telling for me came when Sheldon Smith, who attacked a pink-unicorn pinata without doing much damage, began apologizing to it and encouraging it to just be still, collect yourself, and mused how his sense of personal identity was always with him. "You mustn't be gay then!" cried a woman from the sidelines, which was exactly what I had been thinking. I confess, I often feel like I have disappeared or have been erased; I don't know what she meant, but I do know that sometimes I feel not like a motherless child, but that if I did assert myself I'd be disowned.

So sometimes I find, though I'm thought to be articulate and even glib, that I can't say anything. That happened to me at the end of Jump Ship Midway, the paean to darling gay boys which Kegan Marling put on at Counterpulse last Friday, which left me so stunned I couldn't speak, which enraged my gay-friendly best friend (who'd been shaken up herself in her own way), who abandoned me and left me to wonder through the next piece if she'd made it safely home.

The house had been set up like a nightclub – platforms in the audience where a go-go boy might dance or do a monologue while another worked the staircase. The four guys were divided into "serious" modern dancers (Marling himself and the genius Nol Simonse) and silly boys James Graham and Mica Sigourney (a.k.a. VivvyAnne ForerevMore), with Marling crossing over at times into cuteness.

When performers cross the proscenium, as performance artists love to do (who was that guy in New York who'd try to drown himself in a tub until an audience member intervened?), it's dangerous; their function as artists is to stimulate our imaginations, but when one of them sits down in the empty seat next to you (as happened to Yours Truly) and tells you about the time in his life when he slept on the sidewalk with his drug-addict friend to keep the friend's shoes from being stolen, as if he's having a conversation with you during the show and must violate the fourth-wall convention to share this, and when asked says yes, he's not making this up, it can make you crazy for a while. At least, it did me.

On reflection, I had misbehaved unpardonably to my friend, who is not returning calls or answering e-mails. But the incident points up how hard it still is for me and many queers of my generation – actually, most of my generation died in the 80s of AIDS – to deal with the fear of being disowned. Would I prefer my mother's curse, or to hang out with those cute gay boys, if they would have me?