Choreography's secret history

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday April 3, 2012
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Dancer/choreographer Sean Dorsey. (Photo: Lydia Daniller)
Dancer/choreographer Sean Dorsey. (Photo: Lydia Daniller)

The transgender choreographer Sean Dorsey is working his own mode of being an LGBT genius. I can't say I like his current mode as much as I did his very first work The Outsider Chronicles, which evoked the awkwardness of being the wrong gender in brilliant detail, with every geeky gesture ringing true. But it may just be that being transgender is different from being queer, and the issues are more complex than I find I can be comfortable with.

Dorsey is a transgender man, child of two progressive lesbians supporting his aspirations to masculinity, who after a decade of breast surgery and hormone treatments has beefed up to the point where only his large pelvis and centralized nipples betray his birth-sex. He's one of the most imaginative dance-makers around. His latest work is a thorough-going revision of The Secret History of Love, which does for transgender prostitutes what Roots did for African Americans: it's a sentimentalized history, told with the queer version of survivor guilt, in homage to the transgenders of the 1920s, WWII, and the 1950s, whom he's interviewed and studied, whose testimony is worked into a voice-over sound-montage.

There's a strange discrepancy between the queer-bar culture this show celebrates and the dance style that Dorsey has cultivated. Only the Fever episode, bewitchingly sung by Shawna Virago in a ball gown, and brilliantly danced by Brian Fisher, Nol Somonse, Juan de la Rosa, and Dorsey, in a cabaret style using all the Fosse shtick you can imagine, evokes the kind of music and dance that could take a transgender prostitute's mind off her troubles and transport you into the realm of the absolutely fabulous. All the rest of the show is earnest modern dance, to dull commissioned music that has some texture but no style, flair, or rhythm. A club that played this music would go out of business. Similarly, if the "working girls" whose voices we hear were wearing fuck-me-now clothes on the street and full satin drag as they danced the night away, why are Dorsey's dancers wearing chinos and plaid shirts? What's up with that? It's all beautifully danced by these extraordinary virtuosi, in a style strangely at odds with the subject it seeks to celebrate. I find it sentimental.

Dorsey is just entering middle age; he's just achieved a bull neck. There's a lot more to come. For the moment, the miracle is the artists he's got working for him. They are all virtuosi at this, especially Fisher, who was once a Broadway dancer, then a star of ODC/SF, now a father of two rambunctious boys, who's never danced better. It is ravishing to see.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Ballet's Program 5 gave us spectacular dancing of all three ballets on its mixed bill, but only one had inspired choreography. This show opened two weeks ago, but your reviewer had to wait to see it til near the end of the run, by which time the dancers had many chances to polish the more awkward bits.

The ravishing thing about Helgi Thomason's Fifth Season was the sensitivity of the partnering. To see the care with which a man placed his hand on his partner's ribs, to support her in a tilted arabesque or to spin her softly in multiple turns, was to see a kind of courtesy that borders on romance. Davit Karapetyan, Tiit Helimets, and Ruben Martin Cintas listen with their hands, and the whole body does what it must to keep their partners comfortable, centered, a-hover. Tomasson's skillful dance-making is not the sort of thing that hurries away the soul, but he does make patterns that allow the dancers to sweep you away. Even in overhead lifts, where the men must take the women by the ribs and hoist 100 pounds of female, there's no sense of grappling; the women help, they jump, and the guys give a power assist with soft hands, power in the back, and a vivid awareness of the trajectory this soaring creature is going to take.

The Fifth Season is actually romantic, in a modern way, the same way that Robert Frost claimed his lyrics were – it's "a diminished thing," but the rapturous feeling is still there. The ballet is helped by the bittersweet melancholy of Karl Jenkins' music String Quartet #2 plus Palladio, well-played by the SFB orchestra under Martin West, and by Sandra Woodall's sleek grey unitards, which make the dancers look clothed in the harmony of beautiful proportions, lovely in their bones – as Theodore Roethke said, "the shapes a bright container can contain!"

As for the world premiere, Edwaard Liang's Symphonic Dances set to Rachmaninov's last composition of the same name, I have to reserve judgment; my friends who liked it saw it from as far away as the balcony, where one said the patterns were fantastic. But from as close as I sat there were only a few beautiful lifts that relieved the constant churning. The costumes featured a strange underskin that made the dancers seem encased in snakeskin from the nipples to the collarbone. From close up, they just looked herpetic. Sarah Van Patten and Anthony Spaulding had considerable success with the second movement, Frances Chung and Dana Genshaft had wonderful moments in the first and third, but the thing just seemed to go on and on, with the Dies Irae wailing at you from the horns in the finale.

Robbins' Glass Pieces has no such pretensions – au contraire, it's his "pedestrian" piece. Robbins was one of those queers who made a living out of being a popular entertainer, and found shelter in that persona after nearly escaping exposure as a queer twice – during WWII, when he was rejected by the army for being queer, and during the McCarthy era, when he'd "finked" under threat of having his homosexuality exposed. He re-built his sense of security by making himself indispensible as America's court jester with the ballets Fancy Free and West Side Story.

In Glass Pieces, Robbins used music by composer Philip Glass, and filled the stage with dancers walking pell-mell like New Yorkers in a subway station. It's a huge crowd, and they adjust their trajectories while in their midst angelic creatures leap in like flawed superheroes, unobserved. The second and third movements quote and steal from Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and all the others, and build a sense of delight that sends the audience home filled with a sense  that modern life is crazy-busy but not so bad after all.